I might be a femme whose closest association to any kind of sports’ career consisted of a short stint playing softball to obtain my lesbian card and being almost knocked unconscious on a tennis court by a ball machine. But whatever I lack in physical prowess, I make up in enthusiasm when watching sports, especially the game of football.
I’m not alone; estimates show that women make up roughly half of all NFL fans, even though few of us work in meaningful positions. That is slowly and happily changing as women are breaking glass ceilings daily, but what of LGBTQ-plus acceptance?
In 2015, Darrow was a strapping 6’5” 285-pound offensive linebacker. The Princeton player wasn’t afraid of much, but the idea of coming out and being ostracized from his friends and teammates was terrifying. With a little prompting from a teammate, Darrow faced his fears and was surprised to find an even tighter brotherhood on the gridiron. I learned about Darrow from a touching ESPN video my brother, a former collegiate player, sent to me.
According to OutSports, only 12 openly gay players have been in the NFL and most came out after retiring. In 1975, Dave Kopay was the first player to come out — three years after retiring from a nine-year career.
PGN: When did you first think you might be gay?
MD: I’d say late middle school, early high school is when I started to put it all together, and by the time I was in college, I knew for sure, but was still living in the closet. I didn’t really struggle with being gay, just being open about it.
PGN: How instrumental was your teammate, Caleb Slate, in your coming out journey?
MD: He was a big part of it.
PGN: Tell me what happened.
MD: I knew I was gay, and I’d told a few people. I thought about telling the guys on the team, but there was a fear of how they would react. It was getting harder to keep myself compartmentalized, and the distraction showed in my playing and my demeanor. Caleb noticed and asked if I was OK. Not wanting to get into it, I just said that I had some personal stuff I was thinking about, but that I was fine. He wasn’t having it and told me to come talk to him after dinner. I was scared to death and at first thought of texting him to say that something else had come up or just not showing up. But you have a special bond on the team, especially with your fellow linesmen, and that was out of the question. So I met with him in his room after dinner, and, at first, I tried to sidestep the issue, but he kept focused on finding out what was going on with me. When I asked him about his girlfriend to stall for time, he laughed and said if my mood and poor showing on the field were because of some girl he was going to be pissed.
PGN: I guess his gaydar was a little off the mark.
MD: True, so I had a decision to make. I knew I didn’t want to stay in the closet my whole time at Princeton, and I figured it was time to rip off the Band-Aid, so I told him that it was quite the opposite. He didn’t quite get it, so I came out and said, “I’m gay.”
PGN: Wow. What was his response?
MD: [Laughing] He said that he didn’t see that one coming but that it was fine with him. He told me that no one was going to be bothered by it, that the only thing people were going to care about was if I had a good work ethic on the team or not. Then we ordered mozzarella sticks and played video games like we usually did before a big game.
PGN: It’s amazing how one person can help set a positive tone.
MD: Definitely. He was from the conservative town of Middleburg, Florida, which was more like Mississippi than Miami, so when he was fine with it, I knew it was going to be OK. After that, a lot of the guys asked me about it. One guy said he wouldn’t believe it until he heard it from me. Once I confirmed it, he told me he’d never had a gay friend before but was cool with it. We went on to become roommates.
PGN: Did you come out to your family before the team?
MD: No, I initially told a few close friends who were not involved in football. After telling Caleb, the word kind of spread from there. I told some people and, with my permission, he told the rest of the team. About a week later, my family was in town for one of the games so I told them too.
PGN: Tell me about growing up in Barrington, Illinois.
MD: I have two siblings, and they both played a lot of sports, so I popped around trying a lot of different things: swimming, lacrosse, horseback riding, basketball, baseball and then zeroed in on football in high school. My brother played basketball for Princeton four years before I got there, and my sister was a rower at Williams College.
PGN: What was your favorite thing to do with the family?
MD: I always liked playing sports and watching my siblings play. I was the youngest so I was usually getting dragged around to different games and tournaments. I spent a lot of time in the car.
PGN: It seems like you were pretty athletic from the start.
MD: I would say so, though I was probably more involved than I was talented, which I figured out eventually.
PGN: What was it about football that felt right?
MD: I was always a little bigger than everyone else, so it felt like it made the most sense. As I got more involved, I began to appreciate the beauty in the sport, the collaboration and the teamwork involved. And the violence as well, it has its own beauty in terms of what you’re able to put your body through in order to perform at your highest level. You don’t see that in many sports.
