Growing up, Vincent Pryor fought for years the fact that he was gay. It was especially hard since he was a starter on TCU's football team. But after being true to himself, he felt liberated and set a school record. After 17 years, he shares his story.
By Jim Buzinski
Vincent Pryor lined up as a pass rushing outside linebacker on the day after Thanksgiving at Amon G. Carter Stadium weighing 240 pounds. In reality, he felt much lighter, as if the weight of years of hiding and shame had been lifted off his shoulders.
TCU’s Nov. 25, 1994, football game against Texas Tech was the school’s biggest since 1984, previously the last time the Horned Frogs had made a bowl game. Win at home and Texas Christian University would share the Southwest Conference title and be headed to a bowl.
|Vincent Pryor at TCU.|
|Pryor with his partner Alan Detlaff and TCU's mascot Super Frog at TCU New Year's Eve party in L.A. the night before the 2011 Rose Bowl.|
Pryor was ready. He had just come out to his team as an openly gay man. He had his teammates’ backs and they had his. Zebbie Lethridge was probably the only person who wished Pryor had stayed closeted one more day. For the Texas Tech quarterback, it would be a long day, one where he saw way too much of No. 89 up close and personal.
First quarter: Lethridge sacked by Pryor, 4-yard loss, 6:19 to play.
First quarter: Lethridge sacked by Pryor, 12-yard loss, 3:35 to play.
Third quarter: Lethridge sacked by Pryor, 7-yard loss, 9:38 to play.
Fourth quarter: Lethridge sacked by Pryor and Gaylon Hyder, 6-yard-loss, 1:18 to play.
Fourth quarter: Lethridge sacked by Pryor, 5-yard loss, 34 seconds left to play.
Final score: TCU 24, Texas Tech 17. TCU heads to the Independence Bowl.
“I remember that every time I got in there I played comfortable, I played calm, I played focused,” Pryor, 39, would recall 17 years later in an interview with Outsports. “I just did what came natural. And 4 ½ times, the quarterback was where he was supposed to be. And I got him. It was pretty good, it was pretty good.
“I knew that at the end of this game I was going to be free. I can be who I am. I am a gay athlete who just so happens to play football. I had no regrets. Everyone knows I’m gay. … I was just at peace with myself.”
“He was a beast” on the field, said Marcus Allen, Pryor’s teammate and the team’s middle linebacker. “I do believe that once he came out of the closet, he did feel relieved. You did notice something different about him. He was always happy, he felt good about himself, he felt like didn’t have anything to hide.”
Pryor’s 4 ½ sacks still stand in the TCU record book (he shares it with David Spradlin from 1987) as do his 34 sack yards. But that’s not why Pryor’s story is worth telling. Rather, it’s his journey of acceptance as an openly gay man and athlete in our most macho sport.
Journey of discovery
Vincent Pryor has no reason why he waited 17 years to recount his coming out. It wasn’t shame – he was out on his team and has lived as an openly gay man since. He and his partner, Alan Detlaff, live in Chicago. They met at TCU, though they did not start dating until four years after they graduated. They both still bleed purple and white and were at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 to see TCU knock off Wisconsin. Pryor works as an onboard service manager for Amtrak, while Detlaff is a professor of social work at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Seeing the rash of gay teen suicides and wanting to make a difference inspired Pryor to reach out to Outsports and tell his story.
“When you’re closeted and you’re not truly who you are, you’re not operating at 100 percent,” Pryor said. “If you could be free to be who you are, not only will you find people appreciate what you bring to the table because now you’re operating at 100 percent, but people will respect you more. At 100 percent, there’s no telling what you can accomplish.
“If you told me in 1991 that I would set the record for sacks in a game, I would have said there was absolutely no way possibly I could have 4 ½ sacks in a game. And then I did it.”
Pryor knew he was gay from the third grade and lived the next dozen years in a state of denial and hiding. He spent seventh grade being a bully, picking on effeminate kids to deflect attention from himself. That changed one day when he followed a victim into the boy’s bathroom at school.
”There was a person I was picking on one time and I remember I was going to go to the bathroom to give him a hard time,” Pryor says. “When I got into the bathroom, I called him faggot, gay and other stuff. He just looked at me and he said, ‘Vincent, why are you calling me all these things when you’re just like me?’ And I went ‘Whoa! What in the world?’ He then kissed me on my lips right there and I went, ‘Uh-oh.’ It was weird because it kind of brought down my defense shield a little bit.”
