Field Goals

Wade Davis talks about life on the gridiron, after the NFL and out of the closet

Interview by Sean Bugg
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on August 9, 2012, 12:02am | Comments

It seems fair enough to say that Wade Davis has an impulsive streak.

Six years ago on Christmas Eve, stranded in a Chicago airport by a Midwestern snowstorm, Davis called up the man he'd been chatting with after meeting through an online dating site a few weeks earlier. Davis suggested he fly back to New York City so the two could have their first in-person date.

''When I walked in I was like, 'Damn. This boy's hot,''' he laughs. ''And he had an accent, too. I'm like melting.''

Wade Davis

Wade Davis

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Later, sitting on the couch at a Christmas Eve party watching his date from across the room, Davis had already made his decision: ''I knew at that moment I would marry him. It was not a question in my mind, I was going to be with this guy forever. Six years later, he hasn't gotten rid of me.''

It's a trait that makes sense for a former professional football player, a man whose career as a free-agent cornerback in the NFL took him from the Tennessee Titans to the Seattle Seahawks to the Washington Redskins. After a lifetime of playing football – from pick-up games in the backyard to college ball at Weber State University in Utah – his left knee took him out of the game in 2004.

''I don't have much cartilage left,'' says Davis, who just turned 35, emphasizing the point with the audible grinding when flexing his knee. It was an injury that made him a risk for an NFL team, which is the end of the road for a free agent. ''When you're a journeyman, you're pretty much done.''

His football career may have ended, but suddenly he had the opportunity to do the one thing that he had always felt forbidden: crack open the door of his closet. After briefly moving back to Colorado – the state where he moved with his family as a teenager after being raised in Louisiana – he decided to take the leap and move to New York City.

''I just felt so free — I couldn't wait to kiss boys, go to clubs, all of those things that I thought being gay was,'' he says. But the experience didn't match up to his expectations.

''Going to clubs, dancing with my shirt off, it wasn't that great. People on drugs or they're drunk and they're just dancing around and everyone's sweaty,'' says Davis. ''I felt uncomfortable. I felt awkward. I wanted to kiss a boy, but he's sweaty and disgusting — it was a weird phase for me.''

What ended the phase was his discovery of the New York Gay Football League. For Davis, finally, two parts of himself – football player, gay man – could coexist naturally.

''That was really the point where I felt, I can fit in here,'' he says. ''There are gay guys that like sports; it created a whole new family for me.''

That set him on the journey of becoming a gay man comfortable with himself, a journey that culminated in June of this year when he came out publicly in a profile on OutSports, the gay sports website. But there's been much more to that journey for Davis. Over the past eight years he's focused himself on working with LGBT youth, from his day job at New York's Hetrick-Martin Institute, to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sports advisory board, to being part of President Obama's LGBT outreach team. Using his own experience of both success and the closet, his goal now is to help LGBT youth of color experience much more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

Because impulsiveness isn't the only streak Wade Davis has. There's also determination.

METRO WEEKLY: When did you know that you wanted to be a football player?

WADE DAVIS: When I was 6 or 7, I was drawn to football on television. I would sit in front of the TV for hours and somehow I understood the game. I couldn't explain it to anyone, but I just understood it. My neighbor's house and ours didn't have a fence in between, but it had a fence going around the edges, so we had probably a 30-by-80 football field in our back yard. We would play this game called ''Smear the Queer.''

MW: I've played that.

DAVIS: I'm pissed off at the name of that game, because the queer is actually the toughest guy — you're willing to go pick up the ball and get tackled by 20 other guys. So why are you the queer at that point? Anyway, from that moment I started playing and I realized I was better than most of the kids out there. My mother didn't want me to play because I was very small and skinny and frail. And my grandmother was like, ''He's my baby! Don't hurt my baby!''

But I just didn't stop playing it. And because it was in my backyard, it was every week or every day. Summertimes, we'd play from 9 a.m. till the sun went down. We'd just drink water out of the water hose.

MW: Did you understand what the name of that game meant then?

DAVIS: I had no clue what that meant. I didn't have the language to understand what ''queer'' was at the time. I didn't even really know what ''gay'' meant at the time. The only term I was conscious of was the term ''bull dagger,'' cause my grandfather used that referring to lesbians, or women who looked more masculine. I remember we were in the mall one day and he was like, ''Look at those nasty-ass bull daggers over there.'' I was like 10 years old — you don't even know what that means, but you start to relate certain comments to certain people.

MW: When did you start playing team football?

