Former Cardinals prospect Brad Thorson comes out
Brad Thorson came out as gay on Independence Day. He played college football for Wisconsin, Kansas, and he was with the Arizona Cardinals for their 2011 training camp.
I first heard from Rob Brakel months ago. The Arizona Cardinals video director who had spent 17 years in the NFL knew two things: 1) He was gay and 2) He could never share that with the world. As he's shared details about his life, I have told him for a while I hoped No. 2 would eventually change.
Last night, shortly after arriving in St. Louis for the Cardinals' Thursday Night Football game, Brakel called me again.
"I don't care anymore," Brakel said from his hotel room, the shaking coming through his voice over the phone. "Everyone around me knows who I am. I'm a guy who will give the shirt off his back to help you. I'll do whatever I can to help people. And I've had enough."
So what changed?
On the flight from Phoenix to St. Louis Wednesday afternoon, Brakel cracked open Robbie Rogers' book, 'Coming Out To Play.' Rogers was the first publicly out gay man to play in one of the Big Five men's sports leagues in the United States. The book chronicles Rogers' journey from questioning youth to openly gay pro soccer player.
As Brakel read the book, the rest of the Cardinals filed past him on the plane. He knew some might look down and see his choice of reading material, but he didn't care. Not only was he engrossed in the story, many of them already knew or suspected he was gay.
It was at this year's NFL Combine - where Michael Sam made his first public appearance two weeks after coming out publicly - that Brakel took a big step out, sharing his true self with Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. He had previously come out to former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who's perspective on gay people Brakel thinks changed from their time playing golf and watching 'Survivor' together.
Brakel waited a year into Arians' tenure with the Cardinals to share the news with him.
"I knew BA back when we were in Pittsburgh," Brakel told Outsports. Brakel worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1998 to 2007, where he came out to over a dozen employees. The first time Brakel kissed someone he considered his "boyfriend" was at the old Three Rivers Stadium in the Bill Cowher years. Arians was with the team from 2004 to 2011.
"At one point this year BA talked to the team about gay players and actually told the team that there was probably a Michael Sam in the room.
"That Michael Sam was me."
In March, Arians had been a part of the NFL Annual Meeting where Wade Davis gave a presentation on LGBT issues to all of the NFL owners, head coaches and general managers. There, Davis encouraged coaches to talk directly with players about gay issues.
"Coach Arians didn't just talk in generalities with his team, he named it," Davis said of the head coach's reported conversation with the Cardinals. "He talked about being gay and gay players and Michael Sam. He's one of the few coaches I know who really named it and said the word 'gay' to his team. That he did that tells me he gets it on a different level than most, and he's not afraid of that conversation. He doesn't skate around the word 'gay.'"
Davis and Brakel go way back. Brakel worked for the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe when Davis was a player. They stayed in touch, and just last month Davis visited Brakel for the Cardinals' victory over the Detroit Lions.
At the Combine, Brakel also came out to other NFL power brokers like Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, who had been with the Cardinals in 2013, and Cardinals GM Steve Keim.
Brakel didn't stop there. If the video crews of the 32 NFL teams comprise a kind of fraternity, the NFL Combine is their annual convention. He had come out to his own Cardinals video department - what he says is "one of the top video departments in the NFL" - about two years ago to nothing but support. The 2014 Combine represented Brakel's opportunity to let everyone in on his secret all at the same time.
"When I came out to the video guys at the Combine, I told them they could tell their assistants about me. Statistically speaking, I know I'm not the only one. I wanted other guys to know that they could call me and ask me, 'how did you deal with this?'"
Dealing with it has meant hearing some not-so-positive comments over the years. While veteran players like Chris Kluwe and Michael Irvin have said gay slurs were few and far between in the locker room, Brakel has heard his fair share.
"Working in professional sports, it's not easy. Players can say some tough things. And there have been times when I wanted to quit. I'm sure there have been times when Robbie Rogers and [gay former MLB player] Billy Bean wanted to quit because of what people have said about them or what society might have thought about them."
The comments Brakel has heard have never been aimed at him. While Brakel hasn't personally told all of the Cardinals players, he has told some; Others certainly suspect. Long snapper Mike Leach has known since 2013.
Earlier this year, Larry Fitzgerald asked Brakel why he didn't have kids or a girlfriend.
"He did the gay math," Brakel said. "He wondered, what's going on? I'm 40 years old. I'm single. It's the gay math.
"I think he wanted to help me."
The reaction from his NFL video fraternity has continued the strong reception. Brakel said his counterparts at the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles in particular showed strong support.
Brakel paused as he did several times in our conversation.
"I've had enough of the hiding."
Late last night - rather, very early this morning - Brakel took to Facebook. While he didn't share his true self with his followers, he posted a preview of good things to come:
Tonight, as the Cardinals take on the Rams - poetically, Sam's former team - in a huge divisional game, Brakel will be working for the first time as a publicly out man. We talked about releasing his story at another time, but after two decades of struggling to find true acceptance, Brakel couldn't wait another day. He spent much of the morning and afternoon letting Cardinals brass and a couple players know the story was coming, so no one was surprised. All of them, including Keim and Arians, gave Brakel their blessing.
"I've read enough of Robbie's book to realize I want to be happy again. I don't care what people think.
"I want to be happy again."