Dear young athletes,
It is 6:40 a.m. I am sitting at my computer thinking about what to write to you, and I am afraid.
I'm afraid that my words won't be powerful enough. I fear that everything that is in my heart will not find its way out and have an impact on you. I am fearful. I fear the unknown. I fear that all my insecurities and weaknesses will be seen by everyone and that I will be deemed "less-than." But not today. I will no longer allow myself, my voice, to be imprisoned by fear. It was fear that caused me to hide my sexuality from others, but more importantly from myself, and because of that, I almost lost "me."
So I write this letter hoping to inspire you -- to inspire you to be better than me. As a child, I moved through the world listening to others express their views on same-sex love and explain to me that living life as a homosexual was wrong. In my case, others were grooming me to be a "strong black man," the type of black man who understood his place in the world, who wouldn't challenge the answers life gave him, and who just took the opportunities placed in front of him without examining anything with a critical, questioning eye. In essence, I was groomed to be a robot, and robots don't think for themselves. I was given my marching orders and constantly moved to the beat of what I thought was pleasing to others. How are others grooming you? Who is the "you" that others are attempting to mold?
When I began to accept my sexuality, I knew I would face others' negativity. I believed that I would be pushed away by family and friends, but more importantly I believed that my athletic family would abandon me.
My football family, in some ways, meant more to me than my biological family, because they didn't have to love me. They did not have to accept me. They chose to love and accept me. And I would do anything, including lie to myself for years, to stay connected to my football family. My sexuality became my "scarlet letter," the invisible badge of shame that I wore daily.
I am sure that you understand that over the last 11 years of my football career, I lived a carefully crafted heterosexual life in order to hold on to my masculinity and not be deemed "less-than" for being my authentic self. Yep, I know that you are an athlete and that there are certain rules you must abide by and specific ways you must conduct yourself in order to fit in and be seen as one of the guys or girls. And regardless of what anyone says, it's a lonely existence. Regardless of your sexual orientation, you are constantly living inside your own head, constantly trying to push yourself to be better than even you imagined you could be. You and I both know we were born to do two things: compete and dominate. We give up our bodies, hearts, and minds to do something we love, and the idea of living without our sport is unfathomable.
So we do the unthinkable: We give up ourselves for the sport we love. I gave up myself for football, and at the time it felt easy and worth it. But when I look back at all I gave up, whether it was worth it wasn't the question I should have been asking. I should have been asking whether this sport was worth never learning to truly love myself, or whether I loved this sport more than I loved myself. Sounds crazy, huh? You love yourself, right? When you love someone, you don't intentionally do anything to hurt them. But I intentionally, knowingly, and consciously made a decision to hate who I was and deny the world the opportunity to get to know a specific part of me, because I thought that they wouldn't accept me. But how could they when I did not accept myself?
When I reminiscence on my entire sports career, I don't feel a complete sense of fulfillment. I remember some great moments and some amazing highs, but I never experienced those highs while loving my sport and myself. There's a feeling of emptiness, and every memory I have will always be empty because all of who I was never existed during those moments. I say all of this in hopes of urging you to look into your heart and find that one place only you and I know exist -- the place where we hate ourselves for being different, the place that you have let very few people, if anyone, know exists -- and begin to embrace that place. Hug and kiss that place, because that place is where you truly live, and if you never nurture that place, you'll end up like me, living every day, fighting every day, to truly love myself. But you are better than me. I was weak. I was a coward. I listened to all those voices in my mind that said, "You can't be gay. You can't be an athlete and be gay. You can't be a strong black man and be gay." But today I no longer fear those voices, and I they no longer rule my life.
During my coming-out process (yes, it happened 11 years too late), I have heard from multiple teammates and family members who have all expressed great sadness, because I did not believe in them enough to know that they'd still love me, and I didn't believe in myself enough to live in my truth and love myself.
The pain of living a lie may seem like it will only last while you're playing, but the truth is my scars may never fully heal. Don't let the love for your sport overshadow the need to love yourself.
Wade A. Davis II
This letter was previously published on TheGrio.com.