DAVIS: When I moved to Colorado, in seventh grade. [I learned] there's some politics involved, even at the little-league level. I wanted to be a running back and the coach was like, ''You can't make a pocket.'' I knew it was bull — his son was a starter and I was better than his son. There was no doubt in my mind. I was stronger, I was faster, I had moves, but his son played. So I started playing cornerback and receiver. That's when I fell in love with Deion Sanders and I decided I'm going to play cornerback forever. Deion Sanders was, for my generation, probably like what Willie Mays was to another generation. He was bigger than life. I had over 40 to 50 football cards. I had a life-size cutout. I had posters. My whole room was a shrine.

MW: When did you first have an inkling that you were gay?

DAVIS: I was in a gym-class locker room — not football, but a high school gym-class locker room. I was pretty late in understanding that. I just remember going home, watching straight porn for hours trying to focus on the woman and make myself believe that what happened was just what guys do as a comparison thing: ''Oh, I'm just comparing my body to this guy.'' I think that that does happen amongst adolescent boys, but I knew at that moment it was different. Like, when I saw this guy, I wanted to hold his hand, kiss him, touch him. It wasn't just that I wanted to have a flex off. So that was the first moment that I knew there was something different.

MW: So you go to college, you're playing ball. How did you construct a closet?

DAVIS: I started to emulate everything that I saw straight guys do that I thought I should do. Having a girlfriend, wearing oversized pants and oversized T-shirts. Making sure that if I went to a club I took a girl home with me – whether we did anything or not, which most times we didn't. I looked the part of a straight guy, a football player who didn't do anything that was gay. And I was always a shit-talker. I was born to talk shit, so that came easy for me.

Wade Davis

Wade Davis

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Whenever we talk about why gay men have not come out in professional sports, we end up talking about locker rooms. What is it about the locker room that keeps people in the closet?

DAVIS: I think it's a couple of things that intersect. For me, in the football locker room I never was worried about being attracted to any of my teammates, because that was a place that was sacred to me. That was a place where I was with my family, like with my brothers. But one of the biggest issues is that straight guys are just worried that another man is going to objectify them. Straight guys are used to never being objectified unless they ask for it, unless they take off their shirt around women. But the idea of having another man, who may be more physically imposing than you, be attracted to you, is a space where men can be objectified in a way that makes them feel weak, so it challenges their ideas of masculinity. I think that's part of it.

For gay men, it's the worry that their teammates will assume that because I'm gay I'm automatically attracted to you, which is so far from the truth. I've spoken to many of my other gay friends, and when you're in the locker room the last thing you're thinking about is your teammates in a sexual way. I mean, it never crossed my mind. No. Because that's the space where you're actually happy, you're feeling safe and you don't want to make anyone else feel unsafe.

MW: During your course of time in the NFL, did you ever come out to anybody?

DAVIS: No-ho-ho-ho. [Laughs.] No, there was never a question in my mind. Never a thought. There was not one football player that I would have considered telling.

MW: Was there ever anything specific that happened that made you think, this is why I'm in the closet, this is why I'm not coming out.

DAVIS: Not in the NFL. Definitely in high school and definitely in my family. And definitely in college. I went to college in Utah, it's a very religious place. There was a guy in my English class, I won't say he was obviously gay, but people perceived him as gay. And I remember I was walking through the yard with him and my friend's like, ''What are you doing walking with that guy, he's a faggot.'' When someone tells you that, and you're a quote-unquote football star, you automatically run even further away from who you are.

MW: You said that you're a natural-born shit-talker. Did you ever find yourself talking shit about gays and lesbians to cover yourself?

DAVIS: One of the things I'm least proud of is that I was a bully in high school. I wanted to make my friends think that I couldn't be gay if I made fun of other gay people. We used to do this thing at lunchtime, we called it ''holding court.'' We would sit on top of the tables right at the door and as soon as someone walked in we would start making fun of them for whatever reason. And that was part of my posturing, that was part of me proving my masculinity, proving I was the big dog.

MW: You've spent a good part of your career in a sport where African-American men are expected and respected. In general, an African-American male face is kind of the face of a lot of pro sports. Now you're a black man in the gay community, and that community is perceived as a very white face. How is it a different experience for you, as a black man?

DAVIS: It's saddening that the norm is for you to be black and an athlete. It's not the norm for you to be black and anything else; maybe you're black and a rapper, black and a musician.

I'm lucky that, because of being an ex-athlete, I'm privileged to be able to exist in the gay white world. I'm accepted. People want to be my friend, people want to date me. I've been told more times than I can count that, ''Normally I don't date black men but I would date you.'' And people actually think that that's an okay comment, that I'm going to just say, ''Oh, thanks!''

But I have a lot of black gay friends who don't feel like they fit into the gay community. And I understand my privilege there, so I try as much as I can to have thoughtful conversations about it. Oftentimes, if you are white and gay, you don't understand that you have a built-in community, that the black gay community is very disjointed because of the amount of shame and stigma that black men face. I definitely feel an obligation to stay connected to the gay black community, but I also want to build a bridge between both communities, so that black gay men feel that they can interact with the white gay community and vice versa. You know, like the old saying goes, all your black friends have lots of white friends, and all your white friends have one black friend. And it's kind of true. [Laughs.] It's so sad.

