Former NFL player R.K. Russell recounts what it was like to come out to his mother
‘I was her baby but not her Adonis, not her strong, handsome Black man’
The Yards Between Us, A Memoir of Life, Love, and Football, by former NFL player R.K. Russell, is available now from Andscape Books. In this excerpt, Russell recounts coming out to his mother.
By the end of August 2019 I was nearing a milestone on my journey to living the truth. I had written a letter coming out as the first openly bisexual NFL player and recorded a segment that would run on SportsCenter about my coming out. I had come out to friends. Yet I still hadn’t told my mother.
Coming out to friends was much easier because if things did go badly, I knew I could just make new friends who wouldn’t judge me. You can’t make a new mother. Even if she hated who I was, she would always be my mother. Maybe she wouldn’t claim me anymore, but her blood claimed me. The stretch marks and cesarean scar put my claim on her as well.
I still waited until the day before the story would run. I spent a big chunk of the day writing an email to a few close friends to come out to them in a more personal way. The recipients were close enough to me that I felt they deserved to find out from me, and not from the media, but they were distant enough that they hadn’t already known: colleagues from the NFL and Purdue, my agent, and friends I didn’t talk to often but when I did they felt like home. After I finally sent the lengthy email, I picked up my phone to call my mom. My mom and I always FaceTimed when we talked, unless my mother forgot to charge her phone, as she was known to do from time to time. Then she would call me from the house phone. I voice-called her this time, not sure I could look her in the eye.
It was around 7:00 p.m. in Los Angeles. I was pacing in my kitchen with the phone to my ear. The kitchen was no longer a place for eating but for spilling — spilling tequila everywhere when I was too drunk, spilling my blood on the floor when the panic was too much, and now spilling my secret. My stomach growled, because I had been too busy writing and preparing for what the next day would bring that I had forgotten to eat. But I didn’t feel hunger; I felt a massive flock of anxious butterflies. I put the phone on speaker as the ringing on the other end summoned an answer. It was late in Buffalo, so I thought I might have to call multiple times. I wondered how many more attempts my resolve could handle, but then my mother picked up.
“Hey, baby, everything okay?”
I usually didn’t call my mother this late, so it was understandable for her to sound concerned. I swore I could hear my heart beating over the sound of my fridge making ice.
“Mom, I have something to tell you.”
That one sentence felt like it stripped me bare. There was no going back. The world would know tomorrow, but my mother was my world. She deserved to know me truly first.
“What’s going on, baby?”
On her end, I could hear the TV in the background fading away. A weight settled onto my chest. As I tried to speak, I realized the weight wasn’t just on my chest but surrounding me entirely, like gravity. The pressure was crushing me. I struggled to swallow and open my mouth. There were iron clamps on my temples, clenching tighter and tighter every second.
“Baby, are you okay? You still there?” My mother’s voice cut through the pressure for a moment. Was I okay? I looked at my forearms, decorated with ink dedicated to my loved ones and scars dedicated to oblivion. I stopped pacing and looked at the wooden floor where my blood had pooled only a few months ago. Was I still there? Yes, but barely.
”I’m okay now, but I haven’t been for a long time.” I pulled every word out by force: I told my mother that I was bisexual and that the whole world would know tomorrow afternoon. There was a silence. The pressure that had been pushing me down through the floor was gone. My secret was gone. For a brief moment, I felt relief. That pressure I had just felt – it had always been there, even if I didn’t admit it. It weighed down my heart in every relationship, weighed down my body on the field, and weighed down my spirit when I was searching for purpose. I felt like I was soaring, breaking free of the gravity of the two worlds I had been living in. I could have lived in that moment forever. My mother was not ready to live in it with me, though.
“What about football?”
Who knew three words could be so devastating? Just like that, I was no longer flying. I wasn’t falling, either, since I had shed the weight of my secret. I was just suspended in space, floating in a new purgatory. How could she not see me? The same boy who was cut from her stomach, who cried until she held me because I knew no sound but the beat of her heart. I was different now, yes. I was a football player, but football wasn’t all of me. Football and I weren’t one and the same. In that moment when I needed her, it felt like my mother chose football.
The conversation didn’t get better from there. She asked me about grandchildren and then asked me more about my career and whether I wanted to jeopardize my dream with such a colossal announcement. None of my answers were good enough. I couldn’t convince her that my true dream, my only real dream, was to be happy. In a way, it was good that the ESPN interview was already set to air. If I’d had this conversation before setting things in motion, I’m not sure I would have done it. That felt like the worst part about all of this. My mother was in tears soon. We needed to get off the phone before thing were said that could never be unsaid. The last thing I heard from her was, “You were my Adonis, my handsome, strong Black man.”
I’ll never forget those words or how they told me that my sexuality made me less in my mother’s mind. After I hung up, I took out my phone to call Corey and realized I hadn’t even had the chance to tell my mom about him. I asked him if I could come over. We would spend the night together and wake up to my coming-out story as a celebration. Regardless of my mother’s reaction, August 29 was going to be a good day.
After my coming-out story was released, my mother and I talked sparingly. This was a significant change from regular FaceTime calls lasting an hour or more. After the story hit, it became public knowledge that not only was I bisexual, but I was also in a relationship with a man. My mother called one day to ask about Corey and when she could meet him. I was driving up Sunset in my black Jeep, with the sun beating down on my face and a light breeze blowing. My mother sounded like her old self, but I was hesitant, her words still echoing through my memory. I told her the basics as if I were reading off a résumé.
“He’s a dancer. We met a couple of months ago at a coffee shop. He’s from Pennsylvania, and I’m really happy.”
“Well, when do I get to meet him? You know I got to make sure he’s right for my baby.”
