Ryan Russell will forever have the date of Sept. 11, 2018, etched in his mind. The NFL defensive end had watched his dear friend and college roommate, Joe Gilliam, battle cancer for a year. Russell had worn American Cancer Society cleats in his friend’s honor in a game during the 2017 season. He had flown across the country, visiting his best friend in hospitals in the Northeast and Midwest.

Yet even with Gilliam in the hospital bed, it often seemed like Russell was the one being comforted. Last year when Russell had a particularly bad break-up with a boyfriend, Gilliam was there for him all the way.

“He was so supportive,” Russell told Outsports. “He talked to me like I was talking about break-ups with girlfriends that I had had. I felt like I was going to check up on him, and it turned out he would end up checking on me and making sure I was OK. He just wanted me to be happy, whether he was going to be here to see me happy or not.”

Gilliam passed away on that September day almost a year ago. Russell was there for his best friend’s family, having just been released by the Buffalo Bills. Roughed-up shoulder and all, Russell was a pallbearer and a speaker at Gilliam’s funeral.

Watching his best friend die of cancer in his 20s, Russell decided he had to make a change in his life.

He announced that change Thursday, telling both ESPN and Outsports that he is bisexual. He told ESPN:

“There was one very important detail about my life [NFL recruiters] weren’t familiar with…. withholding information is a form of deceit. And I want the next part of my career — and life — steeped in trust and honesty.

During the season you spend more time with your team than with your own family; truth and honesty are the cornerstones of a winning culture.

My truth is that I’m a talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover, and a bisexual man.

“I’ve been able to live this genuine existence and hold my boyfriend’s hand in public. For me now, there’s no going back.”

“[Gilllam’s death] was my wake-up call for a lot of things,” Russell said. “I just wanted to live my life to the fullest, seeing how short life could be.”

Life has changed dramatically for Russell in the last year. After shoulder surgery he moved to Los Angeles, a city where he had “always wanted to live.” He became an author, penning a collection of poetry. He has comfortably settled into the bisexual identity he feels is his true self, as he lives openly for the first time. Now he’s preparing to move in with his boyfriend, Corey O’Brien, as they launch a new YouTube channel together.

Sharing his sexuality publicly today for Russell is about making sure he never feels he has to hide who he is from anyone ever again.

“I started living openly as a member of the LGBTQ community, and living unapologetically, and living without second-guessing. I’ve been able to live this genuine existence and hold my boyfriend’s hand in public.

“For me now, there’s no going back.”

Exploring his sexuality in the NFL

Over three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, Russell played in 23 games. His best season was 2017 when he started seven games for the Bucs, recording two of his three career sacks. He played in four preseason games for the Buffalo Bills in 2018 before a shoulder injury sent him to surgery.

He was drafted out of Purdue in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Cowboys. It was in that first season in Dallas that Russell says he had his first relationship with another man. That relationship brought him face-to-face with the struggles so many bisexual people experience in a world that pushes a binary perspective of sexual orientation.

“My boyfriend was adamant that being bi was a phase and I was just ashamed to say I was gay. And this being my first introduction to the queer community, I kind of believed him.”

Ryan Russell had his first relationship with another man while he was with the Dallas Cowboys.

Russell found the football locker room to be equally black-and-white on the issue. He said respected veterans like Tony Romo and Jason Witten were the epitome of the white-picket-fence, standard American family. Any casual talk about sexuality with the guys in football made it clear that people were expected to be one or the other, gay or straight. “Bi” was viewed as just a “phase.”

It wasn’t a phase for Russell. As he dated men and women alternately, he came to realize that he was naturally, truly attracted to people of different genders. At the time, it was just easier for him to keep one of those attractions a secret from his football family.

“Being a bisexual individual and dating women publicly and dating men privately, I felt a duality in my life,” Russell explained. “It was easier to just blend into a locker room and blend into society.”

Quietly observing from the closet while playing for three NFL teams, Russell hasn’t found NFL locker rooms to be hostile despite the occasional misinformed comment about bisexuality.

“The locker room is one of the safest places I can think of. I’ve never felt unsafe there.”