Pryor explored his sexuality with this boy, but for the most part stayed deeply closeted. Football was a refuge, though he did quit for a brief time and flirted with the idea of being a cheerleader. On the field, he excelled as a defensive lineman for Churchill High School in San Antonio. He made five visits to colleges, but picked TCU for reasons that made perfect sense to a closeted athlete.
“When I was being recruited I was scared. I didn’t know where to go. I wanted to feel safe," he said. "I was sure I would have the opportunity to figure out who I was being away from family members. I was scared thinking what happens if I’m found out – will I get kicked out of school, will I be ashamed? I picked TCU because it seemed like it was the best choice. If anybody questioned if I was straight or not, I could say I go to Texas Christian University.”
The words “TCU” and “gay” don’t go naturally together. On campus in the early 1990s, homosexuality was widely viewed as being a sin. Pryor lived in fear that his secret would be discovered and he would be kicked off the team, bringing shame to himself, his school and his family. He was dating a woman (someone he adored as a person), yet felt uncomfortable living a lie. And he found out in 1992 that his cover story wasn’t foolproof.
“The [new] defensive coordinator had a meeting right when Coach [Pat] Sullivan took over," Pryor said. "He came into the room and he just looked really, really angry. And he said, ‘My name is so-and-so, and I just want to know if there are any homosexuals in here. And the way he said, in that Alabama drawl, ‘I want to know if there are any ho-mo-sex-uals.’ I felt like he was looking at me and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, great.’
“I remember giggling also, thinking, ‘And you’re wearing a hot pink shirt and that has to be a fake tan and you’re wearing coaching shorts and you’re asking if anybody is gay in this room? That’s a big contradiction.’
“Part of me wanted to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I’m gay,' but if I did it at that point it would be a catastrophe. I’d probably lose my scholarship; this would be an embarrassing thing for my family and an embarrassing thing for the school. I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”
Rumors on the team
Even now, Pryor is a bit baffled as to how some people sensed he was gay. He remembers hearing homosexuality discussed by teammates and getting the vague sense they were talking about him, but no one ever confronted him about it. By the accounts of his teammates Allen and fellow defensive lineman Gaylon Hyder, as well as Detlaff and longtime social work professor Linda Moore, Pryor fit none of the stereotypes of what a gay man was supposed to be, especially a black defensive lineman.
“It really was kind of amazing the way it all worked,” said Moore, who has been at TCU for 30 years and has worked extensively with the athletic program as an academic adviser. “What is he? 6-3, 260? Something ridiculous. D-end, big, huge, black guy. So, of course he can’t be gay. And he put up a great front for the first three years he was at TCU. He was sneaking off to Dallas to go to the gay bars, but he was womanizing at TCU, then was involved with a woman for a couple of years.”
Yet, Allen, who is in medical sales in Houston, remembers rumors starting about Pryor in their freshman year in 1991.
“One of his roommates said, ‘Hey Marcus, you know what? I believe Vincent is gay. He looks at me sometimes and sometimes he never wants to take a shower after practice with the guys.’ But to me it was a joke. And we didn’t think too much of that because Vincent was such an outstanding football player, such a macho, masculine guy that it didn’t have any valid reasoning behind it. … Vince even had gorgeous girlfriends on campus.”
Both Allen and Hyder remember Pryor’s shower habits quite well, saying they can’t recall him ever showering with the team. To them, this was a sign after Pryor came out that he had been trying to hide.
|Pryor, left, with teammate vs. Baylor.|
“Vince never took showers with us in the locker room. Whenever he was done with practice he went to his room and took a shower there,” Hyder said. “Some guys were uncomfortable getting undressed in front of him. There were guys who called Vince behind his back a fag or called him gay, but to me I never looked at it like that. He was just a football player.”
Pryor remembers things differently, saying he did shower with the team, but he did not linger. “I didn't really like hanging out in the locker room because there was a lot of locker room banter,” he said. “I just tried to get out as quickly as I could. After I came out, I didn't care about it as much though.”
For his first three years at TCU, Pryor came out only to a very small group of people. One of them was his grandmother, whom he told in 1992 prior to a game against archrival Texas.
