Frank Rossi was used to dealing with football fans.
Working around the Union College football team for several years, he’d heard it all. Or so he thought.
When one fan and former player of Union College tried to out Rossi in 2009, and use the fact that Rossi is gay to restrict his ability to do his job in football, they simply went too far.
Rossi was a voice of the Union College Dutchmen at the time, calling the school’s football games for radio, as well as calling some other games for D3football.com. He was, as he is today, not afraid to share his opinions about anything. Politics, sports — Everything was and is fair game for Rossi.
That sometimes made him a hot topic amongst fans.
When Rossi went on a D3 football message board to defend the then-Union College head football coach after a rough couple seasons — 10-9 in 2007-08 for a school with a history of success — one fan decided to air some rumors and information about Rossi being gay.
“How can you be so brash when you have skeletons in your closet,” Frank remembered seeing directed at him on one of the discussion boards.
The fan didn’t stop there. He sent emails to people at D3football.com claiming Rossi was a threat to athletes in the locker room, all because he was gay.
“If I had a 17 year old son playing and Rossi entered the shower area....I’d sue D3football.com,” the fan wrote on a message board.
Mind you, calling football games for broadcast, Rossi didn’t go into the locker rooms anyway. The fan used it as a weapon anyway.
“To have this guy step in to try to threaten my involvement in D3 sports shocked my conscience,” Rossi said. “I was pretty scared of what was going to happen.”
It didn’t work. The people Rossi worked with told him he was good at what he did and no crap from fans was going to change that.
Still, the moment shook Rossi. Would people actually respect him? If they knew he were gay, would athletes and coaches speak with him? This was years before any gay or bisexual college football player was publicly out. Michael Sam was still playing high school football.
“I was pretty lost during the situation,” Rossi said. “I loved what I was doing, but I was uncomfortable and scared. It dislodged my trust in people.”
Yet it didn’t deter him. Rossi has gone on since then to become a major face of Division III football, continuing his work with D3football.com and co-hosting a widely popular podcast and show — In The Huddle — focusing on the players, coaches and stories surrounding Division III football.
Rossi has also been the D3football.com sideline reporter for the Stagg Bowl — the national-title game for Division III football — since 2007.
He’s made it a point to stick to football in his work. A brilliant mind — he has a law degree from Harvard University — Rossi has focused on elevating the voices and faces of the people on the field and on the sidelines in the sport he has grown to love.
During the pandemic, he has trained his eye on anyone taking away opportunities from athletes, whether that’s the cancelation of championships or the ending of football programs by schools.
All the while, he’s focused on the well-being of, and opportunities for, the people playing the game in Division III.
“Some of the advice he’s given to some of these young men makes me think I’m doing a bad job as a parent,” said Rossi’s In The Huddle co-host, James Baker. “He’s pretty wise and he puts it in a very direct and kind and encouraging way with these kids.
“I think he’s really passionate about this field, these smaller schools that really aren’t getting the same level of national attention. And he wants to provide a forum and a voice for them.”
To be sure, Rossi doesn’t shy away from elevating conversations about gay athletes, either. He may not put it front-and-center, but when the opportunity arises, he won’t hesitate to make sure his audience hears messages of acceptance and celebration of the LGBTQ community.
One telling moment about Baker and Rossi’s approach to the topic came on a mundane episode of In The Huddle. Rossi is the straight-football guy on the show, with Baker playing, for lack of a better term, the color commentator. One episode they got to talking about how they work together.
“Frank’s the straight man in this operation,” Baker said.
Frank didn’t hesitate.
“Well that’s the first time anyone’s called me that,” he replied.
Smiles all around.
While they’ve directly addressed the inclusion of LGBTQ athletes and coaches in football at times, Rossi has largely chosen to be who he is as an example. Part of that example has been the adornment of shiny, glittery jackets as he works the sideline of the Stagg Bowl every year.
Baker said the fans have started calling him “sparkle man.”
People seem to love it.
“The fact that he’s an out personality is great, especially for these boys we interview from D3 football,” Baker said. “The fact that they embrace Frank and look up to Frank is great to see as a role model, in this uber-masculine sport.”
Rossi’s influence spills over into “gay” football too. He’s a referee in the National Gay Flag Football League, and he’s taken an important leadership role in the group, helping various organizations and tournaments improve their officiating.
One of his biggest contributions to the NGFFL has been the constant advocacy for the women’s division of the organization. The NGFFL got its early start in 2002, and only years later created an entire women’s tournament at the annual Gay Bowl, generally held in October.
“The way he’s embraced the women’s division, whether it’s always volunteering to ref the women’s championship or get involved with the women’s games, it always makes me comfortable with him and lets me air what I am thinking with him,” said Jodie Turner, the NGFFL Hall of Famer who has been a staple of successful women’s flag football teams in Denver.
And that’s Rossi, always finding ways to help people in football who may feel like they’re forgotten or ignored. Division III football players. Gay men. Lesbians.
Whether it’s Mary Hardin Baylor or the Boston Hancocks, Rossi is ready and very able to help.
“They all accept me for who I am and I appreciate that,” Rossi said. “It’s not always easy because of some of the misconceptions out there. The people who are willing to stand by me, warts and all, I really appreciate that.”
You can follow Frank Rossi on Twitter @FrankRossi, or on Instagram @rossif76.