Matt Willig wasn’t like the other folks roaming around the NOH8 campaign studio on a warm afternoon when we met last June. A C-list pop diva was entertaining the crew with her antics. Photographer Adam Bouska, hardly the size of an offensive lineman, was readying his camera as his partner Jeff Parshley delicately placed a small temporary tattoo on the cheek of a mom holding her Chihuaua.
Willig towered over them all. Standing at 6-foot-8, his weight last listed by the National Football League was 315 – And it’s all muscle. When I slipped on his Super Bowl ring, two of my fingers fit easily where his index finger was snug. My hand disappeared in our handshake.
A smattering of professional athletes had appeared in the NOH8 campaign before him, but none have the physical stature of Willig. After years of soul-searching, and tempering his Catholic upbringing with his love for his gay friends, on this day Willig was finally ready to take the plunge and appear in the NOH8 campaign. He was ready to support same-sex marriage.
“It wasn’t really something I had a strong opinion about either way,” Willig said of being torn in two directions on the issue for many years. “And then I thought, why don’t I? And I had to figure out why. I just wanted to make sure I did it because I wanted to do it and it was right for me.”
A Catholic journey to equality
Willig was a tackle in the NFL from 1992 to 2005, one of the giants on the field. During his 14-year career he protected the likes of Brett Favre, Boomer Esiason and Kurt Warner. He opened up running lanes for Marshall Faulk, Stephen Davis and Garrison Hearst. He won two NFC Championships and has a Super Bowl ring to show for his time with the St. Louis Rams.
While they’re physical giants, offensive tackles are also known as some of the smartest guys in football. In his 14-year career, Willig mostly played right tackle, the position reserved for the team’s best run-blocker. With the Jets and left-handed quarterback Esiason, he was on the left side of the line. His run-blocking ability on both sides of the line helped keep him a hot backup commodity in the NFL – and an occasional starter – for over a decade.
Despite his physical and intellectual prowess, Willig was thrown for a loop in 2008 as Prop 8 was being debated in California. Born and raised near Los Angeles, he returned there after retirement to pursue a career in acting. The question of same-sex marriage suddenly took center stage for him that year. And it tore him apart.
Willig has known gay people all his life and considers some among his friends. Yet Catholic doctrine has had a strong role in his belief system since childhood. It’s one thing to know gay people or share a drink with them; It’s another to thing to reject decades of anti-gay preaching for a structural shift in the institution of marriage that the Church holds so dear.
“When you grow up in a Catholic upbringing, and the conservativeness of that, and I’m still a practicing Catholic, I struggled with how the Church stood on that,” Willig said. “I also see the complete hypocrisy that goes on with the Church, and their stance on gays, and the things that go on with the Church. That was the struggle I dealt with.”
Ultimately his position came down to priorities. On this particular issue, would he put greater value in the Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage, or the American passion for individual liberty?
Struggling with the same conundrum, Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk this week embraced conservative Christian doctrine and slammed efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.
Willig has arrived on the side of equality.
While the destination is an important step for Willig, it’s his journey that he feels is incredibly important to share.
“I didn’t want to come out here and say, ‘Yeah, this is something I’ve always been for.’ I wanted to be honest,” Willig said. “I am the evolution of middle America. People are struggling with how they grew up and how their parents have seen things. And I wanted to talk about my experiences, and that I evolved into feeling that equality and treating everyone the same is the utmost important thing.”
Evolution of the NFL
Willig entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 1993, signed by the New York Jets. But it was after the Jets released him in 1996 that his career took an interesting turn. What Willig wanted more than anything else was to win a Super Bowl. He spent several years moving from team to team, chasing just that.
In 1997 with the Atlanta Falcons, he watched the Green Bay Packers make it to their second straight Super Bowl. In 1998 he left the Falcons and went to the Packers – Only to watch his old team upset the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings en route to the Super Bowl.
His search for a title is not uncommon in the NFL.
“The number one goal in sports is to win and to win championships, and that’s the goal,” he said. “Most guys would have 10 gay guys on their team if it meant winning a Super Bowl. If tomorrow 20 of the top 30 athletes in the NFL came out and said they were gay, I don’t think it would matter a bit to the guys looking to win those rings.”
Willig eventually got his Super Bowl ring in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams. Four years later he went to his second Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers, losing to the New England Patriots.
Now, he wishes he had had been able to accomplish something else during his career.
“I would have relished the opportunity to stand up alongside a player who came out while he was playing and say it doesn’t change a thing about how I feel about this guy,” Willig said.
In the 20 years since he started playing in the League, he’s seen the tenor shift a bit on gay issues. While he’s met other players who were deeply homophobic, he said the majority of guys he’s played with simply don’t care about the sexual orientation of their teammates. And that was 10 to 20 years ago.
Willig is also sure he’s played with at least one gay player. While none of his teammates ever said the words, “I am gay,” one teammate in particular sticks out in his mind. There were instances when the player’s actions left Willig and some of his teammates scratching their heads. The assumption among them was that the player was gay, and to this day Willig is sure that’s the case.
Even if he got this one player wrong, he knows it’s impossible to believe he never had a gay teammate among the hundreds of athletes he played with.
“We used to sort of joke, statistically, when you take the population and you take that to the NFL, you’re going to have probably a gay man on every team,” Willig said. “It might be a little less. I played on six teams for 14 seasons, I played a long time and I can pretty assuredly say I know a few guys who were gay.”
Even in the early Nineties, with the specter of a gay player on the team, Willig said his teammates never distanced themselves from the player in question and never shunned him.
“I never had a feeling of him being different, or that we should separate him from the rest of the team,” Willig said. “The smaller percentage was the guys who were definitely anti-gay, definitely homophobic, or definitely wanted no part of that. The majority of guys were very open, and it was no big deal for them at all.”
An unrecognizable future
Willig’s observations about his colleagues in the 1990s are proving to be spot-on. In the last year, dozens of NFL players, many of whom played alongside Willig, have echoed his sentiments. From Hall of Famer Michael Irvin professing his support for same-sex marriage to Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo actively working to legalize recognition for gay couples, the public image of the NFL player is shifting. And while anti-gay athletes like Birk and David Tyree are also speaking up, men like Willig are taking center stage.
“It’s cool and refreshing, and I think it’s indicative of society today that players in general feel like it’s not that big of a deal,” Willig said.
Now Willig is looking toward the future. He’s committed to a successful career in Hollywood and is landing roles left and right. In the last two years he’s appeared in five TV shows and a couple independent films. He’s currently filming the Jennifer Anniston-starrer We’re The Millers, set for release next year.
He’s also keenly watching his beloved Catholic Church. While he’s parted with them on this issue, his religion continues to play a strong role in his life. He focuses on his Catholicism in raising his two daughters – He simply shifts the attention to individual liberty over the Pope when it comes to two people loving each other.
“It’s the evolution of our society in the last 20 years, the feeling of more equality, and the negative stigma of gay people has eroded and gone away.”
You can find Willig on Twitter.