“She said, ‘Well Vincent, you’re my grandson and I still love you and nothing will ever change that.’ I soared, I felt higher than a kite.” Against Texas, “on one of the first plays of the game, I hit the quarterback and he fumbled the ball and it kind of set the tone.” TCU went on to beat Texas in 1992 for the first time since 1967.
Despite that high, 1992 was a dark year for Pryor. He faced questions from his girlfriend about being gay (which he denied, then finally admitted) and feared being discovered.
“I was going to kill myself in 1992,” Pryor said. “I was so crazy in the head about what I was going to do about this. I was thinking that God’s punishing me for something that I have no idea why. I didn’t murder anybody, I didn’t rob any banks.”
Things changed one day in 1993 when he was contemplating his life. “I then heard a voice, I think it was my inner person, saying, ‘Do you love yourself?’ ” Once that that starting happening, Pryor slowly became liberated.
He joined the TCU Triangle, the school’s first gay and lesbian group, which was started by Detlaff. The club was so afraid of its members being harassed that interested students had to first call a number to find where the group met. Detlaff recalled Pryor from a sociology class and was surprised when the football player asked him about joining the Triangle. “I was really nervous and on the defensive because I thought it was a trick to make fun of me or get me to go somewhere where the football players would gang up on me,” Detlaff said. Bur Pryor became a regular at the Triangle at a time when very few people on campus would acknowledge they were gay.
A catalyst for Pryor was his relationship with Moore. A social work major, Pryor came to know Moore well and was fascinated by the professor’s discussions of homosexuality in the class. Talking to Moore, “helped me become comfortable in my skin,” he said. When he eventually came out to Moore, she said she was not surprised, even though she had not heard any rumors about Pryor being gay.
Allen was also a social work major and he remembers Moore’s discussion of homosexuality challenging his longheld beliefs formed by his religious upbringing.
“I remember the first time Dr. Moore saying that being gay is not a disease, is not something negative,” Allen said. “She said it was something that was normal. I remember raising my hand in class saying, ‘What? Are you crazy? Are you nuts?’ … Dr. Moore loved that since it made us think and challenged our thinking. All of us athletes were on the same page, saying that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
“I think football as a sport makes it very, very difficult [to come out],” Moore said. “It’s just this macho bullshit, testosterone anxiety that makes it so hard. Plus, you got a hundred guys and you don’t know who you can trust to not do the ‘Oh, let’s beat up a faggot’ kind of thing.
“I find that even in classes when I talk about sexual orientation, the football players have the most difficult time. Not all of them. I think males are much more uncomfortable than females and I think black males really struggle with the issue.”
Against this backdrop, Pryor continued to find peace with his sexuality while excelling as starter on the defense. He was not yet ready to come out, but at least he had some confidantes at school. He became good friends with Detlaff, whom he admired for having the guts to form the Triangle.
Coming out to the world
Midway through the 1994 season, Pryor decided he had had enough of hiding. He was ready to come out and found his vehicle. It was an ecumenical exchange held on campus, a meeting of students from area schools from various religious denominations. The subject that year was homosexuality. “This was going to be my stand and how I was going to come out to the world,” Pryor said.
The idea was for people who were gay to raise their hands and then go up on stage and introduce themselves. “I walked up and said, ‘Hello, I’m Vincent Pryor, football player for Texas Christian University.’ … I then forget what happened after that point. I was probably too stunned to remember anything.”
There were a lot of football players at the conference since they got course credit, so Pryor’s news spread quickly. A few days later, Pryor came out as a special guest in one of Moore’s classes, where he spent 20 minutes discussing his journey. Among the students were several football players and one assistant coach. Moore remembers the day vividly.
“One of the assistant football coaches came in. You could see the students thinking, ‘Just try it. Say one negative thing and we’re gonna kick your butt.’ We were all prepared to defend [Pryor]. … The coach raises his hand and the whole room turns towards him, and he says, ‘Well, my brother is gay.’ And he deflated the entire room. And he said that it was just so important to be supportive. I think Vince was a little bit shocked by it too.”
Pryor remembers the level of support he received in the class, with one teammate saying, “ ‘I don’t care. As long as he makes tackles I don’t have a problem with that.’ It was very, very nonchalant.”
Allen was in Moore’s class that day and recalls that while some people were shocked, the prevailing attitude on the team was acceptance, even if it was grudging in some cases.
