Out on the edge
Kwame Harris opens up about a six-year NFL career spent in the closet
ESPN The Magazine: Life as a gay man in football
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!
KWAME HARRIS walked toward the showers the first day of freshman football camp at Stanford anxious and intimidated. He'd never showered with his high school team. Except for his brothers, he'd never seen another man naked, and he was about to be surrounded by them. He didn't know where to look, how to look, how long to let his gaze linger. He was 18 years old. A breeze could give him a hard-on. If that happened, he'd have to flee.
Kwame Harris in photos
See a gallery of the retired NFL lineman's life. Gallery
A player paused beside him. Kwame was 6-foot-7, 320 pounds, and the teammate, blue-eyed and blond, was about the same height but had a sexual swagger Kwame envied. "Dude, this would be a gay guy's dream," the teammate said. "Imagine how much fun you could have here."
"Sure, dude," Kwame said. But he really was thinking: If he only knew.
JAMAICA HAS BEEN called one of the most homophobic places on earth -- where Victorian-era sodomy laws punish homosexuality with up to 10 years in prison. The island's reggae music glorifies beating and killing "batty boys," derisive slang for gay Jamaicans. Gay men and lesbians are routinely driven from their homes by mobs while police stand by.
And it was there in a rural village in 1982 that Kwame, the second of Keith and Cordel Harris' sons, was born. They would immigrate that year to New York, eventually settling in the Bronx before moving in 1992 to Newark, Del., where Keith opened a restaurant noted for Jamaican-fusion cuisine. Still, the Harris family would ultimately gain fame not for its food but for its offspring.
All three boys -- Kwame, older brother Duevorn and Orien, the youngest -- were specimens from an early age, each eventually topping six feet and some 300 pounds. They broke furniture wrestling, hoisted sandbags overhead to see who could do the most reps. Butch Simpson, the local high school football coach, lived four doors down from the family and could watch out the window as the Harris brothers competed to push their father's Land Cruiser the farthest. When that got too easy, they fashioned a harness from karate belts to see how far each of them could pull it.
Duevorn found football first, papering his room with photos from sports magazines. But the game came easiest to Kwame, by far the biggest and most skilled. Orien says Kwame could have worked out twice a week and still been faster and stronger than his brothers, who lifted every day: "He was born with a gift, and all he had to do was nurture what God gave him."
It was far from Kwame's only talent. He earned a 3.8 GPA at Newark High and was an able musician in the school orchestra, playing a violin made specially for his long arms. "Initially, what I loved about football was not very much," Kwame says. "If I had a different brother, I might not have been attracted to football." Still, as an offensive lineman, his talent was undeniable. Tyrone Willingham, who recruited Kwame to Stanford, was enticed by his "aggressive style of play, quickness and intelligence, overall presence." USA Today ran a feature on him, the all-state blue-chip lineman who plays the violin. By his senior year, the family had filled two 40-gallon trash bags with recruiting letters.
But the press clippings and fawning mail still left Kwame feeling empty. He'd had a steady girlfriend throughout high school and was voted prom king his junior year, but from the time Kwame was a child, he knew he was attracted to men. He also knew that if his parents found out, it would break their hearts. "I grew up not knowing anyone who was homosexual," says Cordel of her life in Jamaica. "Not acceptable. We never talked about it. No one was brave enough to talk about it. It was taught as wrong and you are doomed if you are that."
Still, Cordel sensed there was something different about Kwame, the child to whom she was closest. As a nurse, she'd worked with gay doctors, and she thought she saw similar traits in Kwame as he matured. One weekend evening, she drove him to a running trail and confronted him as they sat in the car. When he told her the truth, she burst into sobs. "I felt this guilt that I made him this way," she recalls. "I told him to pray about it. 'Maybe if we pray enough, you will be different.' A month later, he said he had stopped praying. He said, 'This is who I am.'"
Soon the entire Harris family knew, and not everyone was, at first, supportive. Kwame, in turn, chose Stanford in part because it was on the other side of the country. "I felt like I had satisfied my part of the bargain," he says. "I had played football. I had done well in school." He was defiant as he left for Palo Alto, and he stopped taking his parents' calls. "I thought I'd come out to San Francisco, this haven for gay people, and I would spread my wings and everything would be great.
"Because it was all new, I could idealize it," he says of what he calls his princess fantasies. "I'd lock eyes with another man in the shower and we'd begin our romance that day in freshman year. I couldn't act on my desires in high school; I watched movies and read books. I couldn't get enough. That's what fiction does: this nice, easy arc. Intro, minor conflict, happy ending."
