When I approached Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Landry Jones for my short interview at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere last week, I noticed two things. First, the guy is approachable. Some athletes have this "don't even THINK about asking me a question that isn't about football or video games" vibe. That's not Jones. He's cool, calm and an open book.
The second thing I noticed was a sentence scribbled on his hand. As my cohort for the day, SB Nation NFL editor Ryan Van Bibber, asked questions about Jones' new home in Pittsburgh and backing up Ben Roethlisberger, I stole glances at the words. I only made out "Philippians" and a couple numbers: He had written a passage from the New Testament on his hand.
The former Oklahoma quarterback is deeply religious. His twitter profile features his handle - LandryJones12 - and this short mission statement: "In everything you do, work as if you are working for the Lord." He recorded a five-minute PSA for the I Am Second campaign, aimed at inspiring people to live for Jesus Christ. And yeah, for his NFLPA Rookie Premiere interviews, he wrote a Bible passage on his hand.
After introducing myself and the topic I wanted to discuss with him, I asked Jones about the perception that Christians and gays cannot get along, and whether that dynamic creates a conflict for the two communities.
"There's not a conflict," Jones said. "People are people and God tells us to love everybody. And so that's what I do."
When he said the words, they felt like a canned line strung together by a handler who'd gotten hold of him to "say the right thing." But as he talked more, it became clear that this young man was opening his heart and mind to me on an issue he felt surprisingly comfortable talking about.
"Now, do I condone what they're doing? No, I don't think it's right," he continued. I could feel the NFLPA folks over my shoulder thinking about the mandatory media firestorm that would envelope Jones once his comments got out.
Except, he took a turn I wasn't expecting.
"But, am I going to go out there and not talk to them? Am I going to go out there and be hateful and mean to them? I think that's ignorant. I think we respect and love everybody. But, there's also a moral standard there for me, and I'm going to take a stand on that. I don't think it's right, but it's their life and I'm not going to go up because someone is gay and be mean or hateful and say terrible things to them. I'm going to treat them like a human being."
Some, of course, will latch onto the first part of Jones' statement about not thinking homosexuality is "right," tar and feather him, and cast him into the lot of the homophobes.
Yet fair-minded people will see the important nuance of what he said: We may not see eye-to-eye on this issue, but that's not going to affect how he treats me. There was no mention of hell. No mention of sin. No comparison to drug use or robbing a bank. Instead, there was a level of respect in his words.
What stood out to me was his use of the word "ignorant." He didn't call gay people or anti-gay people "ignorant." Instead, he directed that label at those who would treat gay people differently from anyone else; I imagine he would use the same word to describe anyone who would treat a Christian differently.
When I shared Jones' comments with former NFL defensive end Esera Tuaolo, himself a devout Pentecostal Christian, he was elated. Finally, he said, another Christian was speaking his language.
"What he's saying is what a Christian should be all about," Tuaolo said. "Every time you hear something from a Christian fundamentalist, it's always negative. And it's amazing to have this young gentleman be so articulate and so smart and say it in a way that I feel like I'm not being judged or hated. I can hear the compassion. He believes what he believes yet he understands we are all children of God. I'm going to pray for him."
I pressed on with Jones, next asking him how his thoughts about homosexuality would play out if he had a gay teammate.
"It doesn't matter if you're gay or if you're straight," Jones said. "If you can play the game of football, you're going to be on a team and you're going to have a job. Just like if you're in a regular business setting. If you can do your job well, you can do your job. You can get paid and earn a living and provide for your family, whatever your family looks like."
That last line stuck in my mind: "Whatever your family looks like." There was something powerful in that. He didn't have to say it, but he did. While he may not personally believe that my relationship with my partner of 10 years is on the up-and-up, that last line was an acknowledgement that his beliefs are irrelevant for my personal life, and I have the right to the family that works for me.
Jones' comments also work for You Can Play co-founder Patrick Burke, who welcomed the rookie quarterback's perspective.
"Is our fight trying to establish what happens to us after we die?" Burke asked, referring to traditional Christian doctrine that says homosexuality leads to hell in the afterlife. "Or is our fight trying to establish what happens to us while we play sports? If your fight is against people who think homosexual sex is immoral, then your fight is against Christianity. Our fight is, 'Hey, we just want people to play football and not be harassed.'"
The beauty of sports is that people of all walks of life must come together to achieve a single common goal. Some are Christian who must accept a gay teammate, and some are gay who must accept a Christian teammate.
"We shouldn't mind people having their own opinion," said Tuaolo, who is You Can Play's special adviser on faith and religion. "That's part of being human and having our own free will, to believe what we want."
When the interview with Jones was finished, the Steelers rookie stuck out his hand, shook mine, and thanked me for my time. He left me with only one request: That I use his comments unedited and in full, as I've done above.
Gay former NFL player Wade Davis, who co-founded the YOU Belong Initiative to encourage LGBT inclusion in youth sports, thought Jones' comments were a welcome revelation.
"Even though he may have some religious beliefs that make him believe the act of homosexuality is wrong, he still understands the ideas of love and respect and acceptance," Davis said. "I also love he didn't talk about tolerance. He was speaking more like, 'hey, I'm going to treat this person with love.' He wasn't saying we're bad people, he was just saying it wasn't for him."
If we're going to open sports for everyone, Jones' willingness to put his personal feelings aside and treat people equally is the kind of perspective we must be willing to hear. Just as we want men like Jones to accept us, we must accept them.
As a lifelong Patriots fan, my only regret now is that one of my new favorite NFL players is a Steeler.
We will have the rest of our NFLPA Rookie Premiere interviews next week.