THE PLAYER: The NFL’s (Almost) First Out Player

Dorien at the Undine Barge Club, Boathouse Row. Photo by Chris Crisman.

It’s two months before Gaybowl XIII, when the seven-on-seven National Gay Flag Football League champion will be crowned in Phoenix, and the Philadelphia Revolution is bereft of its star. In the middle of an overgrown Little League field in East Passyunk, where a mucky dune marks the 50-yard line, a bespectacled, double-knee-brace-wearing team captain drills the squad on route-running. Then, 30 minutes into the two-hour practice, he arrives: arms muscled, pecs protruding from a pink-sleeved t-shirt. He moseys toward the bleachers wearing a camo-green hat and Versace Eros cologne. He has just left Voyeur three hours ago. “I know nothing right now,” he mumbles, pulling on his cleats, grabbing his receiver’s gloves, and jumping in line for some 10-yard hitch routes.

Not so long ago, Dorien Bryant was snatching spirals from Drew Brees in the off-season; now he moonlights for the Revolution after later-night bartending gigs at Woody’s and Voyeur. He quit football four years ago. Though he racked up All-American accolades at Purdue and gained more regular-season all-purpose yards in Big Ten history than any player not to win the Heisman Trophy, he went undrafted out of college. After failing a physical with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he had surgery for a hernia and a torn adductor; they cut him anyway, before he played a single down. When the Tennessee Titans offered a contract in 2009, he declined. Then the Cowboys called. Dorien let it go to voicemail. “I was just afraid I’d be 30 and still not know who I am,” he says. “I know that 30 isn’t the be-all-end-all … but it is in gay years.”

At 24, he was burned out and ready to come out. On the road to the NFL, his homosexuality was his secret; now, in the Gayborhood, it’s his litany of Purdue and Big Ten records (23, to be exact) that goes unsaid. At the bar at Woody’s, I explain to a Steelers fan sitting next to me that I’m writing a profile of a former gay member of his favorite team. The guy looks Dorien up and down, notes his sculpted physique—at 5’10” he can still bench-press twice his weight—but is quickly dismissive. “He’s too short for the NFL,” the guy says. And, he adds, Dorien seems too “into himself.”

This type of judgment comes as no surprise to Dorien. “I have a reputation that I’m full of myself … but I just keep to myself,” he says. This lends an air of mystery to him, a kind of super-hero riddle. Warm and affable behind the bar, in private he can appear walled off, unknowable. It may also explain why Dorien Bryant punted his NFL dreams. “I loved football,” he tells me. “I just loved myself a little more.”

He ran the 40-yard dash at the 2008 NFL Draft Combine in 4.49 seconds. (He took four Percocets that morning to mask the growing pain in his abdomen and groin.) Now, it’s picking out clothes that slows him down. Or getting too absorbed in his cross-training. Or shopping at KOP. Or anything, really. Before one of our scheduled interviews, he texts a succession of excuses for why he’s running late, including a power outage at Foot Locker caused by rats. That’s Dorien.

An hour later he arrives, wearing a V-neck and a red Obey Posse cap, and orders a Dewar’s rocks. In truth, punctuality has never been his strong suit. While his coaches envied his raw athleticism, more often they remember his pouty attitude and overgrown pride. “Dorien was allergic to work,” says Joe Tiller, his now-retired head coach at Purdue. “Some of our coaches wanted to can him because at times, his attitude was challenging, to say the least.” Dorien once spat at an assistant coach, “I could knock your fucking teeth out”; between his sophomore and junior years, he was arrested in a bar fight. “Dorien has always been a big deal, even without trying,” says his younger sister Jazmine, who also bartends at Woody’s and is one of his closest friends. “But his talent is both a blessing and a curse at times.”

He was, in effect, the Boilermakers’ Terrell Owens. Tiller employed a high-scoring spread offense (not unlike Chip Kelly’s) that utilized Dorien like a Swiss-army knife. Despite his small frame, he earned a mid-round grade from some scouts after his 1,000-yard junior season, projected as a special-teams ace and slot receiver. (A highlight reel of Dorien’s Purdue career on YouTube has almost 13,000 views.) “We thought he had a future at the highest level,” Tiller says. “Those munchkin, Wes Welker–type guys—number one, they have to be chiseled up, physically really fit.” Check. “Number two, they need exceptional quickness.” Check. The NFL draft beckoned before his senior year, as everyone in West Lafayette, Indiana, kept asking: Will Dorien Bryant come out?

The question, of course, was rather ironic. As NFL scouts scrutinized every on-field misstep his junior year, Dorien struggled to hide his off-field secret: a relationship with a male Purdue cheerleader. Since high school he’d known he was at least bisexual, if not gay, but football always got in the way. “Everything was laid out for me,” he says, from the regimented lifestyle—6 a.m. lifts to 10 p.m. film sessions—to a machismo image he had to maintain. “I had girls hanging all over me.”

