Watch: NFL player R.K. Russell on his family’s support after coming out

The former NFL defensive end talks to theGrio’s Natasha S. Alford about his family’s response to his speaking his truth.

In August 2019, R.K. Russell made history when he became the first active NFL player to publicly come out as bisexual. In his memoir, “The Yards Between Us: A Memoir of Life, Love and Football,” which was released in May, the now-retired athlete shares his experiences and “explores his love of football, men and women” while treading carefully to keep his sexuality secret, according to the book overview. Russell’s memoir also talks about “the tension between his private and public lives” and the importance of breaking barriers.

TheGrio’s Natasha S. Alford talks to Russell, now a social justice advocate, about his family’s reaction and support after he spoke his truth.

The following is a transcript of their conversation.

Former professional athlete R.K. Russell made history in 2019 when he came out as bisexual while still an active NFL player. He released a memoir this year. (Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Natasha S. Alford: Welcome back. We’re speaking with former NFL football player R.K. Russell. He’s the first active player in the NFL to come out as part of the LGBTQ community, and he is also the author of an incredible book. It’s called “The Yards Between Us: A Memoir of Life, Love and Football.”

So, R.K., you were telling us the story, the lead-up to this epiphany that you had to speak your truth and the ways in which you were kind of defying typical macho sports culture. I want to talk about the reaction, particularly from family.

You also mentioned that you’re Jamaican and, you know, every different culture sort of has a sort of climate around how they approach conversations around sexuality. So how did your family respond to you speaking your truth? And in what ways were you able to either heal some brokenness or create new bonds?

R.K. Russell: Yeah, my family is both big and small, in the sense that a lot of my childhood was me and my mom, who raised me as a single mother, and my grandmother, in that very close-knit kind of family. But also there was family reunions and barbecues and moments where I had about 15 cousins running around, a bunch of uncles, aunts, you know, chosen family as well.

So, I wanted to make sure that that nuclear family, that initial close family, would be OK. I called my mother and told her personally before the coming-out segment came out on ESPN, and that was the kind of relationship I was the most, I don’t want to say worried about, but that I cared about the most, but also, I was kind of like the least worried about — like I knew me and my mother would get to a good place.

But I also knew that she would kind of be the person where all the other family came to, to talk about me or to ask about me or where they got the news. They would go to her before they really got to me. So, also just feeling like she was empowered enough to have that moment and to take it.

And also if she wasn’t, and she didn’t have that conversation with multiple family members that she didn’t have to, that she could defer to me or that she could just kind of give it space and time in of itself. But the family unit was super important to me, but it also wasn’t something I was going to let hold me back from being who I was and being who I am. And since then, my family has been nothing but supportive and accepting. If someone has been less than, I’ve been shielded from it by my family, which I think is a beautiful thing, that my family continues. We continue to protect each other and love each other. And sometimes, those two things are in the actions of silence and distance, which is fine.

Alford: For sure. I’ve seen your mother in interviews there, you know, cheering you on in the audience. And it’s a beautiful sight to see because there’s so many people who don’t experience that love. They don’t get that support from, you know, the person that they want it the most from.

So I also read that your mother apologized to you at one point for just her initial reaction when you told her where you were coming from. You know, initially, there was concern about, well, what about football? And then she apologized for that reaction because she realized that it was more than football.

Russell: Yeah. Yeah. She had, I think, the reaction and the question that I had for years. That was my struggle with my own identity, was once I came to terms with being bisexual, or at least not being straight or heteronormative, the first question that popped up in my mind was: What about football?

So, for my mother to be a mirror of that and also be someone who is so conscious of my dreams, my aspirations, and also so conscious of the social climate in the conversation around identity in sports, I think was kind of the perfect storm for her to ask the question, “What about football?”

Alford: I want to ask, R.K., what do people misunderstand about bisexuality? What don’t they get?

Russell: So much.

Alford: You’re like, where do we begin?

Russell: I’ll give my two biggest things, which is one: that my partner does not determine my sexuality or my identity. That regardless of whether I am with a man or a woman or somebody who does not have a gender identity or is non-binary, that does not change my own identity. I am bisexual. I’ve always been. I most likely will always be. And that’s fine.

That’s perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable. And two: bisexuality is not a commentary on commitment or on monogamy or on promiscuity or any of those things. Bisexuality is an identity. It is a great capacity to love an array of people. And that is not necessarily a comment on the type of relationships that we want or that we have, you know, or that we value.

Alford: Yes. Yes. I think that’s really important for people to take note. You know, R.K., you said that you’ve chosen joy over conspiracy when it comes to the conversation about retiring from football. What gives you peace about your journey, your football story, as well as now being an author and someone speaking your truth?

Russell: Yeah, I’ve done all the things … I achieved my dream of playing in the NFL. I’ve now achieved multiple dreams after that. And in the height of that career, in the height of football, everything that I thought I wanted, a life that I had built solely for that purpose, I was not happy. I was not as happy as I could have been.

And now, stepping away from it, having this opportunity, being my full self, using my platform to talk to amazing people like you, I have found my purpose in life. I have found joy and love unconditional, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. So I will not worry about the what-if, could-have-beens, when I’m just so good now where I am and moving forward.

Alford: That is such a great lesson for life, and your light shines through, so thank you for shining it with us today on “theGrio Weekly.” R.K. Russell, author of “The Yards Between Us,” thanks so much for being here today.

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