NFL coach Jimmy Robinson hadn’t been with the New Orleans Saints very long when he walked in on his son’s coming-out.
Six months earlier the receivers coach had joined the team as it prepared for free agency and the 2004 NFL Draft. Once summer started his family joined him in the Big Easy, and July brought his first training camp with the team.
For Robinson, the move from the New York Giants brought the opportunity to work with one of the most exciting receiving corps in the game, featuring Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth and Jerome Pathon.
With Aaron Brooks at quarterback, the team had a lot of expectations, and Robinson felt the pressure for his receivers to perform. It was his first training camp with the team and camp had just started. He had a lot on his mind.
When he walked in the door of his home that night, he found his wife, Karen, sobbing next to his son, Jim. It was the last thing he needed at 11 p.m., with the team’s next practice just hours away.
Jimmy asked what was going on. The two mopped up their tears before Jim shared the secret he had kept to himself for years.
“I’m gay,” Jim revealed. “I'm sorry, dad.”
Jimmy paused, looking at his two beloved family members crying in front of him. He took a deep breath and waded into this suddenly profound yet uncharted territory like the head of the household keeping a steady hand on the rudder.
"Karen,” he said, “you need to settle down.”
Jimmy sat with his wife and son, and into the wee hours of the morning the three of them talked about Jim’s revelation. Jimmy assured his son that he would be loved no matter what, this changed nothing, and Jim had his parents’ full support.
“Jim, you have nothing to be sorry about,” Jimmy said that night, reassuring his son. “You're gay because that's how God made you.”
Complicating the matter was the timing. Just a couple weeks after Jim’s sobbing coming-out party, he would be headed to Atlanta as an incoming freshman at Georgia Tech, his dad’s alma mater where he made a name for himself as a wide receiver.
Jimmy barely slept that night of revelation, worrying about his gay son’s well-being and safety in Georgia. This was 2004, when President George W. Bush was running a reelection campaign based in part on targeting gay people and same-sex marriage. At the time, only 17% of Georgia residents supported marriage equality. The concern was understandable.
Jimmy’s restlessness wasn’t for any distaste or “problem” with his son being gay, but simply a shake-up of expectations. The news came as a shock to Jimmy.
"He was a pretty normal kid,” Jimmy said in his subtle Southern drawl. “He liked sports, he was a good athlete, he ran track, he played football and soccer. He was a really good student. He was a peer leader in high school. He was well-liked and had a lot of friends.”
A gay son simply wasn’t on Jimmy’s radar screen until that night. According to Jim, his father couldn’t have been more pitch-perfect.
“I have some incredibly supportive parents,” Jim said. “They're way more on top of the fight for rights for our community than I am. They've really learned and become educated.
"I couldn't have asked for more amazing parents or a more supportive father."
That support hasn’t been tacit. Since realizing his son was gay, Jimmy has been on a bit of a crusade to open hearts and minds about gay people in and out of football. While he didn’t rush into the Saints training camp the next day and declare his son was gay, he has not hidden it over the last dozen years, sharing his son’s identity openly with coaches and athletes across the NFL. He has even talked with the NFL front office about speaking with teams about his experiences.
Despite the public perception of the NFL as a bastion of masculinity where homosexuality is frowned upon, Jimmy has experienced nothing but love and support when he has shared the story of his family. Both before and after his son came out to him, Jimmy was in the NFL as a player or a coach for almost 40 seasons. He said in all of that time he heard barely a homophobic peep.
"I might have heard one or two, but I don't recall where or when,” Jimmy said. “Over the course of my career, after Jim came out to us, I was always ready to stand up and say, ‘Hey please don't use that language when I'm around because I have a son who's gay.’ I was prepared to give my short speech. But it never came to be."
Instead, Jimmy’s sharing of his son’s sexual orientation has opened conversations about acceptance that no one in the family anticipated.
"He has never hidden the fact that he has a gay son,” Jim said. “If anything, he makes a point to educate people around him and people he works with. He wants everyone to know he has a gay son and he loves his gay son.
"I've always admired him for that. I think it's brave of him to announce to everyone he works with in the NFL, and all the players, that he has a gay son. It's a very macho atmosphere, and he feels this need to make it known. That means a lot to me.”
Jimmy had been down this road before. He had a gay brother whom, he seems to quietly regret, may not have been as accepted as he would have liked decades ago when he came out. Still, the experience with his brother had set in motion a high level of acceptance in Jimmy that erupted when faced with a gay son.
Football had bonded father and son since Jim’s childhood years. From the day Jim was born, Jimmy was a coach in major college football or the NFL. During his career he saw stints with the Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, Giants, Saints, Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. He went to a Super Bowl with the Giants in the 2000 season and won a Super Bowl with the Packers in 2010.
Yet it was on the Giants staff, with Jim a ball boy for the team, that father and son truly bonded over the sport.
"Football has always been a central part of my life,” Jim said. “Even when I wasn't playing as a part of an organized team, I was a ball boy for the Giants. That meant so much to both of us. And it was super fun, getting to work with the team."
Now retired from football, Jimmy hopes to build acceptance of LGBTQ people in and out of sports. It was his wife, Karen, who originally reached out to Outsports about this story, and Jimmy is eager to share more about his son, his acceptance, and the embrace he has felt from the NFL community for him and his gay son.
“I'd be happy to go anywhere they'd want me to go to talk about diversity, to talk about LGBTQ issues, or what it means to have someone who comes out,” Jimmy said. “And I very much want to be proactive to help in that effort.”
Jimmy Robinson is retired and living in Atlanta. Jim Robinson is a senior designer at the high-end women’s fashion label The Row, living in New York City.