health & sports
Former NFL player comes out of the closet, again
Roy Simmons came out on the “Donahue” show in 1992, then disappeared
Published Thursday, 04-Dec-2003 in issue 832
In 1992 Roy Simmons came out in a very public way, on the “Donahue” show in front of a live studio audience and on millions of television sets nationwide. It was through his appearance on “Donahue” that his family and many of his friends learned that he was gay. Following the show Simmons disappeared from the public eye. Nothing was heard of him until this weekend when he broke the silence to speak with The New York Times and talk about where his life had led since he came out on national television.
He says he wouldn’t have even considered coming out during his days in pro-football.
“The NFL has a reputation,” Simmons told The New York Times, “and it’s not even a verbal thing — it’s just known. You are gladiators; you are male; you kick butt.”
It’s the don’t ask, don’t tell world of professional sports, where drug abuse and domestic violence are commonplace but gays are forbidden.
Unlike fellow NFL players who came out post-retirement, Esera Tuaolo and Dave Kopay, Simmons’ story is filled with mistakes and hardships that he is finally overcoming. He went through two drug rehab programs to fight the drug habit he had picked up playing in the NFL in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and at one point contemplated suicide. In the years after his career in pro- football he managed to lose all of his money, and even lived on the streets for a period of time. Then in 1997 Simmons learned that he was HIV-positive. Now, six years later, he is talking about his struggles for the first time as an openly gay African-American man.
Simmons was working in a drug rehabilitation center in Hampton Bays, N.Y., when he learned he was positive. After years of sobriety he had two relapses, one in 1999 and again in 2001. Now two years sober he is supervising mentally ill recovering drug addicts in a Long Island halfway house. He is currently taking the AIDS drug Viracept and is in good health.
Simmons’ pro football career started when the New York Giants drafted him in 1979, in the eighth round. He started with the Giants for two seasons before being demoted to a sub on the offensive line because coaches felt he was not playing up to his potential. Then in 1982, with mounting pressures that included his closeted sexuality and his rampant drug use, Simmons left the team, claiming mental fatigue.
He tried to make a comeback in 1983 and was picked up by the Redskins’ special teams to block on kickoffs and went with the team to Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa, Fla. In addition to family members in the stands at the game, he had two girlfriends and a man he was sleeping with in attendance.
Simmons said his closeted lifestyle began while he was in college at Georgia Tech. Sex with men was commonly accompanied by drinking in those days, “a few cocktails to get over the jitters,” he said in the New York Times story. “There were bathhouses near campus, and I would just run to those.”
Simmons also said that his first same-sex experience came when he was 11 years old and a neighbor molested him. For years he blamed the experience for why he was gay.
“I think all my life it affected me,” Simmons told The New York Times. “The acting out … the sex with the boys, the girls … the drinking.”
He has since come to terms with those issues and that is partly why he is speaking out now, starting with an appearance on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) where he spoke about the issues facing the African-American community in regards to homophobia and HIV. To date, the only other professional team athlete to admit having HIV is Magic Johnson, and Simmons feels that he can address issues like men who are living on the “Down Low” who are not only hurting themselves, but their partners — both male and female.
“I’m sure there are those out there who are suffering, and if I help just one person, it’s worth it,” Simmons said. “You have to free yourself and let it go. The secrecy and all that stuff brings on sickness.”
Coming out again, Simmons is finding that his friends and family are eager to connect with him. He recently talked with his daughter by a high school girlfriend about his HIV status, and a younger cousin, Al Harrington of the Indiana Pacers, recently sent him a new wardrobe. His former high school coach is also talking about putting him in the school’s hall of fame.