Roy Simmons died earlier this week of complications related to pneumonia at the age of 57. You may remember him as an offensive lineman for the New York Giants in the early 1980s. More likely, you remember him as the former football player who came out on “Donahue” about a decade later. Or maybe as the former football player who announced that he was HIV-positive about a decade after that.
After reading a few Simmons obituaries, I picked up a copy of his memoir, “Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet.” It’s an unrelentingly dark and gritty book. It opens with Simmons nearly throwing himself off the Golden Gate Bridge after loading all of his -- and his roommate’s -- possessions into a van with the intention of swapping them for crack. It ends with an apology to the people he loved, and harmed, over the course of his life.
The timing of Simmons’ death was hard to ignore, coming as it did in the wake of University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s coming out and Jason Collins’ debut as the first openly gay player in the NBA. Both events generated tons of stories, and justifiably so. But if you really want to understand the significance of Sam and Collins, it helps to read “Out of Bounds.”
Simmons dealt with a lot of problems -- a broken home, a childhood rape, a life-long drug addiction -- but his biggest struggle was with what he called the “Great Big Lie.” It's the life you lead -- the only one available -- when you can't afford to own your sexual identity.
“In the NFL, you can be a wife-beater, you can do drugs, get piss-ass drunk and wreck your car, sleep with as many groupies as you want behind your wife’s back, and destroy private property whenever you went on a rampage. No matter what sin you committed, the team would accept you back into the fold. If anything, the team would hold you in higher esteem! You earned your bones if you were arrested for assault. You put a notch in your belt each time you smoked opium after stomping the Philadelphia Eagles for the incompetents they were. Sometimes, I wondered where the boundaries lay, if any truly existed at all. A man who played professional football could get away with pretty much anything, but never -- under any circumstances whatsoever -- could you announce that you were gay. That was the one unpardonable sin, the big taboo, the league secret. All those other antics were nothing but entertainment compared to that.”
By the time Simmons was a high school sophomore in Savannah, Georgia, he was 6 foot 3, 240 pounds, and crazy fast. College recruiters were all over him, buying him dinner and clothes, taking him on trips, handing him envelopes filled with cash. He wound up at Georgia Tech, and then went on to become a starter for the Giants in 1981. “He just might be the best athlete on this football team,” his coach said at the time. So far so good, or at least that’s how it looked from the outside.
A couple of seasons into Simmons’ NFL career, the stress of his secret life became too much. After losing his starting job, Simmons decided to take a year off from football, working instead as a baggage handler at Kennedy Airport. When he returned to the NFL, the Giants cut him. He spent a season with the Redskins, and another in the United States Football League.
Then things went downhill. Simmons wrote about living in a YMCA in Newark -- “a private little hotel for druggies” -- while trying to hold down a job at a liquor store. In the late 1980’s, during the AIDS epidemic, he moved to San Francisco, where he lived on welfare and traded food stamps for crack. He did time in prison in San Bruno for shoplifting.
When the opportunity to go on “Donohue” came about through a friend in 1992, Simmons was back on his feet, however unsteadily. The show’s theme was: “What if you found out the guy you went to the prom with was gay and he never told you?”
“Roy, here you are,” Donahue told him as the cameras rolled. “You’ve stepped forward on the highly regarded Donahue Show and you’ve come here to say what, Roy? What? Do you want to say, ‘I’m gay and I’m proud?’ Or do you want to say, ‘This is who I am?’ Or is it, ‘I’m really bi-sexual,’ or ‘It’s none of your business.’ Which is it, Roy?”
Simmons did his best to respond: “Before, I couldn’t accept the idea of myself, the feelings I was experiencing. But now I’m older. I’m able to put it together," he said. "Today I can look at myself for who I really am and be proud.”
The audience applauded. For a moment, Simmons felt understood. Calls and letters poured in. Simmons bathed in the attention for a month or so, then returned to the streets, looking for crack. “You think you’ve won?” Simmons remembered thinking. “You think going on some TV show and whining about how gay you are was a good thing?”
Simmons tested positive for HIV in 1997. “Out of Bounds,” which was published nine years later, gives the sense that he knew he was nearing the end. There are no cathartic revelations here, just the unflinching reflections of a man who realized too late that he squandered his life trying to distract himself from his own sense of shame. “You bury yourself while you’re still alive, throwing anything you can on the open grave just to fill in the hole," he wrote. "But the hole never seems to fill. No matter what you pour into it, it’s always there, gaping open. Dark. Endless.”
That crypt is now finally sealed. Sam, Collins and the countless others who follow will no longer have to bury themselves alive.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)