“Ninety percent of the conversations in football locker rooms are about football or sports,” he said. “Music comes up a lot. We talk everything from Jay-Z to Elton John. And then a lot about our families. Rarely does sexuality come up as a topic. And if it does it’s just another topic, guys give their opinion, and then we move on to sports.”

Russell also said he’s never been called a gay or bi slur, and that the locker room is an important refuge for athletes including himself.

“The locker room is one of the safest places I can think of. I’ve never felt unsafe there.”

Coming out and finding an NFL job

Away from the NFL and rehabbing from surgery, Russell has spent the last year discovering himself. O’Brien has been a big part of that. Recently the two made a road trip to Arizona so Russell could meet O’Brien’s father. “That was awesome,” Russell said. He thinks the two of them are in this together for the long haul.

“We’ve both had our fair share of heartbreak,” Russell said. “Dating in 2019 has its challenges, but we’re two people committed to growing together and being the best partners for each other.”

As Russell has talked privately with friends and family about coming out publicly, many of them have raised concerns. He hasn’t played a regular-season down in the NFL since 2017. His stint with the Bills during last year’s preseason ended in surgery.

He said that two weeks ago he had a tryout with the San Francisco 49ers. Russell said he passed the team physical — always a question mark in the minds of coaches after a surgery — and that team personnel expressed to him confidence in his ability.

“I move well, I have the measurables, I have the experience,” Russell said. “And the feedback from the 49ers was a reassurance that people in the industry feel the same way about me. Now I’m waiting for the next opportunity.”

Russell said many of those closest to him have questioned his timing of this because they fear this could jeopardize his shot to get back into the NFL. They point to the dearth of publicly out athletes in men’s professional sports, including the NFL. Michael Sam was drafted in 2014 after coming out publicly as gay, but he never played in a regular season NFL game. Russell himself is the first NFL player to ever come out as bisexual.

“If I’d told any of my teammates or any of my previous organizations, I feel they’d be accepting of me. I just don’t feel at that time that I was accepting of me.”

For Russell, he simply cannot play in the NFL again without being completely 100% his true self.

“I have so much respect for the NFL. Playing football is my lifelong dream. And I wouldn’t want a team to sign me and then me drop this bomb on them. I don’t want to start with that energy. I don’t want to create that situation for a team that allows me to continue to live my dream. I’m just at a point in my life where I don’t want to go back. I’m loving me and I’m celebrating who I am.”

Russell is under no illusion that every NFL coach will want a publicly out bisexual player on his team. Some won’t.

Yet he points to his years already in the NFL — the conversations he’s had with teammates — and he knows there will be many players and coaches who won’t just consider this a non-issue, they will support him.

“I can think of specific players I know who would support me in that in the locker room. I’m not that person you can’t ask questions or challenge my views. We respect each other because we’ve all put in sacrifice to be in that locker room, and there’s a special bond in that, all coming together for a common goal within the organization. If I’d told any of my teammates or any of my previous organizations, I feel they’d be accepting of me. I just don’t feel at that time that I was accepting of me.”

Russell doesn’t know what the future holds for him. He’s not in a training camp as the NFL preseason hits its midway mark. He’s working hard to land a spot with a team, and for the first time in his career he knows that he’ll be bringing his full, true self to everything he does in football. No more hiding. No more secrets. He’s excited to find out how that all translates to an improved performance on the field.

“I’m just at a point in my life where I don’t want to go back. I’m loving me and I’m celebrating who I am.”

For Russell, this is the right time for him to be honest with the world. And he has no regrets. His journey has been his journey, and he wouldn’t have been able to arrive at this place without organically becoming the man he is today.

“It takes time to know what you want, and what you want to do, and knowing who you are. There’s nothing wrong with becoming your own best friend and becoming your own greatest teammate before you let others in. Because the world is going to always have an opinion, but you’re always going to go to sleep with you, and you’re going to wake up with you, and that’s the only opinion that really matters.”

You can find Ryan Russell, along with his boyfriend, on YouTube. He’s also on Instagram and Twitter @RKrelentless.

If you’re an LGBTQ athlete looking for support, check out GO! Space, a private network of LGBTQ people in sports on Facebook.