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SPORTS NFL player makes history by coming out
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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For Ryan Russell, it's now all about coming back, not just coming out.

The Texas native—who played football at Purdue University and then 23 games over three seasons ( 2015-17 ) in the NFL—is ready to return to the pinnacle of professional football. He wants back in the NFL, where he was a defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he compiled 21 tackles and three sacks.

Russ, as he is known, would be the sport's first-ever out active player. He came out in late August as bisexual, thus becoming the only male athlete in the four major professional sports leagues to openly identify as LGBT.

"It's been awesome, freeing," since coming out, said Russell, 27, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His Purdue career included 149 tackles ( 25 for loss ) and 10 sacks. "I wake up every day and am so happy for the support and the love that I've been receiving."

Russell admitted in a phone interview with Windy City Times that, since coming out, he often has thought to himself, "What was I afraid of before [coming out]?

"It's been amazing … all of my loved ones and friends rallied around me, as I knew they would. It's been a very liberating experience," he said.

Russell's coming out was years in the making, although it was just under a year from when he knew he had to come out.

Sadly, it was the death of his best friend—the first person he came out to—that pushed his decision. On Sept. 11, 2018, former teammate Joseph Gilliam died from a rare form of cancer.

"I had long been contemplating my journey. It had been a while in the making—20-plus years of learning to love myself, accept myself and understand myself," he said.

Gilliam's death "was the catalyst for me to start living my life the way I wanted to: openly, honestly and unapologetically," he said. "When someone so close to you, when someone so inherently good and pure and loving passes unfortunately and unexpectedly, it made me realize that every day on earth is not guaranteed, and I really did not want to spend any more days not living my truth."

Russell grabbed major mainstream media headlines by coming out, in the process introducing the world to his boyfriend, Corey O'Brien.

Now he's more focused than ever on a return to the NFL—and he's healthier than ever, he said.

On July 29, 2018, Russell signed with the Buffalo Bills, but was released about a month later, never playing at NFL game for the team.

His shoulder had been injured.

Now he's ready for his comeback.

Coming out

Russell, in telling both ESPN and Outsports that he is bisexual, instantly walked into the spotlight. He was ready, more than ready. He knows his coming out gives him "the opportunity to make an impact" on a bigger scale.

"The day of [my coming out] was very liberating," Russell said.

And the overwhelming positive feedback to his personal announcement has far overshadowed the few, limited negative comments on social media.

He received support on social media when he came out from tennis icon Billie Jean King, which he described as "a crazy moment for me."

He also has received support from unknown dads who reached out to him because his story motivated them to grow closer with their own sons.

"As a child, I did a lot of reading and writing, and always wished I had read stories that I needed … so I always thought that would be my medium to help others," Russell said. "Now everyone can see me as an out bisexual professional athlete, that gives me a new opportunity that could be public speaking or just sharing my stories."


Russell confirmed he is 110 percent healthy after a shoulder injury over the past year or so. He doesn't think it's a matter of if he will return to the NFL, but when.

"I am very positive that, when the opportunity comes, I will have a lot of healthy years and help a team win [games]," he said.


He has no idea—but he said he will be ready.

And he knows Gilliam will be smiling down on him.

Russell attributes everything to Gilliam.

"I want to take the parts of Joseph that really helped me, that I love the most and that I saw that he represented very strongly and add those to my character for the rest of my life," he said.

Away from the spotlight

In addition to his skills on the football field, Russell is an accomplished writer. His poetry book is due out in late October.

"I'm very much into literature, poetry, fiction, creative form writing … just journalism overall, technical writing," he said.

Russell also enjoys Quinton Tarentino movies—"to a crazy, obsessive amount," and admitted he enjoys breakfast food so much that he could eat it for all meals daily, every day. He also enjoys hiking, the beach, being in nature, traveling and more.

"There's nothing crazy unique about me … I am just who I am," he said.

Russell was in Chicago twice for games against the Bears, and he often drove the near-two hours from Purdue.

"I love Chicago, especially the food," he said. "The beaches in Chicago have such a welcoming vibe, which surprised me. And the nightlife is great, too.

"But I'm just an anti-cold winter person … that's the only hardship of living in Chicago. But overall, Chicago has amazing culture, art and diversity."

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