Greg Buttle was used to being around gay men. In high school, the former New York Jets linebacker was the big football jock. Still, he also participated in the high school musicals, where he knew there were gay men around him.
Yet it was at Penn State where he found refuge in the gay community.
As a 19-year-old Penn State Nittany Lions football player, Buttle would have been suspended by Joe Paterno if he was caught drinking alcohol. So he frequented the dive where he knew he wouldn’t be discovered: a local gay bar called My Oh My in State College. The bar was known to serve underage drinkers.
"If there was someone in there who knew us, they were hiding they were gay and would never tell on us,” Buttle said of the gay bar patrons in the less-accepting mid-Seventies. “But no one in there knew who we were. So we'd go in, have a few drinks, have a few laughs and go home."
Buttle had no issue walking into a gay bar. He had been raised from a young age to appreciate other people’s differences. Growing up in the Tristate area, Buttle was accustomed to interacting with people of all walks of life.
"My mother was a concert pianist,” Buttle remembered. “She was around tons of gay men in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So I never looked at someone differently. Like, just because they're different I should hate them?"
When his gay son, Greg Jr., came out to him about seven years ago, Buttle could not have been more prepared for it. He was able to draw on his life experiences — the gay men he had sung and drunk with — and embrace Greg Jr. for everything he is.
Truth is, Buttle had suspected his son was gay for years. Greg Jr. was everything an average “red-blooded all-American kid” could be. Popular. Athletic. Yet somehow Buttle knew his son was gay, a dad’s sense of his son even as early as kindergarten. Buttle never asked his son about it, instead letting Greg Jr. come out in his own time on his own terms.
"I looked at how he may feel, and I didn't want to approach him about it,” Buttle said. “I didn’t want to put any kind of pressure on him because he was gay. Because I didn't care. I didn't want to make an issue out of it by asking.”
Greg Jr. had realized in sixth grade that he was “gay,” finally putting a name to the feelings he had already felt for some time. At that age he “knew” he had to hide his sexuality all of his life, even imagining what life would be like years later as a gay man married to a woman.
"There was this profound sadness of realizing I'm going to marry a girl but have to cheat on her to satisfy this other need I have," Greg Jr. said. That notion sat with him for years.
Over time, Greg Jr. came to accept himself, coming out to some friends just after high school but holding back from telling his parents. To be sure, his father’s NFL pedigree gave him pause.
"I was really hung up on the narrative of my football-player dad having a gay son,” Greg Jr. said. “I didn't want the dichotomy between my father's football personality and what would have been perceived as a ‘gay effeminate son.’ I was worried about embarrassing him, and I didn't want to project who I was onto his story."
Growing up in a “football family,” sports were king. Buttle had been a Consensus All-American at Penn State and a linebacker working with the famous “New York Sack Exchange” with the Jets, making it to the AFC Championship game in 1982. Today Buttle is an on-air personality in New York, calling Jets preseason games and appearing on TV and radio.
"Football was always there in the background,” Greg Jr. said. “It was never oppressive and I never felt it had to be part of my identity. But it was always in the background."
Football was a big part of Greg Jr.’s identity. He was constantly asked about the Jets and his famous dad, who played with the team for an impressive nine seasons. He also inherited some of his father’s natural athletic ability, playing both running back and cornerback on his high school team. By his senior season he was starting at both positions. He was fast.
Football brought Greg Jr. some of his own popularity and notoriety.
Sadly, it also brought him some undeserved shame and, ultimately, a divorce from the sport. While he wasn’t out in high school, he said there was plenty of speculation about the star football player being gay.
"I wasn't out in high school, but there was a lot of commentary about my sexuality, which made it difficult to connect with my teammates,” Greg Jr. said. “And the coaches weren't very warm to me.
“By my senior year I had grown enough to realize I didn’t need to subject myself to a negative environment like that."
Whether his teammates and coaches would have ultimately accepted him as a gay athlete he will never know. What he does know is that the needling, jabbing and “locker room talk” he heard on a regular basis drove him from the sport he loved to play.
"I showed my son how to love football and how to be good at it,” Buttle said. “But when he got to high school they showed him how to hate the sport. When you’re a [closeted] gay kid on a football team of nothing but testosterone, and everyone thinking they're a big bad guy, they don't understand the more insightful parts of what a person is."
Greg Jr. left the team in the middle of his senior season, despite starting on both sides of the ball. Still holding a secret about his sexual orientation, he knew he could not be on a team that seemed, on the outside, to be full of homophobia.
Still, Greg Jr. took from the game life lessons that have stayed with him even today, working at Nickelodeon in Los Angeles.
“There's a lot of fear that goes into the game,” Greg Jr. said. “Fear of losing, fear of being hit, fear of being gay. And you have to deal with that fear. You have to perform. So you accept that fear is part of it. You learn to push through the emotions your body tells you to run from. And you get rewarded with great success that feels fantastic, or you get rewarded with something that's quieter, learning to deal with failure, learning how to get back up and do it again."
The Buttles are still a football family. It runs in their veins. They are also a true 2017 American family, complete with more diversity than any of them realized a decade ago.
Buttle continues to carry his life lessons with him, not afraid to share his family’s stories with anyone he encounters. He said no one along his football pedigree “has said a disparaging word about gays or lesbians.” Despite the stereotype of dumb, Neanderthal football players from the Seventies and Eighties, Buttle said his former teammates have been amazing. And if they did have an issue, they would have a 63-year-old former NFL linebacker to deal with.
"My son is a great boy, and he has a lot of insight to him,” Buttle said. “He works hard and he wants to do the right thing.
“What's wrong with that?"