Billboards between Indianapolis and West Lafayette bore his black-and-gold number 9; football encompassed his life like religion. Except when he hooked up with the cheerleader. “It was fun to feel like there was no judgment,” he says. “I don’t think there were any true feelings. But there was trust.”

But during preseason his junior year, things quickly spiraled downward. His injuries escalated. The fling fizzled. The scorned cheerleader outed the football star to his friends, who then approached Dorien. “I had to play dumb,” Dorien says. “That could have ruined my life.”

Weeks later, during a game against Indiana State, Dorien looked up to see cardboard cutouts of his picture next to rainbow flags hoisted in the Sycamores’ student section. Gay jokes and chants rained down during warm-ups. “That game was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I remember thinking, I’m not going to be able to do this for another six or seven years.” He posted one of the best games of his career, including two touchdowns. Take that, ISU.

Injuries worsened his senior year and he disappointed scouts at the combine. Labeled an injury risk, he went undrafted, but after signing with the Steelers, X-rays revealed the hernia and strained adductor, both requiring surgery. Perhaps it was for the best. “Everything I set out to do, I had achieved,” he says. “I had a great time doing it while it lasted, but I didn’t think I could commingle the NFL life and the life I wanted to live.”

For his part, Dorien doesn’t see the first openly gay, active player being signed for another half-dozen years: “It would have to be a top-five pick, someone exceptional. Someone you just can’t deny.” At training camp, NFL teams invite two or three times the number of players they need to fill their rosters—and look for any reason to cut you. “These franchises have so much more to think about,” Dorien says. “How many fans of the Houston Texans do you think are going to be like, ‘OK, here comes some gay guy playing on our team?’”

He dismisses NBA veteran Jason Collins—the first “out” athlete in the four major sports—as a mediocre player out to profit from his pearly-whites cover of Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think what he did was courageous—at all,” he says over mahi-mahi tacos at El Vez. Like other critics, Dorien depicts Collins as an opportunist out for a contract. “I’m sure he’ll do the LGBT circuit. … But you don’t play basketball anymore and you never really were anybody.” (Collins has yet to be signed.)

Dorien can recall several teammates he’s certain were not exactly straight. “I think there had to be a solid six or seven guys, who—I’m pretty sure—I mean, they may not have been gay, but they would definitely get into bed with a guy.” And while he says neither of them currently play in the NFL, he knows at least two Heisman winners he strongly suspects are gay.

It’s the night of Woody’s “dump party,” when protesters are pouring liters of Stoli vodka (which turns out is not really Russian) down the drain in protest of Russia’s anti-LGBT laws. Dorien doesn’t support the dump. “Sixty to 70 percent of the people don’t even know what they’re fighting against,” he says. “Dan Savage is a tool.”

If not an activist or trailblazer, Dorien is a self-professed mama’s boy: He counts his mother and grandmother as the two biggest influences in his life. His grandmother worked at Macy’s for decades and helped raise him and his three siblings in Mullica Hill in South Jersey, while his mother, Terry, worked as a machinist for Sunoco and logged 16-hour days to afford traveling to each of Dorien’s college games. She suspected her son was gay in middle school (she found a gay porn magazine), but Dorien didn’t confirm it until a few years ago. The two have grown extremely close since.

Terry still believes football is her son’s God-given talent. “Just a few weeks ago, she was riding me: ‘You can still do it,’” he says. “I always tell her the same thing: ‘I’m happy and that’s all that matters to me.’ But she says, ‘I know, but you could be happy and still be doing football.’”

Maybe he will, just not in the NFL. Dorien envisions a career as a coach at the prep or small-college level, and one day opening a gay sports bar named Shirley’s, after his grandmother. But if he does, he’d like to have a true partner. For now, he’s quite single. “I’m not a two-week or one-month guy,” he says. “It has to be something that lasts.” And someone who can handle the charming, maddening, enigmatic Dorien Bryant, a self-confessed “sugar freak” whose bedroom is littered with Marvel Comics memorabilia, who watches ESPN and cartoons and little else, and who will require someone very special to break down those walls he’s put up around him.

Back at flag-football practice, Dorien, still fighting a hangover, jumps in line, dashes ahead 10 yards, then pivots to catch his first pass of the day.

The ball wallops him in the face.

“Really?” he retorts to his half-worried, half-chuckling quarterback. “You’re throwing before my turn?” He’s still nursing his jaw when a teammate shouts back, “Somebody tell Dorien he’s being too cute!”

Later, after Dorien scores a touchdown, a teammate ribs him again. “Where was that against Baltimore, girl?” He retorts with a friendly jab. “Maybe if you threw me the ball … ”

Everyone laughs. For Dorien Bryant, finding equilibrium is a marathon, not a sprint. In the game of life, he’s still very much a rookie.