STANFORD FOOTBALL WAS no happily ever after.
In the bus on the way to a game a few weeks into his freshman season, Kwame had his headphones on, listening to a favorite Vertical Horizon song with the volume turned way up. "He's everything you want / He's everything you need / He's everything inside of you that you wish you could be …" Suddenly, the face of a fifth-year player was up in his, eyebrows raised and wild-eyed. "What the f -- are you listening to?" his teammate sputtered. "I can't believe you're listening to this. He's everything you want? Turn that the f -- down."
He knows I'm gay, Kwame thought, fumbling to lower the volume, looking to see who else was watching. He totally knows. Everybody knows.
Still, Kwame grew to love football at Stanford. Loved the workouts, the camaraderie. Of his many talents, the game offered the clearest path to success. But the problem of his desire remained. I need this, Kwame thought. My body needs this. So every month or so he would gather his courage and, in his bumbling adolescent way, try to hook up.
On those days, Kwame would borrow a friend's Jetta -- popping open the sunroof just to fit inside -- and drive 45 minutes north to San Francisco's Castro district, perhaps the nation's most famous gay neighborhood. He would simply say he was "going to the city." He usually started at a coffeehouse, meeting men he found online, although as he says, "Nothing ever came of it. We'd talk for an hour or two, but my nervousness would shut it down."
He was too young to drink or go to bars. So he hit gay bookstores and an occasional rave. There, his powerful physique turned heads, but he felt self-conscious by himself in the crush of men.
"Those sojourns were supposed to find some release," he says. "They often didn't. I didn't want anonymous sex, but I was too awkward to make a connection. As a young football player, I was an object of desire, a fetish for some people. They were eye-f---ing me. I was scared, so scared."
But on the field, he was fearless, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a sophomore right tackle. By then, having realized that the NFL was a distinct possibility -- one that would demand he remain closeted -- he began acting out. When Kwame had stopped returning his parents' calls, Simpson's wife, Charlotte, a close family friend, flew to Palo Alto to check on him. She was shocked to find that Kwame had tried to dye his hair Cardinal red. "I had used this dye that washes out," says Kwame, laughing, "but it bleached my hair bright orange." Results aside, the message was clear: "Football owned every other part of me. I slept and I dreamed about it. I woke up and my first thought, my first action, was to come to work out at 6 a.m. My hair was mine."
It was during that trip that Charlotte talked to him about coming out, even engaging him in a mock television interview to see how comfortable he'd be discussing his sexuality. "Okay," she said, in the role of interviewer, "I'm going to ask you about the game as an athlete who is gay. Now I'm going to ask you about your sexuality."
"I remember the look on his face when I said that. It was, Holy crap. I'm not ready."
At Stanford, he at times flirted with the idea of coming out. The closest he came was when he dropped a large envelope of articles about gay athletes at the door of a coach on staff. A week later, he visited him alone in his office.
"Hey, did you get something unusual in front of your door a week ago?" he asked.
"Yep," the coach responded.
"So, like, that was from me."
"I had an idea that was from you."
"So what do you think?"
"I think that this is your issue and you have ways to work it out. But this isn't something that needs to or has to be dealt with on a team level."
At the time, the coach's reaction stung Kwame, although today he wonders what he expected him to do. "If the coach had said I was right and they brought in some sensitivity training experts, it would have created a witch hunt in the locker room. Who is the gay guy? I wanted him to make it okay for me to be a gay, even though I wasn't ready to come out. If I was outed, I would have gone home. I would have run from it."
When Willingham, former Stanford coach, is asked today whether he'd known that Kwame or any other players were gay, he says: "I wouldn't know that, and I wouldn't speculate. Do they do their job in the manner that it should be done? That's what I'm interested in. Kwame did. Was he a good student, a good person and a good football player? What else needs to be asked?"
NFL OFFENSIVE LINEMEN are antiheroes, a role that binds them. They train together, eat together. They're groomsmen at one another's weddings, godfathers of one another's children.
They also keep secrets together. They keep their mouths shut about teammates who hide arthritic knees by icing in hotel rooms. They'd no sooner tell trainers about fistfuls of Vicodin that older teammates toss down than they'd tell wives the kind of fun they get into on the road. Still, Kwame knew that the NFL spotlight would be a klieg light compared with the flicker of scrutiny he faced at Stanford. If he turned pro, no code of football secrecy would save him from paparazzi lenses; he'd have to be more clandestine. But by the end of his junior season, after winning the 2002 Morris Trophy as the Pac-10's top offensive lineman, there was no sense in delaying. He entered the 2003 draft, and the 49ers chose him 26th overall in the first round.
