David Snell knew only two other black gay people while growing up in Madison, N.J., an upper-middle-class town with white-picket fences, a mostly Irish and Italian population, few minorities and fewer homosexuals. One was a 13-year-old boy whom Snell encountered at his small Baptist church.
At Sunday school, the boy started crying. Snell said that he could not remember how the topic arose, but that the boy started to say that he was gay, that he had tried to be straight but could not.
Snell did remember the pastor’s response: “We don’t condone that here. You should leave.”
“So he ran off crying,” Snell said, “and that was the beginning of me knowing not to open my mouth.”
Snell stayed quiet, even after his first crush on a boy in the fifth grade, and chose not to reveal that he was gay until his college football career had ended. His experience, similar to that of Wade Davis, who spoke about being gay in the macho N.F.L. for the first time last week with Outsports.com, shows how daunting it can be to balance life as a black gay football player.
Snell met Davis three years ago through the New York Gay Football League, and Snell commiserated with him. Both grew up in a conservative environment, hid their sexuality from their teammates and longed for a black gay role model.
Snell never came close to the N.F.L., but he did set aside his personal life in pursuit of a football career. A cornerback like Davis, Snell headed for Lehigh on a football scholarship in 2002; he would not have been able to afford college otherwise. But as Snell saw it, Lehigh had few blacks or gays.
“At 18, 19 years old, not knowing how people can react to you being gay — I’d just rather not take the risk,” Snell, now 27, said.
Davis, who never played in an N.F.L. game, spent time with the Tennessee Titans, the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins from 2000 to 2004, with two stints in N.F.L. Europe as well. He said that he knew he was gay in high school, but that he did not come out until his football career was over. Unlike Snell, Davis dated a man in secret while he played.
Davis, 34, said the N.F.L. was tolerant compared with his upbringing in a Southern Baptist church. His environment had taught him to try to conform.
“I had to up the ante even further,” Davis said, after signing as an undrafted free agent with the Titans. “So it was like, I’ll go to strip clubs; I’ll go to parties; I’ll do whatever it took to make sure that I’m fitting in.”
Later, he said, he wished he had someone to guide him.
“The double life in the N.F.L. was easier because I knew I couldn’t be gay,” Davis said, adding: “There was never a time I said, ‘O.K., I’m going to sneak out to a gay bar and do all these things.’ So I really just became asexual for my first year in the N.F.L. because I knew being gay was going to ruin my chances as a free agent. I probably did three times the amount of heteronormative activity that most guys have to, just to present even more masculine.”
In college, Snell did not even risk having a private gay life, he said. After his sophomore year, under the stress of course work, football and his undefined social life, Snell transferred to Marist, where he had close friends.
He started for two years at Marist and was elected a team captain as a senior, essentially winning a popularity contest. But he still had not told anyone he was gay.
“I just didn’t want it to become an issue,” Snell said. He added: “I just didn’t want to introduce anything to be a distraction. As a captain, we always talk about not letting distractions affect our play. Even like shower time, you have to shower with these people; you just don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable.
“I would just rather take on the burden of keeping it in, and let the pain be in me, rather than the distraction be in someone else. And I guess that’s coming from trying to be a team player.”
In March 2007, Snell finally told his family and friends, left Marist 34 credits short of graduating and followed his former high school coach to Huntsville, Ala., to play for the Tennessee Valley Vipers of the Arena2 Football League.
Again, Snell feared his teammates’ reaction. “I was trying to eliminate as many obstacles as I could,” he said.
He played a handful of games, broke his right fibula and never played professional football again. But he could not leave the game, so he moved back to Madison and became an assistant coach at his high school.
Word had spread. A few players asked if he was gay. He said he answered them only after they graduated. Snell continued to keep his personal life separate from football.
“I was not trying to be the minority of the minority,” said Snell, who now works as a personal trainer at a New York Sports Club in Manhattan.
Davis said he thought the N.F.L. was ready for an openly gay player, citing the general kindness of other players. Snell remains skeptical, and if he were given a chance to do it all over again, he said, he still would not discuss his personal life in the locker room.
But Snell would agree with Davis that playing football was worth keeping up the charade.