Commentary

Roy Simmons: A Giant, and a pioneer

Unheralded ex-NFL lineman fought in the battle against homophobia in sports

Updated: February 27, 2014, 6:45 PM ET
By Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com

Former New York Giants offensive lineman Roy Simmons lived the last few weeks of his life in a dark apartment near the Bronx Zoo, as pneumonia and HIV narrowed his existence to one room.

Simmons died on Feb. 20, three days before Jason Collins checked into a game for the Brooklyn Nets at L.A.'s Staples Center to a round of warm applause, becoming the first openly gay active player in one of the four major men's pro sports leagues.

The 57-year-old Simmons won't be much remembered as a trailblazer. He lived his professional career in the closet, and when he became the second former NFL player to come out, in 1992, there was no celebration. When Simmons wrote a memoir in 2006, he couldn't even get a credential to the Super Bowl media center to hawk it on radio row.

Simmons, who struggled with his demons, wasn't the perfect icon. But that doesn't mean he didn't play a valuable role.

[+] EnlargeRoy Simmons
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoRoy Simmons at a 2006 event in Columbus, Ohio, speaking in support of a bill to allow victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits over alleged abuse that happened as early as 1970.

Akil Patterson, a former University of Maryland football player who came out in 2011, looked to Simmons with compassion, and as a cautionary tale. "He's not being celebrated but, you know what? I'll celebrate him," said Patterson. "It's important to me because any one of us could be Roy, unless we learn from him. He did find redemption, and I hope he found peace."

Simmons kept his secrets as he played in the NFL, with the Giants from 1979 to '83 and then for one season with the Washington Redskins.

He veiled his sexuality, just as he hid a devastating rape allegedly perpetrated on him by a male family friend when he was a child. As Simmons grew up, sex and drugs became escapes; AIDS and addiction ultimately led him back to the poverty he'd clawed his way out of. His family and friends are trying to work through the math of raising $24,000 needed to get his body from New York to Savannah, Ga., so Simmons can be buried next to his mother, Norma Jean.

Hall of Famer Harry Carson, for one, says his Giants would have accepted Simmons if he had been open with them.

"I was a captain," Carson said. "I can say for sure nothing would've gotten by me if he had been harassed. If he'd come out to us he would've been fine. He would've been the first openly gay player back in the '80s."

What if Simmons could have lived authentically? Is there a chance that he might not have gotten lost in all the drugs and alcohol available to him?

"I think the problem started before the NFL," said his younger brother Gary Simmons. "He ran away from something in Savannah and he ran to the NFL."

Gary said Savannah wasn't an easy place for a young black man to grow up. There was racism, Gary said, and when Roy was raped there was no support structure.

"There was no counseling, there was no filing a report or going to the hospital," he said. "You had to deal with that yourself, and his way of dealing with it eventually destroyed him."

Roy moved three of his brothers up to New Jersey to live with him while he played for the Giants. Gary, technically a half-brother but the family didn't make distinctions, was 10 years old, and remembers that Roy would make breakfast for them all before going to work.

[+] EnlargeSimmons
AP PhotoSimmons with the Giants in 1981.

"He cooked for us," Gary said. "He made us cakes. But when we got out of line he disciplined us."

Gary had to go back to Savannah when Roy went to play for Washington and didn't know about Roy's other life until 1992, when Roy came out to the world on Phil Donahue's talk show.

Life after the NFL was hard. Roy sold sex for drugs in the peep shows of San Francisco, according to his friend and collaborator, James Hester. There were attempts at rehab, and there was a beautiful little girl born from one of his many relationships with women.

"He was a man in pain," Hester said. "The only way to release pain is to get honest, and the only way to be honest is to live a free life."

Simmons got honest. In 2006, Simmons wrote a book with Hester called "Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet."

Hester said Simmons desperately wanted to tell his story to the NFL community, and tried to get a pass to the Super Bowl media center in Detroit that year, but the NFL didn't approve it. Hester added that Simmons hoped to speak to rookies at the annual symposium.

"He told [the NFL], 'It ruined my life, the secrets,'" Hester said. "They said, 'We'll get back to you.'"

When they did, Hester said, the answer was no. It was a low point for Simmons.

"He cried, it hurt him," Hester said. "'Why, because I'm telling the truth of who I am?'"

Hester still regrets that Simmons never became a voice for equality and humanity in professional sports. Instead, he began to fall back into self-destructive behavior.

George Eliot writes in "Middlemarch" that there are people who live unheralded lives, but their contribution is no less important than the lives that are chronicled for the history books. Perhaps that is the life Roy Simmons lived. Maybe in some small way his struggles, the ones that undid him, have paved the way for Jason Collins and Michael Sam and all the athletes who will inevitably follow.

"As far as I'm concerned he's a pioneer," Gary said.

And in his own way, he was.

Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre's stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.

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