In commemoration of Pride Month and the 50th year since the Stonewall Inn riots in New York, Outsports is profiling one out athlete daily who embodies the “Stonewall Spirit,” reflecting the courage of those who launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
Former NFL lineman Roy Simmons’ story speaks to the shifting attitudes toward LGBTQ inclusion in professional sports and the true power inclusion holds. Simmons became the second former NFL player ever to come out as gay during his 1992 appearance on the “Phil Donahue Show,” but he’s defined by much more than just that moment.
The New York Giants took Simmons in the eighth round of the 1979 draft. He quickly rose to starter status, starting all 16 games of the 1980 season, but ended up gone from the roster by 1982 for personal reasons.
A 1983 comeback attempt with the Giants resulted in him not making the team, but he landed a spot with the Washington Redskins. His final NFL game was the team’s 1984 Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Raiders. He left professional football after a short stint in the USFL the following year.
The former Georgia Tech star’s up-and-down NFL career didn’t define his legacy, but it mirrored his life of tribulation.
Simmons, by his own admission, squandered his NFL opportunity by falling into alcohol and drug abuse early into his tenure with the Giants. His autobiography, “Out of Bounds. Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction, and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet,” detailed his abuse along with tales of sex parties, sex work and dressing in drag. His personal demons nearly lead him to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Struggles persisted throughout Simmons’ life, but they mostly spawned from his attempts to keep his sexuality a secret during his playing career. In a 2003 interview with the New York Times, he detailed how he’d feel like he needed to get drunk before having sex with men. This was heavily informed by sexual abuse he suffered during his youth, but also the stigma against homosexuality — both within the NFL and black culture — compounded his issues. He later revealed that he learned he was HIV-positive in 1997.
Simmons struggled with his sexual identity even after publicly coming out. His Donahue appearance marked his last public comments for 11 years. He spoke about his “former lifestyle” during an appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2005, saying that homosexuality is “really against God’s will.”
Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images
Simmons’ courage to come out during an era saturated in ignorance and hate cements him as a heroic figure.
Despite Simmons disavowal of his homosexuality later in life, his brother Gary Simmons says he was proud to identify as a gay black man and added that his most closely held virtue was loyalty. Simmons helped support his family during his time in the NFL and also worked with mentally ill drug rehab patients later on. His Giants teammates loved him (which makes sense considering his nickname was “Sugarbear”).
Simmons may be gone, but he paved the path for Michael Sam and any upcoming black gay football players.
Simmons’ longtime friend Jimmy Hester told the Daily News he regretted that Simmons didn’t get to see Sam celebrate his selection in the embrace of his boyfriend.
“Roy would be happy that Michael Sam could have his lover in the stands or at team parties,” Hester said.
Our “Stonewall Spirit” series continues tomorrow and every day during Pride.