Wade Davis, Jr.—the former National Football League (NFL) player turned educator, writer, LGBT activist, and hero—has recently garnered national attention for being one of the few former NFL athletes who have publically come out as gay. He has been featured on OutSports.com, on CNN as a guest of Soledad O’Brien, on Chuck Scarborough’s NBC program, BET.com, and several other notable media outlets. And while many are interested in his life as a “closeted” Black professional athlete and his new work as a prominent advocate in his role as an LGBT Surrogate for the Obama Campaign, there is much more about Wade’s story that is heroic.
Below is a portion of an inspirational conversation that I shared with Wade. The dialogue is centered on his journey from his childhood in the Southern United States to his life as a professional football player and educator now living in New York City. Wade is a true hero, one who aspires toward greatness and inspires others to be great, and I am grateful that he decided to take the time to share a bit of himself with us here.
EBONY: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Have you always been a dreamer and hard worker?
Wade: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, but I spent most of my earlier life in Shreveport, Louisiana. I was very sheltered as a child because I was such a momma’s boy. I grew up in the Baptist church and did something “churchy” at least 4 to 5 times per week. Even though I was captivated by all that I experienced in the church, I was a very curious child and questioned everything; which got me into a lot of mischief and resulted in numerous spankings.
I don’t know if I would have considered myself a dreamer, only because I wasn’t exposed to much outside of my own little Louisiana bubble, but I definitely understood what it meant to be a hard-worker because everyone in my family worked hard especially my mother and grandmother. Also, I was very small and skinny as a kid, so I knew that because of my stature I would have to work hard to prove myself.
EBONY: Can you recall the moment in your childhood or teenage years when it became clear to you the path that you would take? When did you have that experience?
Wade: I didn’t experience a specific defining moment in my childhood when I knew the exact direction my life would take. I knew I was a good athlete but I didn’t think I was ever good enough to play in the NFL. But around the age of 27, a friend of mine told me that I inspired him and I inspired the entire New York gay football league. He went on to say that if I don’t use my gift and voice to help change the minds of many then I might as well cease to exist. His honesty stayed with me for days and I knew I needed to finally listen to what others had been saying and stop being so afraid. This was the first time when I had a sense of clarity for my life and my destiny.
EBONY: You worked diligently and eventually made it into the National Football League (NFL). Can you share a bit about your journey: the lessons, the challenges and the triumphs?
Wade: My journey to the NFL was a joyful and shocking one because it was not until a scout showed up at practice during my senior year that I believed I was good enough to play in the NFL. Yes, I wished for it, but I didn’t think the NFL was a reality for me. As I mentioned before, I wasn’t much of a dreamer in that sense but I did wish for the opportunity (In my mind dreaming and wishing are completely different).
Hmmmm, lessons – one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, and it may be cliché, but I live by a quote my defensive back coach told me, “‘Hard work doesn’t guarantee you anything, but without it you don’t stand a chance.” So once I realized I had a chance to play, I worked my butt off to make my opportunity a reality. There were a myriad of challenges: I didn’t know much about the whole process leading up to making it into the NFL; I was trying to overcome the idea that even though I being from a “small school” meant that I wasn’t good enough to play at the NFL level; I had my own personal identity issues to sort out that were starting to come to the surface more and more; and I was scared shitless that I had this major opportunity but thought that I might not be good enough. My biggest triumph was getting cut from a team, but walking out of the faculty knowing that I was just cut because of politics, not because I lacked talent. That might sound crazy to some but I was one of the most gratifying moments in my entire life.
EBONY: Can you say a bit about Black manhood, Black masculinity, and sexuality as they are understood and performed within the sports industry. In other words, what was it like playing professional football as a Black man, as a Black gay man?
Wade: For me, existing at the intersection of Black manhood, Black masculinity, sexuality and sports was the most dangerous place in the world. As an athlete you have to consistently prove yourself; as a Black male athlete, “I” felt the pressure to consistently prove myself, my masculinity and my sexuality. I lived under a microscope, at least I thought, and I never had the opportunity to just be myself within the confines of a never-ending cycle of masculine performance. I was never alone. I was never able to relax. And I was never my authentic self. I felt so much pressure. Some of it was self-imposed and I was socialized to believe that pressure was part of the game. I knew I was expected to have sex with women, to engage in conversations that were, either, sexist, racist, or homophobic. I felt the need to prove that I belonged in that sports fraternity and that I was just as masculine as everyone else. Though I understood my sexuality at the time I played football, I didn’t know any other way to exist except by exhibiting the same behaviors as everyone else. I got really annoyed when people would say, “Oh, just be yourself”. I didn’t know who that “self” was and being in such a hyper-masculine environment and knowing that as a Black man I was already viewed and treated as being hypersexual. Did I really have a choice, if I wanted to fit in and participate in a sport I loved? Sometimes you just want to fit in and be comfortable, you know? As an athlete, I already felt alone and I didn’t want to further isolate myself by coming out and risk being removed from my football family, too.
EBONY: You now work for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ youth serving organization. Why did you decide to move into education? What motivates you to go to work every day?
Wade: I’m truly humbled by the opportunity to work at the Hetrick-Martin Institute. My move into education was prompted by the comment I mentioned earlier about having the ability to inspire others and also wanting to really make a difference. Not just giving money but giving my time, getting my hands dirty and trying to understand what the LGBTQ youth of today go through and then really being able to affect change.
Going to work every day is the easiest thing in the world. In fact, if we have a day off, I’m dreaming (yes I dream now) about working with, inspiring and being inspired by these young people. They are some of the most thoughtful, caring and beautiful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around. These young people are so gifted and just want a chance to have a voice in the world and it’s my charge to help give them the opportunity to have their voice heard.
EBONY: What does your family think about your “coming out” and new work? Where do find support?
Wade: My family has been a mixed bag of support, but the majority of my family is extremely supportive and excited. There are a few family members due who will not discuss the issue and try to have very surface relationships with me because of their religious beliefs. I’m really trying to maintain those relationships even though there isn’t much depth to them, but that is an extremely daunting task because my life isn’t surface and the support that I need from them isn’t surface. Those relationships are fragile because of this. Thankfully I’ve found support from a myriad of other people — whether it be my partner of 5 years, my co-workers, or my friends — I’ve created a new family here in NY and that was my goal when I initially moved to NYC. But most recently the support and strength comes from the youth I work with at the Hetrick-Martin Institute. The strength and courage they exhibit on a daily basis gives me strength and though they don’t know it — they are my heroes. The smiles, hugs, and love they freely offer to me are paramount in this current phase of my life.
EBONY: Are you still active in sports?
Wade: Yes, although I need to retire because my body is in shambles. I seriously hurt EVERYDAY. I play and I’m on the board of the New York Gay Football League; in addition, I’m the captain of one of its traveling teams (4 time champions) and I play in another league that would be considered a heterosexual league (yep, I’m a champion in that league too).
EBONY: Who are a few of your role models/sources of inspiration?
Wade: Whoopi Goldberg (because she’s honest); Tyler Perry (because he’s ambitious), and my partner Steven (because he taught me to dream).
EBONY: What is your favorite past time?
Wade: Watching football, basketball and reading.
EBONY: And if you could make one wish for Black athletes who have yet to disclose their sexual identities, what would it be?
Wade: For them to find their place in life and find that place where they are supported and given safety by others who love and genuinely care about their well-being. I realize for myself that once I found people who truly accepted me despite what deficiencies I thought I had, it was then I found the strength to live — really live in my own truth.