I was her baby but not her Adonis, not her strong, handsome Black man. I pushed the thought away.
“The Human Rights Campaign is the largest LGBTQ nonprofit organization in the world, and they are honoring me at their National Gala.”
“That’s amazing! Where and when?”
“Washington, D.C., in October.”
”I’ll be there.”
With that, I took a wrong turn off Sunset and needed to put my own address into my GPS to get home. Navigating Los Angeles and that conversation was a lot for a recent transplant.
“Momma, I’m lost. Let me call you back later.”
I’m not sure if I heard a sigh or just the midday bustle of the city, but my mom poured extra cheer into her send-off.
“Okay, sweetie, thanks for telling me about HRC. I can’t wait to see you all there.”
I hung up, unable to tell her what I was really thinking, which is that I could wait. I was in no rush to be disappointed again. That phone call had been the first time my mother had ever expressed this kind of disappointment in me in my whole life. One time could be a mistake, but two would seem like a pattern.
Corey and I woke up at 10:00 a.m. in our D.C. hotel, jet-lagged from ten hours of travel the day before. The National Gala was later that night, but first, Corey, my mom, and I were going to spend the day sightseeing and hanging out. For me, it felt more like a testing of the waters. They didn’t know each other. My mom had only known about Corey for a little while, but I had given Corey the impression that she knew about him earlier. I was bringing some last bits of my two worlds together, but being secretive was a hard habit to shake. I wasn’t going to be whole until it happened, though. Setting a collision course was probably the only way to go, in truth. That’s what I did by recording the coming-out interview before telling my mom about my sexuality. I had lined up my two lives, tied a brick to the gas pedal, and sat back to assess the damage. Before this last crash, I wanted to see my mother one-on-one.
While Corey was plotting out a route to the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and back to the hotel in time to get ready for the gala, I went to my mother’s hotel room. It was only a few floors above ours. Since my mother had announced her plans to come to the event, I had been working to understand her side of my coming out. I was her flesh, her blood, and before I even knew myself, she knew me. So, I tried to imagine one day getting a call that contradicted my sense of my child’s identity. Not so much that they were straight or queer, but that I didn’t know them, not really. That someone could come from your own body, be under your care, be crafted and shaped with your love, time, and kindness, and grow up to be a stranger. Not only had my mother been forced to grapple with this truth, but she had to do it at the same time that her son introduced himself to the world. She had gone from feeling like we were the closest two people in the world to feeling like the only one in the world who hadn’t known me.
As the elevator arrived at her floor, I took a deep breath and walked quickly to room 806. The latch was propping the door open slightly, and I walked in while knocking and announcing my presence. I’d already shocked my mother enough.
When I opened the door, I saw my mom in the bathroom mirror, and she motioned for me to come in as she put on makeup and gave her hair the finishing touches for our day out. It was October but still pretty warm. Knowing we would be doing a lot of walking, I had on gray shorts and a simple black top while my mother was wearing a bright yellow sundress. I leaned my back against the sink so she could see me out of her peripheral vision, and so I wouldn’t have to look at her through the mirror. My throat closed up. My fear of alienating the one person who loved me unconditionally made it impossible for me to speak. Putting down her mascara and taking the final roll out of her cinnamon-colored curls, my mom grabbed my hands.
“I’m sorry about what I said when you first told me.”
I looked deeply into her eyes, and they watered up, threatening her perfect makeup. I squeezed her hand. I still couldn’t find words, but I wanted her to know I was listening.
“When you first told me you were bisexual, I was afraid,” she said.
I felt the heat rising, but I wasn’t sure if it was just me or if the room had gotten hotter. The mirrors weren’t fogging up, so it had to be me.
“My whole life I’ve done everything in my power to protect you, to give you everything you needed to be happy and healthy I wanted you to know that you could pursue any dream. I was afraid, because I’ve seen how the world treats Black men, and I’ve seen how the world treats gay men, and I know better than anyone that you’ve been through so much just for the color of your skin. And now to think that you would be subjecting yourself to attack globally for the contents of your heart … “
She took a moment. Instead of wiping the tears that had by now ruined her makeup, she was wiping a tear from my cheek that I hadn’t even noticed.
“I was terrified, and I couldn’t think of anything I could do to save you. I know what you have sacrificed to play football, or at least I thought I did…. I was afraid this next step would be harder.” My hands started shaking, but that only made my mother’s grip tighter. “My other fear was that I had failed.”
This finally broke my silence: “No!”
“Wait, hear me out. That we weren’t close enough, or I didn’t do enough for you to tell me first. I know I could have done more, and if I had known, I would have done more.”
I stepped away from the sink so I could look down on my mother from my full height and pull her into a hug. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I had to go on the journey alone and I knew it would only bring me back to you — the real me. And I know you’re afraid. I’m afraid too, but we know now there is more love in this world than hate when we seek it out. We are here because I am being honored for who I am, and I wouldn’t be who I am without you.” My tears were starting to soak her curls. I was sure by the time we were done her hair would be straight.
My mother pulled back from me, slowly reached again for my hands, lifted them up, and turned them slightly over. For the first time, she saw the scars on my forearms, and a stern look grew in her eyes. I had known she would be sad to see what I had done to myself, but she wasn’t angry or upset.
She spoke with a bold inflection. “No more secrets. I want to know you.”
I nodded, and she gestured to my arms. I was afraid she would ask what happened. I didn’t want to lie to my mother ever again, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to answer the question. I held my breath until she spoke.
“Baby, I just want to know. Are you okay?”
I couldn’t stop crying. I was finally okay, but I cried over how long I had wanted her to ask that question. I cried for how I had longed to be truly honest with her. I hugged my mom again, and we cried together for a few more moments. This was her first introduction to everything that I was.