NFL locker rooms, Kwame soon learned, are sexually loaded environments -- all the more so when the sexual culture was one he had to pretend to share. There was preening before mirrors, the passing of porn mags, visits to strip clubs, teammates huddling around laptops watching porn clips on long flights home. Kwame laughs today about players who say they don't mind if a teammate is gay as long as that sexuality "isn't shoved in my face." Heterosexuality is shoved in each face every day.
"I had to worry about maintaining this mask," says Kwame, whose relationships with men in his NFL days were often furtive and brief, at times relegated to vacations in distant lands. "If someone asks what I did on a weekend, I had to have a story, and I had to be consistent with that story. At the same time, football requires such complete devotion that I couldn't get distracted."
The career of an NFL lineman typically takes several seasons to peak. Kwame's, however, was notable for a slow and steady decline. He earned a starting spot his rookie season and started 37 straight games from 2004 to 2006. Still, by 2005 cracks had begun to show in his game. His run blocking was reliable but his pass protection spotty. He allowed 9.5 sacks and committed 15 penalties that year, and he gave up 8.5 sacks the next. He tried watching more film, went to LA to work with a Hall of Fame lineman, hired a sports psychologist. Nothing helped. And through it all, Kwame couldn't shake the sense that part of the reason for his decline was the pressure of hiding that he was gay.
"I was always on time, lifted weights, watched film, hung out with my teammates, built those relationships," he says. "But I also had to spend energy pretending to be something I was not. Having secrets takes something out of you. If the world had been more comfortable with gay players on the football field, it wouldn't have been so consuming when it came up. Everything would not have been filtered through that, being gay. When I had a bad game or if we lost or if I did something awful, it was because I was gay. It was the easiest way for me to beat myself up."
On the line, a 10th of a second can be the margin of success. A sharper focus, a stronger bond between teammates, provides an edge. In Kwame's mind, that margin was compromised by fears that someone in football would find out he was gay -- or that his fellow linemen already knew and secretly hated him for it.
After one particularly frustrating game, in a meeting about his declining performance, he tested the waters with a 49ers coach. Kwame told the coach he had a lot on his plate. "I asked him if maybe after all of this is done we could sit down and have a beer and talk. I remember the alarm in his face. He turned me down. He didn't want to know."
Still, Kwame's orientation, for teammates with a radar for such things, wasn't hard to discern. According to a former Stanford player, his secret nickname among some players was Kwame the Flame. At one point with the Niners, Kwame was told by friends that an NFL fan had posted a YouTube compilation of effeminate gestures he made on the sideline. "I'd see that it was there, but I wouldn't watch it," he says. "Eventually the NFL would have them take it down." One day, the 49ers team doctor called Kwame into his office after practice. "Kwame, I see you're struggling with something. Is it that you're gay?" he asked. "I have someone for you to talk to who I think can help." And although Kwame had spent years wishing there was someone on the team to whom he could unburden himself, when the moment came, he says, "I wanted to go running screaming from the room."
In another of the many curious contradictions of his life as a closeted football player, he would sometimes play on the edge -- arranging for his lover of the moment to pick him up at the team's training facility or after a game. He would have the man drive up in Kwame's car, a mirror-tinted silver Mercedes S600, to where the players waited for their rides. "He'd usually be small and waifish," says Kwame, "a little more fashion-conscious than he should be. He'd pull up and get out through the driver's-side door, and we'd hug. I'd get in, and he'd take the passenger seat, and we'd drive off, windows down." As Kwame says, "At certain moments, I just got pissed. I'd think, F--- them. It's their problem now. But regret was never far behind."
COURT DOCUMENTS SAY the afternoon that changed Kwame Harris' life began with the most inane of arguments. His was an outing that came not in the form of a coordinated media blitz and a phone call from the president, but in the form of a fistfight with a former lover in front of a Chinese restaurant.
By August of 2012, Kwame had been out of the NFL for three years and was re-enrolled at Stanford, with no plans to tell the world that he was gay; those who knew him knew, and those who didn't, didn't need to. The 49ers had cut him after a middling 2007 season, the Raiders after one disappointing campaign. The sacks and penalties just kept piling up. "I probably shouldn't have signed up for that last year, but they waved a lot of money in front of me."
