Read the full article in Out magazine here.
“You know, Cyd, my brother was gay,” he said.
Actually, I didn’t know. And neither did virtually any of Michael’s teammates at the University of Miami, his teammates on the Dallas Cowboys, his colleagues at ESPN and the NFL Network, or anyone in Michael’s life outside of his family and closest friends.
I was honored that a man of Michael’s stature would entrust me with a secret like this. He and I have become close over the last three years, working together on his radio show, as we’ve come to realize our goals in life are the same: Make this world a more loving, welcoming place than it is today. Michael says the work he’s doing now toward that goal is more important to him than his Super Bowl rings. It’s starting to show.
Last December I pitched Out editor Aaron Hicklin a story about straight allies in sports. The impetus behind my pitch was having spent a couple days with Hudson Taylor at the first board meeting of GLSEN’s new sports project. Hudson is a straight wrestling coach at Columbia (and former wrestler at the University of Maryland) who founded the non-profit Athlete Ally. Just hours after pitching Hudson the idea (which he lit up about) I chatted with Aaron at the Viceroy in New York City; He was intrigued.
It wasn’t until April that I got the phone call from Aaron that he wanted the story and fast: August would be a sports issue and this piece on straight allies would be the centerpiece of the issue.
We asked a bunch of straight athletes to participate. Grant Hill didn’t have time. Sean Avery wasn’t doing media interviews. Drew Rosenhaus never replied to a request for Brendan Ayanbadejo. Scott Fujita passed.
Michael Irvin said yes.
In that first conversation about the piece he said it was time to talk about his gay brother, Vaughn. The moment he realized his brother was gay was an impactful moment that dominated much of his life for the next 20 years. It was something he wanted to talk about openly for the first time; And it was in Vaughn’s memory that Michael wanted to fully, openly endorse gay equality and lay out the welcome mat for gay players in the NFL to come out.
In the pages of Out magazine this month, Michael does just that. At one point talking to him about reconciling his religion with his dedication to full equality for gay people I struggled to fight back tears. Rarely have I witnessed anyone, gay or straight, speaking so eloquently and so strongly in support of gay marriage. This wasn’t just a fleeting thought for Michael, this was something to which he’d given deep thought and decided to commit his energy and good will.
The Playmaker also agreed to a photo shoot in Los Angeles in late May. I didn’t know quite what to expect. Out magazine is known for their incredibly beautiful photography often of half-naked men. I told Aaron that Michael would most likely want something stylish and sophisticated.
When Michael walked into the stylist’s realm at the shoot he quickly ripped off his shirt, dropped his pants and went right for an old vintage leather football helmet and shoulder pads. Once the camera was turned on him he tightened his abs and pulled his pants down to show the top of his boxer-briefs. Feeling protective of Michael I pulled him aside and assured him he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do.
“This is what I want,” Michael said. “Let’s get people talking about this issue.”
When Aaron received the photos back in New York he knew he had a cover staring at him from his computer screen.
“I’ve never seen a body look like that,” Aaron said of Michael’s still-chiseled Hall of Fame physique. While Michael retired from the NFL in 1999, he looks like he’s ready to step right back on the field and muscle people around.
For their part, Out magazine put some measurable resources behind the piece in hopes of shaking up the sports world. They had photo shoots in three cities – Los Angeles, New York and London – with five athletes. In addition to Michael and Hudson, Ben Cohen, Nick Youngquest and Mike Chabala are featured athletes in the issue. Aaron also decided to have the rare two-cover issue: While half the printed issues feature Michael on the cover, Ben Cohen graces the other half (right). They both look beautiful.
And in an emotional piece, Ben Cohen talks for the first time about how the death of his father, the victim of a bar fight, has led to his foundation to stop anti-gay bullying. It’s a powerful piece, written by Aaron, that underscores how deep and in how many different ways violence and bullying affect us all.
Here's hoping the issue of Out magazine challenges how some think about the issue of equality for gay people and changes some hearts and minds.
Cover photo by Roger Erickson