Eight days before the gayest Super Bowl week on record, I walked toward the Baltimore Ravens' locker room in New England consumed entirely with thoughts of football, pure football, undiluted football.
I am that exotic creature, a gay male sportswriter, but on this frigid walk I was thinking only of Baltimore's rout of the Patriots and how it had sustained my sense of the Ravens' uncommon camaraderie. Hoping to learn more about a cohesion I had admired for five years, I joined the reporter scrum at linebacker Terrell Suggs' locker, known to be a harbor of humor and insight.
Just then, before Suggs spoke to us, I looked off to the right to see a big bruiser of a man pulling on his haberdashery at a locker beneath the numeral "51." Six years of living overseas had blurred my player-recognition skills and jumbled my recall of jersey numbers, so I had brought along a lineup card. I fished it from my pocket and found the "51."
Oh . . .
There stood Brendon Ayanbadejo, age 36, born in Chicago to an American mother and Nigerian father, educated at UCLA, three Pro Bowls as a noble special-teams sort, a man whom I had never met but for whom I held a vast gratitude. In a giddy locker room in which the great Ed Reed waltzed around singing Eddie Money's "Two Tickets To Paradise," I momentarily had misplaced Ayanbadejo's face. In fact, in the urgency of the game, I had not thought of him all weekend. Yet here was a man I had never expected to exist in all my life, a heterosexual football powerhouse who had spoken up voluntarily and beautifully and repeatedly for g-g-g-gay people.
Now a storm coursed through my head. Should I make this personal? Should I thank Mr. Ayanbadejo right then and there, just after Suggs had finished teasing a famous NFL reporter for an inaccurate game prediction? Or should I stick with my customary etiquette and proceed with the football questions?
In my offbeat life, I have clomped my klutzy size-13 shoes in two worlds you might call disparately disparate. On six continents I have hung around excellent gay people who find sports an unappealing mystery and look flabbergasted at my interest. I have hung around excellent sportswriters who would never stray near a gay bar unless they wandered too far down Bourbon Street at a Final Four. The gay people seldom ask about the sports people, and the sports people seldom ask about the gay people.
I am believed to be the only gay male extant who can recite the final scores of all 47 Super Bowls, and if we're together and you're unlucky, I might start it up.
So I have endured all the stages of my plight: the long dislike-myself stage, the longer please-tolerate-me stage, the still-longer I-might-be-OK stage and even the world-is-absurd stage, which arrived one day in a tiny flat in London when I read on Andrew Sullivan's blog that a museum in Oslo would be exhibiting the 1,500 species in which homosexuality had been observed or studied.
Fifteen hundred! You mean I'm part of some natural continuum, and I've spent chunks of my life fretting myself silly over this?
By now, I even know a funny thing that might unite all seven billion of us: that we all encounter difficulty, so we all have the chance to surmount difficulty, so that somehow on the other side of the difficulty we even might become thankful for the difficulty, grateful that it shaped us in ways we never foresaw.
Yet even in my peripatetic life residing in all three countries named "United" -- United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates -- I never expected to see a Super Bowl week when a 49ers' cornerback would reject the concept of a gay teammate, and the blowback would prove so overwhelming that I would start to feel sorry for Chris Culliver. I long had felt grateful for the enlightened comments of media stars such as Jim Rome and Rick Reilly, and I knew the personal encouragement of close colleagues such as Gwen Knapp, Janet Graham, Karen Crouse, Lisa Olson, Susan Slusser, Jennifer Frey, Johnette Howard, Pat Forde, Mark Mathis, Joe Posnanski. But I just had never imagined a Super Bowl so infused with the gay topic and so wholehearted in support, or a Super Bowl aftermath when Michael Wilbon, whom I barely know but have admired for eons, would ascribe Culliver's travails in the game to "bad karma."
And I never expected to be standing around wondering whether to approach somebody like Brendon Ayanbadejo in an NFL locker room.
But he dressed, and I stood away while he dressed per personal policy, and then I waited still more while he gave another interview. Then with the room just about emptied, and the attendants clearing the last detritus, I approached the locker with the "51" atop, figuring I could always just sidestep my feelings and ask about the Ravens.
So I started with football questions, and he spoke cordially of the Ravens as "family," as "brothers" and as "playing harder for each other" because of that. He said togetherness mattered because football's 100-plus-year history had exhausted most of the game's strategic secrets. He spoke unexpectedly of the other employees of the franchise, of the team being "more than 53." And just then, one of the more-than-53 appeared at his locker, a media-relations rep informing him it was time to head for the bus.
As we walked out together, he told of hearing Tom Coughlin speak at the previous Super Bowl about love, a remarkable turn of American life I had missed while abroad. He told of applying Coughlin's concept to a note he placed in head coach John Harbaugh's suggestion box. And as he said this, we turned left from the locker room out into the cold tunnel, where it seemed just about time to part, and where I surprised myself.
"You don't know me," I said, and he grinned at that, "but you have done a lot for me," and his eyes told me he knew what I meant. "And I just want to tell you that I am so grateful. You are a good man."
Whew. There. I had spit it out. With reasonable concision, even. As we let go of our handshake, he said simply and unemotionally, "It's the right thing to do, plain and simple," whereupon I mustered a closing, "Thank you." Wary of bothering him any further, I turned around and practiced my penchant for fast walking, relieved that I had spoken, amazed that my unusual life could have intersected with such an unusual linebacker.