MW: Much of the LGBT community likes to think of itself as more progressive on race issues than the rest of the country. Do you think the LGBT community actually is a little bit better on race, or is that something we just tell ourselves to feel better?

DAVIS: People won't like this, but I think it's something we tell ourselves to make ourselves look better. Gay people have been oppressed for a while — we're hated and we're fighting against it. But as soon as we have a little bit of power we oppress someone else in our own community because we're just not conscious of the fact that we're doing it. It's like someone saying, ''I'm not racist, I'm colorblind.'' When you don't see color, you can't see racism.

My biggest problem with America right now is that we've lost our idea of humanity. I feel that we don't take care of our brother or our sister. That's our biggest problem. It's not that we're racist or sexist or whatever, it's that we just don't care about each other like we should. I was walking down the street in Chelsea yesterday, coming from football practice, and I see this guy — white guy, bald head, clearly gay — getting out of a taxi. The taxi driver did something and this guy calls him the n-word. And there was a black man walking on the street right there who stops, and the guy looks at him and says, ''I'm not talking about you.''

And I'm floored. How do we get to the point where we understand that our words hurt? You weren't talking to me, but you really were. You can't be racist to certain black people and not to all of us. Like, ''Oh, he's the nigger, not you.'' That's not possible. So when I see things like that, I feel like we just don't have humanity anymore, we just don't care about each other as much as we should.

MW: There is a lot of talk these days about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and concussion issues in the NFL. I saw Charles Barkley talking about how he felt that basketball and soccer were going to see more kids playing because parents were going to start keeping their children out of football. How do you feel about this, as somebody who got his life in large part through playing football?

DAVIS: If I had a kid I'd let him play football, if he wanted to. Football's done some amazing things for me. I think it's hard to take one thing out of a sport and crucify it because of it. Yes, there are a lot of things that need to be changed to make it safer, but there are a lot of things that football gave me. It gave me a sense of worth. It gave me a work ethic. It gave me a sense of family, a sense of community that I may not have gotten anywhere else. It allowed me to find myself and to see my own strength.

MW: Did you ever have concussions?

DAVIS: I remember getting at least two concussions. I never missed a game because of it. That says a lot. But you're taught that ''you can't make the club in the tub'' — if you're hurt, especially if you're a free agent like I was, you can't miss playing time. The mentality of sports has to change as well, so that a player doesn't lose his job if he's out with a concussion. But it's also a business at the same time, so there are so many things that need to be reconciled. The fact that I have a concussion and I miss two weeks of training camp and I'm a rookie, it means you're probably cut. There's nothing you can do about it. So you've got rookies who are going to play, who won't say a word.

But that also happens in soccer, it happens in basketball. Players get concussions all the time in those sports, probably not as often, but they play through it. No one can tell me Michael Jordan hasn't had a concussion in his life. It probably doesn't happen as often, but it does happen.

MW: These days you're playing with the gay flag football league. From your own story, you seemed shocked to discover there were sports in the gay community.

DAVIS: Oh, so shocked.

MW: Even when you were first coming into the gay community, moving to New York, why did you still have that idea that gay men don't do sports?

DAVIS: Again, it's the masculinity thing. You're taught that gay men are weak. I got interviewed by this guy on the radio in Chicago and he was like, ''Come on, man, it's true, gay guys just aren't as tough.'' People actually believe that. I wanted to say, ''If we go outside right now, I will run through you like a Mack truck.'' And it's not even that I'm bigger and stronger, but I have an attitude that comes from playing ''Smear the Queer'' where I know at the end of the day you're going to have to kill me in order to stop me.

That's why I struggled playing in the gay flag league, because my competitiveness didn't match. One of my good friends, he's a good friend of mine now, but when I first was in the league he went up for a pass and I picked the pass off. He fell down to the ground, and I looked down and was like, ''You'd better get in the fuckin' weight room, kid.'' But that was how I acted in football. And they hated me. People in the league hated me for years. I remember a team cheering that I got hurt, because I was that big of an asshole. And I came back on the field saying, ''Bitches, I'm back, what are you gonna do now?''

But that's just me, so it was very hard for me to play in the gay league. But now I've transitioned. I had to stop playing, because my mentality is such that whether I'm playing with gay people or not, I'm going to fucking dominate you and that's all that I know how to do. I'll join the board, I'll teach, but I can't play anymore, because I'm an asshole on the football field. I'm a different person.

MW: So you're not playing anymore at all?

