The first time R.K. Russell told anybody he was attracted to men, he was playing his best friend in “Madden.” Sitting in a Purdue University dorm room, Russell was getting crushed. His mind was clearly elsewhere.
Sensing something was amiss, Joe asked his football brother what was wrong. Then the real questions began.
“What if one of our teammates was gay?”
When Joe answered that he “could care less,” Russell pressed further.
What if Joe also happened to be best friends with this hypothetical gay teammate?
“If he’s my best friend, then that’s all that matters. We’re best friends,” he said.
Years later, Russell decided to stop speaking hypothetically about his sexuality, and talking for real. The NFL defensive end publicly came out as bisexual in 2019, becoming the first active player to ever do so.
But Joe wasn’t there when Russell told the world what he had revealed that night.
That’s because Joe had passed of cancer the previous year, and Russell was crushed. At that point, he was fully immersed in his double life, suiting up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the day, and cruising gay dating apps at night. The lies and contradictions were becoming untenable.
Joe’s death pushed him over the edge and Russell could no longer hide. Now, he’s telling his whole life story: the grief, devastation, and, ultimately, joy in his new memoir The Yards Between Us.
The book recounts his experiences growing up with a single mother as a queer Black man and football star. Russell opens up about painful childhood memories and his dark road towards self-harm and alcohol abuse and years-long search for happiness, which he has finally found.
We recently caught up with Russell to talk about his memoir, football’s complicated role in his life and his journey to personal freedom. Here’s what he had to say…
QUEERTY: What is the primary message that you want readers to take away from your memoir?
RUSSELL: I think for marginalized people, and specifically young, Black queer people, I want them to feel not only that they’re not alone, but that they can do anything. Your identity shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a sport, a career and a life of happiness, love and joy. For those that do not fall within those margins, I want them to see that we’re all just humans. Our experiences are varied, but we are all together. I want us to see each other as human beings, first and foremost.
How did you arrive to this place where you were ready to sit down and write about your most personal experiences?
It was definitely a journey. But I will say the catalyst was coming out, and seeing the response after just sharing that one moment in my life: the people I was able to encourage, the communities I was able to speak for, and the battles I was able to fight for equality in sports and outside of sports for queer people, people of color and anybody who’s been oppressed systemically or otherwise. So that was kind of the jumping off point of, “Oh my God, this is just part of my story. Just one moment in my life.” I can only imagine going into detail about my journey and talking about mental wellness, grief, masculinity, what all of these things could do for someone.
On the topic of grief, you write about losing your stepfather at seven years old, and how that pushed you to start writing poetry. You say you realized a lot about yourself after writing poetry, even at a young age. What did you realize?
Writing and poetry is all about emotion, and reflecting and being introspective. It’s built for self-reflection. It can be very therapeutic at its core. But I think as a young person, you don’t even really understand grief. It’s something we don’t really talk about openly until we’re older and things like that. As a young person, there are so many different feelings: the sadness, the void that you feel, how to cope with that as a healthy man. Also, just by being a Black bisexual man in America, I had a lot of anger towards certain people or towards certain situations, being around people who weren’t welcoming to me. I think it was a way to voice all of those things, because I think once you voice what’s affecting you and how you feel, then you can start to handle it, cope with it and heal from it.
When did you start to more fully understand the grief?
The grief probably took longer, because it’s something that really did not amplify or become crippling until I lost my best friend. I had the pain and scars from losing my stepfather so young, and all of that, but it reopened and re-lit the fire when I lost my best friend. I fell into a dangerous depression. I was in a numbness, I was looking at life trying to figure out the meaning of my life–especially taking time away from football with my injury. “If my life isn’t football, then what is it?” That simple question right there started me on a journey.
How did you arrive to your answer?
I’m arriving at new parts of it every day. But I will say, the primary source would be just moving and getting to LA, a place that felt more welcoming and more diverse artistically. I love the nature and the mountains and the ocean. I met a lot of great people, and got into books and communities and all of these things. I found joy outside of football.
You say in the book that you viewed your football teammates as brothers and coaches as father-like figures. But you weren’t out to them. How can you feel like somebody is your brother if they don’t know that part of you?
I don’t tell everything to my brother. In relationships, specifically, there are stuff that people hold closely to their chest For me, yes, there’s that great layer of brotherhood and community. But when you have your eye on the professional level, you view it as work. Would I go into an office and tell people who I was with and the relationships I had? Probably not. So it is an interesting overlap of community.
And of course at the time, I didn’t know any out players. I saw Michael Sam get drafted and play in the preseason and then not make it to the regular season. So the little reference I did have of male football players who were queer was not positive. For me, I’m such a multi-faceted person, I was like, “They know so much more about me. They don’t have to know this one thing.” I don’t think it held me back from making friendships. I do think it held me back from letting people know me fully, and fully receiving that love and support.
An overarching theme you cover is the struggle between your personal life and public football life. What was the point where that became untenable?
I probably would’ve been content living my life in some form if things hadn’t happened: if I hadn’t lost my best friend, if I hadn’t been injured. I was really forced to deal with things. I could not go run and hide in football, and I couldn’t hide out my personal life as I found another team. I didn’t have my best friend there. So both sides, the professional and the personal, felt empty. It forced me to look within. It was a moment of survival for me. I don’t know how I would’ve made it through that if I hadn’t started looking at myself and my own soul.
I feel like there’s a difference between keeping something private, and keeping something secret. Things that are secret are often shrouded in shame, and that’s what I was doing with that part of my identity, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. It was becoming toxic to me in my life.
Carl Nassib is playing in the NFL as an out gay man now. You publicly came out in 2019. Do you feel like you were before your time?
I think anyone that comes out, and you’re not the majority in your field—or at least it’s not a regular occurrence—you’re a little before your time. I know there were a few players who came out before me. I stand on the backs of them and their accomplishments. But I think in male sports, specifically in football, if you come out now, you’re before your time. Carl Nassib is before his time. I haven’t seen anyone [come out] since he did. I think we all are, especially in football.
You’re madly in love with [his boyfriend] Corey now, and very public about your relationship. But it wasn’t always that way for you. What are some of the biggest ways you’ve evolved since the your first relationships with men to where you are today?
I think it’s about my foundation, and leaning on the people I trust. Me and my mother are still close. We’re best friends. Her meeting Corey and their relationship is so important to me. I realize now that when I was keeping it a secret, I needed my mom there. I needed people there who knew me, and could see that bigger picture and give me that perspective—people who genuinely just care about me as a human being. When I was in the closet, I wasn’t doing that. My vetting process for people wasn’t as strong, and it wasn’t as great, and I didn’t have that bigger picture view. And of course, also just having a system in place.
I go to therapy regularly, I don’t drink anymore. I’m going on four years of sobriety in September. Just making sure that I take care of me first, and anyone that doesn’t bring harmony to that, or disrupts that, I have to make sure I am protecting myself.