PGN: I like the complexity of the game; it’s like a chess match with tackling.
MD: Yes, it’s much more of a mental and intellectual game than people give it credit for.
PGN: When Michael Sam came out, did that have any effect on you?
MD: He came out after I’d come out to the team but before I went public with it. I remember sitting with a friend and watching SportsCenter when the story broke, and my friend was like, “Aw Mase, you should have done that first. We could have been on SportsCenter!” I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,” and lo and behold two years later there I was.
PGN: But you had to break it to your coach Bob Surace first.
MD: Yeah, the team and I had kind of kept it amongst ourselves; we didn’t want it to become a thing. But then I decided to go public. I knew how much it meant to me to see openly gay athletes, people who seemed more like me and thought, “If I can help some sophomore in Arizona come out to his teammates and be comfortable in himself, then I need to do it.” I contacted OutSports and they were interested in doing a story so I called my coach and said we needed to talk. The year before, I’d torn my ACL and because I was so serious when I set up the meeting he thought maybe I’d tweaked it or was leaving the team for some reason. When I told him I was gay he said, “That’s great! I thought you were going to tell me you were hurt!” I told him about the story we wanted to do and he was very supportive. He contacted our public relations team to make sure that everything went smoothly.
PGN: I read that. I also read that he published a statement that said, “Here at Princeton, if we can’t handle this and say we’re supportive of everybody no matter what their background, religion, race or sexual orientation, then we don’t have the right guys in the locker room.”
MD: Yeah, it was a pretty amazing experience all around. In the whole time I was there, I didn’t have a single negative reaction, not one.
PGN: That’s great to hear. What was your major at Princeton?
MD: I majored in economics and minored in German. I originally wanted to be pre-med but quickly realized that wasn’t for me. I thought about finance as well but kept gravitating to the sports industry. After graduating, I spent about a year with the Cleveland Indians doing sales and strategy and a year working at Madison Square Garden. Now I’m back at Princeton doing fundraising and development. I’ve been back here for a month, and it’s been fantastic.
PGN: Why German?
MD: I liked the literary nature of the study, and it was a nice break from the math-driven classes. I also have some German on both sides of the family. Both my siblings took it too.
PGN: Have you been? And were you able to check out the gay scene there?
MD: Yes, twice. I took a semester abroad during the summer of my freshman year and went back last fall for my sister’s birthday. She wanted to run the Berlin marathon. Octoberfest does a gay tent, which is fun, but I didn’t get to any bars.
PGN: It’s funny that you were sort of a gay icon without having a big connection to the gay community. Has your connection grown?
MD: Definitely. Coming out of the closet made a big difference. Before that, I didn’t really identify with the images I saw in the media. I didn’t fit the stereotype, and I didn’t know where I fit in. I live in New York now, and I’ve gotten involved with a lot of LGBT organizations. I play for a gay football league and a gay basketball league, and I go to a lot of drag shows. I’ve gotten a better understanding and a greater appreciation for this fantastic community.
PGN: People must fight to have you on their football team.
MD: Well, it’s a flag football team, so it’s not quite the same. I was an offensive lineman my entire career, so not being able to slam people to the ground takes a lot of the advantage out. Once you lose the physicality, it evens the plane.
PGN: What was your best sports moment at Princeton?
MD: The last game of my career. We were playing Dartmouth and, on the last play, all I had to do was snap the ball and let the quarterback take a knee for us to win the championship. It was a great moment as a team.
PGN: So you were a center?
MD: Yes, I played mostly guard and tackle my first three years, and my senior year, I moved to center.
PGN: You’re close to Eagles country now, what teams do you root for?
MD: I grew up a Chicago fan, so the Bears, Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks...
MD: [Laughing] Yeah, we really loved winning the Stanley Cup on your ice in 2010.
PGN: Just for that, we’re going right to random questions! What’s something you love that others dislike?
MD: Yellow Starbursts.
PGN: If your family had a mascot, what would it be?
MD: Probably a moose; that was my father’s childhood nickname. Apparently he was a big baby.
PGN: Favorite three gay films?
MD: I love “Milk,” “Call Me by My Name” and…“Love, Simon”
PGN: I read that you were part of a celebrity bachelor auction and that when asked for your best attributes, your answer was, “My sense of humor and also my ass.”
MD: How did you find that? I plead the Fifth.