DAVIS: I'm the captain of our traveling team and I also play very sparingly in our regular league. I do a lot of teaching and educating and getting guys to understand the game. I think people, straight or gay, don't understand the small things about the game: what keeping your head on the swivel is; or about going where the quarterback's going to be, not where he's at. That's what I feel like my gift to the league is.

MW: Weren't you a little overqualified for playing in the league in the first place?

DAVIS: [Laughs.] Definitely, definitely. When I first joined I was like, ''There ain't shit that you all can do, I'm just better than everyone's thought about being their whole life.'' But now I'm like, some of these guys are really good. There are some guys in this league who could probably have played in college.

Now I've got bad knees, so whew, I've gotta quit because I'm not the best guy out there anymore. But I'm still having the best time. I've met some of the greatest people from San Diego or Phoenix or Chicago, gay guys from across the country. I won't play in tournaments anymore, but I'll keep going to them just to keep the friendships going, because the guys are just amazing. Everyone is. People like me now that I've become less of an asshole. I've evolved. I've learned how to play and not talk shit. But I did talk shit this last tournament. Sometimes it just comes out.

MW: Well, there's talking shit and then there's being an asshole.

DAVIS: I really don't have a middle ground. It just comes out, I can't help it! [Laughs.]

MW: Why did you time your coming out as you did, a few years after you left the NFL?

DAVIS: A few years ago, when [Outsports writer] Cyd Zeigler asked me to do the article, I wasn't ready. Now, with the work that I do — whether it's with Hetrick-Martin or with GLSEN or the Obama campaign or the Black AIDS Institute — I'm doing work that can effect change. My voice actually counts. When I first left the NFL, I didn't feel that me being a gay athlete would have counted for anything. But now I love myself again. Back in those days I still didn't. I hated myself for so long because I believed that being gay was awful. Now I love the gay side of Wade, so I can talk to kids about the process that they have to go through in order to start loving themselves again.

I feel like I understand my focus now. I understand what I'm supposed to do. A lot of people want me to work with gays and sports issues. But, really, there's enough people talking about that. My focus is going to be on being a role model to change the lives of youth of color, who are impacted by oppressions that people aren't talking about. There aren't other black people out there who have my voice, for lack of a better word, who are doing the work. So that's what I want to do. I want to work with LGBT youth of color to make sure that HIV rates get lower, that homelessness is talked about, that poverty is talked about. And I'll use the fact that I played in the NFL to promote that.

MW: Have you and your partner gotten married in New York?

DAVIS: We're just talking about it, about that and about kids. As of right now, we would be getting married in Hawaii so his parents can come over from Australia, and then have a big reception in New York for our friends, because we can't expect all of our friends to fly to Hawaii.

MW: Have you met his family?

DAVIS: The first time I went over there we were getting off the plane when he told me, ''My whole family's going to be here.'' I was like, ''Shit.'' So there was his sister, both his brothers, their wives, their kids, his mother and his father. But I got off the plane and I remembered everyone's name. It was cool. It was a little daunting, because I was the second partner they had ever met, and the first who was a black guy. His mother was very to the point, which I love about her. She's like, ''You're black and he's white, how does it work?'' I was like, ''I see that he's white, but it's not really an issue.'' But I loved her for just being honest and getting it out there, because it's something that people think about.

MW: Have you found that being in a relationship with a white guy is a barrier for you working with some of the communities you want to work with?

DAVIS: It hasn't been yet, but I feel like it's coming. [Laughs.]

MW: Right after this interview!

DAVIS: I don't think that most people know that my partner is white. I hope it's not a block, I hope that people understand that who I date doesn't dictate what's in my heart. Any man that loves me like I need to be loved and that I'm attracted to is fair game. It just happened to be that person was white. I get it that there are a lot of people out there who have these preconceived notions about what it means to be a black man who dates a white man, especially because I have privilege. But give me a chance first, sit down, talk to me. Understand that I'm not just a privileged black person who's not getting his hands dirty, who doesn't understand how the privileges that I have can oppress people, how the privileges that I have can oppress women, how the privileges that I have can oppress other gays. I'm trying to understand that and work to change that. And my partner's behind me 100 percent. And he's trying to educate himself about what it means to be a white man dating a black man.

I think a lot of it dates back to the history of what it meant to be black and to date someone white. It was illegal, it was frowned upon, you could be killed and jailed for that. A lot of people haven't forgotten about that. And they shouldn't. I shouldn't forget about that, either. I think within the gay community, oftentimes you see people of color who are gay and they have white partners and people think, ''Oh, once you get money you leave your community, you don't give back, you don't do the work.'' I want people to know that I'm still doing the work. And I think if you're not doing the work, then we're never going to get to that point where we're taking care of our brothers and sisters.


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