The title of the book is particularly appropriate, as he chronicles issues of racism and class that he faced while struggling to make it as a boy, a student and, eventually, as a football player who made it all the way to the NFL. All the while he was hoping others would understand him — and that he could understand himself.
The book is a raw story of struggle and triumph for someone who felt like he didn’t fit in just about anywhere he went. He doesn’t hold back in the telling of his story, talking about schemes to commit robbery, experiencing racial slurs in the locker room and more.
In the book, it’s not until the second half of the story that Russell dives into exploring his sexual orientation. And when he does, it’s a roller coaster.
One of the most eye-popping parts of his life involve a trip to New York City to spend time with another man he was dating.
“It was my first time giving myself permission to not just explore the attraction to another man, but to really explore the intimacy, the relationship aspect of it, to sleep in the same bed and be in the same room and go to a restaurant and date,” said about living, and writing about, that chapter of his life.
At one point, the two men joined a group of other gay and bi men and headed to a party where men were dancing with one another, kissing, showing affection.
For Russell, it was a huge step, being out in public amongst gay and bi men, even if he was still putting forward a “straight” image.
“I was terrified,” he said. “I give myself credit for even trying. Even if I was going about it in not the healthiest ways. I wanted to feel included.”
Russell, with a muscular build standing 6-foot-5, got plenty of questions that whole trip, and that night in particular, about who he was. The last thing he wanted was to be discovered.
“There were people who would ask me with an athletic body. I’m a big guy, they’d ask me what I do. There was a photo taken of me with friends, and then I had the instant remorse of where that photo would go.”
Russell found that he could be invisible in New York. Playing a sport wearing a helmet while he’s on television, he wasn’t recognizable to the crowd. And he wasn’t a starting quarterback or wide receiver — Most defensive ends simply don’t get the media publicity of the guys who score.
He could play the public role of straight guy at the party, just hanging out with a buddy.
“I could just be there with a guy who’s a friend. There was no public display of affection.”
The story of that weekend takes some incredible turns, staying up until sunrise, drugs, and even a relationship-crushing sex situation. While Russell hadn’t been in the vortex of that corner of the all-men scene, he’d still seen it before.
“The nooks and crannies of partying, substances, sex, desire, I’d also seen those things in the heterosexual spaces. I saw a lot of that. So it didn’t scare me, it seemed mirrored to me, young people doing what they want to do. It kind of made me question why people [differently] view gay, bisexual, queer people doing these things I’d seen straight people do.”
Russell’s book, which became available in hardcover last month, was intended to give people a glimpse into a life not like theirs, to help bridge those “yards between us.”
He’s been happy with the response so far.
At the same time, he also finds pride in having written this book knowing there are other Black LGBTQ people in sports who might, just might, pick up his pages and find power in knowing there’s another person out there like them who made it through the struggle.
“I’ve had such a warm reception,” Russell said. “It’s very similar to how I feel about my coming-out experiences, except this is a bit sharper. I wanted to tell a story from a point of view a lot of people can relate to. There aren’t a lot of books out there about Black queer sports people, but there are a lot more of those people than we know. It’s the opportunity to humanize this experience.”