Back when he was an NFL player, Brendon Ayanbadejo was asked by some teammates if he was gay. The answer was "no," but Ayanbadejo was happy to have a conversation.
Ayanbadejo, who played for the Ravens from 2008-2012, was one of the league's early, most outspoken advocates for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. He helped carry the flag to change minds and lives and others have followed.
In 2014, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player ever drafted, but the St. Louis Rams cut him before the season started and he never played in a regular-season game. After becoming the Canadian Football League's first gay player, he retired from football in 2015, citing mental health concerns.
With Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib's announcement Monday that he is gay, making him the NFL's first-ever openly gay active player, there's a new flag bearer, and Ayanbadejo couldn't be prouder.
"Carl seems like the right guy to carry the torch," Ayanbadejo said Wednesday. "He's an established guy, he's a veteran player. I think he's the perfect candidate to normalize what a gay male in the NFL is."
Nassib's announcement has elicited a lot of reaction around the country and globe. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the Raiders, and players from around the NFL shared their support.
"The NFL family is proud of Carl for courageously sharing his truth today," Goodell said in a statement. "Representation matters. We share his hope that someday soon statements like his will no longer be newsworthy as we march toward full equality for the LGBTQ+ community. We wish Carl the best of luck this coming season."
Ayanbadejo has been paying attention to the reaction and has noticed a lot of people saying Nassib's announcement wasn't necessary and isn't newsworthy.
"I think we have to take the approach that it matters until it doesn't matter anymore," he said. "We get more progressive and more accepting as times goes by. I think we're trying to go from a point of tolerance to acceptance. They are two very different things.
"Like with Jackie Robinson being the first Black player in the MLB, Carl is going to be the first openly gay player to play in a regular-season game. Hopefully, we get to a point where it doesn't even register, but we're not there yet. These watershed moments, we have to celebrate and acknowledge them. Hopefully in 10 years, if there are a bunch of guys that are gay, we don't even talk about it. Maybe it's 10 years or maybe it's one year. I don't know, but the sooner the better."
Undrafted out of UCLA in 1999, Ayanbadejo clawed his way through the CFL, XFL and NFL Europe before landing in the NFL full-time in 2003. He reached his third Pro Bowl as a special teams ace in his first of five seasons as a Raven, and capped his career with a victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
Ayanbadejo said he saw locker rooms evolve in their attitudes toward LGBTQ+ issues during his decade in the NFL. He partly credited that to society as a whole seeing more LGTBQ+ representation in all areas of life – entertainment, politics, business. The more people that declare who they are, the more normalized and safter it becomes for other people to come out.
"I think the good thing about the NFL is it's really a young guys' sport and the younger players are a lot more accepting and understanding of the fight for equality for LGBTQ+," Ayanbadejo said.
Two people were the catalyst for Ayanbadejo speaking up – President Barack Obama and Brittany Spears. In 2004, Spears married childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander in Las Vegas. The marriage was annulled 55 hours later.
"She instantly had more rights than some of my friends that had been in these same-sex domestic partnerships for decades," Ayanbadejo said. "They weren't in love with each other, they didn't live together, they weren't trying to raise a family together."
In 2007, President Barak Obama was running for office for the first time and did not publicly support same-sex marriage. Ayanbadejo felt it was time to be clear about where he stood.
"I was like, man, something has to be done," Ayanbadejo said. "I've had people question my actions. It just baffled me that people can't see the right side of humanity, the right side of history. It's taken us so long, but you have to appreciate all the baby steps and transformations that have happened in America."
Ayanbadejo's message in support of marriage equality in Maryland was shared and supported by "The Ellen Show" after a legislator urged Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti to silence him. Ayanbadejo did many other media appearances, including with Anderson Cooper on CNN.
Behind the scenes, he was also making a difference. One day, a stranger told Ayanbadejo that he saved his life.
"A guy told me, 'I messaged you in 2009 and I was about to take my life, and you sent me a message back telling me how special and important I was. You saved my life,'" Ayanbadejo said. "I met him 10 years later."
A father of three and married to his wife, Natalee, since 2003, Ayanbadejo has his own company called West Coast Fitness, which owns and operates 55 Orangetheory Fitness locations mostly in California. He said that these days, he's known more for his LGBTQ+ advocacy than being a former NFL player, which is fine by him.
"Being a football player, a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion playing for the Ravens, I think that being a proponent for equality and equal rights is up there with my accomplishments of things I've done professionally," he said. "It's something I'm super proud of.
"I think I was the right person to carry the torch to fight for equal rights being that I'm mixed race and there was a time in America when Black and white couples couldn't get married. That was the monumental Loving v. Virginia case. Knowing that I'm a product of that, the next fight was America was no longer telling people what races can get married, but now what genders can get married. It's the natural evolution. I was picked to do that for a reason and so is Carl."