“Most of the players said, he’s our brother, and as long as he doesn’t come into our rooms with his boyfriend holding hands or as long as he doesn’t kiss someone in front of us, we felt like it was OK with us because we had done so much together in blood, sweat and tears and training over a four-year period,” Allen said. “It didn’t bother us, and business carried on as usual.”
Moore was most impressed by the metamorphosis that occurred during Pryor's coming out journey.
"It was like watching weight fall off in pieces," she said. "It was like armor -- the arm falls off, then the hand falls off and the shoulder falls off and finally you’re free of carrying all that crap around. And there you are. You are who you are and everybody knows it. And if they don’t like it, fine. … It was a really neat thing to see.”
Pryor never told his head coach Pat Sullivan, who had won the Heisman Trophy while at Auburn, thinking it was not his business. But he did hear from his position coach, who ominously called Pryor into his office days after he had come out in Moore's class. He described the coach as a tough, no-nonsense man with a military bearing.
“Vincent. Is it true? Did you go out and tell everybody you were a homosexual?” Pryor remembers the coach saying. His reply: “I didn’t tell everybody I was homosexual. I told them I was gay.”
“As he’s chewing his tobacco, he says: ‘Man, that’s huge. You got a huge set of balls to be able to do that. I respect you. Me and my wife were thinking there was something wrong with you. We thought that this was what it was, but we didn’t really know. I’m glad that you were able to come to terms with that.’ ”
Pryor has little recollection of any homophobia from the team, though Hyder and Allen would occasionally hear slurs directed at Pryor when he was not present. But Pryor does recall a time shortly after he came out, when he passed a teammate in the stairwell at their dorm. After Pryor was out of sight, the teammate ran into Hyder and started making negative comments, calling Pryor a faggot, among other slurs. Hyder, one of the team’s leaders, put the player in his place, telling him to knock it off and that Pryor was cool.
“I remember that when I heard that I felt so incredible, so happy but I also didn’t want to acknowledge it,” said Pryor, who heard the whole exchange hidden at the bottom of the stairwell.
Earning respect of the team
For Hyder, who went on to play two years in the pros and earn a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams in 1999, it was a simple matter of respect for a teammate.
“Vince was a really, really good football player,” Hyder said. “He was awesome on the football field. And that eliminated any kind of thought of anybody thinking something bad about Vince. I really grew up learning watching this man play football. He taught me a lot of stuff on the football field. That’s how much respect I had for Vince. When we’re on the football field, there’s no looking at Vince thinking anything different than any other guy. He was an awesome football player. As long as he stayed in the football realm and did what he was supposed to do on the football field, I didn’t care what he did off the football field.”
|Vincent Pryor and Alan Detlaff first met at TCU and now live together in Chicago.|
If Pryor has any regrets, it’s in not coming out sooner, though whether that would have been possible is an open question. Hyder thinks Pryor handled it properly.
“The way Vince came out was the best way to do it,” said Hyder, who lives in Houston with his wife and three children. “It might have been a different story had he come out earlier in his football career because people wouldn’t respect him so much. But because he waited so long, I think the respect part came because he was such a good football player.”
Pryor was at his best against Texas Tech, playing with focus, passion and a controlled intensity. The game was shown that day on TV and Pryor with his sacks was a star of the game.
“I remember getting interviewed afterwards and they asked me how I felt,” he said. “I said I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to go out with a bang. I wanted to help our school get our share of the conference title and be able to go to a bowl game. Which is what we did. I remember saying I was at peace.”
Pryor’s story is an inspiration. As his partner Detlaff said: “Vince’s story, given how conservative TCU was, how accepted he was by his team could make a difference. If something like that can happen at TCU 17 years ago, I think it would happen on many teams today.”
For Hyder, the lesson is a simple one: Someone’s orientation does not matter once the whistle blows. “In football there’s no black or white or no gay or straight,” he said. “Because on the football field there is only one objective and that’s to win football games. Regardless if you’re purple or you like squirrels, it don’t matter. As long as we win football games everybody is the same.
“Vince was a leader on the team and a lot of people followed behind him. A lot of the younger guys followed behind him. I know I did.”
Now that his story is public, Pryor wants to becoming a speaker on the subject of gays in sports. He has made a video for the It Gets Better Project that will air soon on Outsports and he welcomes hearing from anyone moved by his story. His message is a simple one:
“It’s OK to be gay and be a football player. Vincent Pryor played defensive end and he was able to set a record in football.”
Vincent Pryor can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org