And so on this day, Kwame was just a man driving a former boyfriend to the airport in San Francisco. According to Kwame, his relationship with Dimitri Geier was always tempestuous. In the decade they'd known each other, their relationship had run hot and cold -- good times interspersed with long silences, several months long. Dimitri, a solidly built 6-2, lived in LA, where he met Kwame in 2004, his second year with the 49ers. (When Kwame first met him, he told Dimitri he was a real estate agent.) They lived together once briefly in Napa, after Kwame's football career, while he was studying at the Culinary Institute of America. But by the time of the incident, they were no longer lovers, just friends. When Dimitri, who works for a company owned by Google, would fly up for work, he'd stay with Kwame, as he had this trip in August.
According to court documents, on the way to the airport, the two stopped for Chinese in Menlo Park -- and when the food arrived, Dimitri poured soy sauce all over the rice. Kwame, the cook, was miffed. He prefers to taste his food before seasoning. They argued for several minutes before Kwame left the restaurant. Upon his return, he told Dimitri he was no longer driving him to his flight and to call a taxi.
Outside, Kwame allegedly tried to pull down Dimitri's pants, because he believed Dimitri had taken his underwear. Emotions, by then, were clearly running high. Although the men differ on who landed the first blow, the damage was all on Dimitri. Kwame -- by all accounts a gentle man, called "passive" off the field by one former teammate -- landed a punch to Dimitri's face that cracked the bones around his eye socket. And when a taxi came, it took Dimitri not to the airport but to a hospital in San Jose, where he needed surgery to repair the fractures. Doctors inserted a metal plate in Dimitri's face. Early the next day, Kwame was arrested at his Palo Alto home, accused of felony domestic violence.
The charges wouldn't appear in the media until Kwame's pretrial conference in January -- at which point, to his surprise, his sexual orientation became national news. The San Mateo County District Attorney's daily brief had noted that Kwame was a former NFL player who'd allegedly beaten his former lover. He was greeted by cameras when he exited the court. In March, in a CNN interview, he publicly declared he is gay.
Although Dimitri at first filed a civil suit against Kwame for damages from the fight, he soon withdrew it. The criminal trial, originally set for April, was postponed until August. Kwame has been told not to speak about the case. Meanwhile, according to the DA's office, Dimitri's attorney advised that his client did not want to testify against Kwame. The pressure of the pending trial, he informed the court, had undermined his emotional and physical health and affected his sobriety.
TO WALK THE Stanford campus with Kwame Harris today -- as we did seven times for this story -- is to see a man inhabiting his past in the present tense: the gay and lesbian center, where he once furtively grabbed pamphlets; the patio at the English department, where he recently completed his English lit degree; the Rodin Sculpture Garden, where he wrote his papers. He's leaner now, 80 pounds off his football weight, and instead of the full face ringed with the dreadlocks he sported during his football years, his hair is close-cropped, flecks of gray in the carefully trimmed stubble that rims his jaw.
During one of those walks, Kwame talks his way into Stanford Stadium and stands on the field, remembering. He describes how when the huddle broke, if the linemen couldn't hear the snap, they'd hold hands to stay in sync. At the drop of the hand, they'd surge together, brothers in arms. "For defensive linemen, it's a you-vs.-me battle. With offensive linemen, it's us vs. him."
The months since his assault story broke have challenged Kwame's notions of the brotherhood of football -- or at least shaded it in complexity. When contacted for this story, none of the teammates he was closest to from the 49ers agreed to be interviewed. Still, many of them sent Kwame a text of support or called him when the news came out in January. "They said if there was anything I wanted, they would be there for me," he says. "Isn't there something revelatory about the fact that they won't talk? Doesn't that say something? I'm yoking myself to the idea of a friendship that is not friendship."
When asked how he feels to have been outed not by choice but by chance, he says only that he's relieved to add his name to the list of former pro athletes who are gay. "I'm just a number now -- and we need to have numbers," he says, noting that any conflict with his sexuality ended with his NFL career. "I felt those two things were incompatible. No one was telling me not to come out, but the implicit rules are much stronger than the explicit ones -- the shame implied by secrecy. I don't want other gay athletes to feel this way."
Blessed and cursed with an analytical mind, Kwame Harris is a man who works over questions until he finds an answer, then starts all over again. And on this day, he can't get Willingham's comment about gay players out of his head: "What more needs to be asked?"
"That's the perfect answer, right?" Kwame says. "Because what it sounds like is that your sex life doesn't matter -- which would be true if what supported that were tolerance, as opposed to denial and in many cases homophobia." As we leave the stadium and walk past the practice fields where the current Stanford football team is running drills, we pause to watch the young men take laps around the track. When they near the bench where we are sitting, Kwame says aloud, "I wonder what secrets they're keeping."
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