Wade Davis was born in the south and raised in the church. He’s an athlete, a golden boy, a NFL star. He’s also openly gay.
On April 22, he came to Castleton and spoke to a full Casella Theater, detailing his journey from a confused kid in denial, to a self-loathing young man desperately trying to blend in, to a proud and vocal adult with a mission to educate the public and improve the lives of others.
Davis is now the executive director for the "You Can Play" organization, which works to create an equal, respectful and safe environment for all athletes, no matter their sexual orientation.
"This is not a lecture; this is a conversation," Davis said. "I want you to engage me. I want you to challenge me."
From a young age Davis was taught that being gay was wrong, that you couldn’t be masculine or an athlete if you were gay, and for a long time he believed that.
In high school he played the role of the macho jock, the gangster and the bully.
"There was one kid in my school particularly. He was the only kid who was out, who was openly gay, and we’ll call him ‘John Smith’. But I never called John Smith John Smith. Every time I saw him he was ‘the faggot,’" he said.
The word was harsh and shocking. It rung through the air and seemed to dig into the audience like it had claws. Davis was silent for a moment, letting the word sink in.
"John Smith was everything I wanted to be. He knew that vulnerability was a strength and not a weakness … John Smith showed up in the world with a shit load more integrity than I could ever hope to have," he said.
Davis spent his years in high school, college and the NFL putting on a performance. He tried having a long-term girlfriend, bringing a parade of girls back to his dorm, and blowing his NFL checks at the strip club because that is what a straight guy would do, right?
"My NFL career was filled with self hatred, filled with shame … Instead of becoming a better player, I’m focused on the fact that someone may notice that I’m gay. Wow, what a lonely life," he said while reflecting.
Injury gives new life
Davis’ NFL career ended with an injury and life got real. He was finally able to find his place and live a life that made him happy, away from the expectations and pressures of pro football. He moved to New York City, and was shocked and elated to discover the New York Gay Flag Football League.
"There are like 300 guys who play football and I’m like, ‘Wow look at all these unicorns!" He said, and the audience laughed. "I find a space for me. I find a family for me … I was breathing for once. For the first time in my life I exhaled."
It was then that Davis started to realize he couldn’t just think about himself anymore. There were kids out there going through the same thing he had, and he needed to help them.
He began working with what he calls ‘at-promised’, instead of at-risk inner-city LGBTQ youths.
"I am blessed to meet the most amazing heroes and ‘sheroes’ in my entire life. I meet young people who teach me to look at the world through an entirely different lens."
Davis shared one story of a transgender girl he once saw on a train. He noticed the people around her were looking at her in horror, and he pitied her, but she was smiling.
"Then I realize, this is not her first train ride. She’s shown up in this world as herself before. Why the hell am I offering her pity?" he said. "There’s no value in my pity. There’s no value in calling her at-risk, but there is value in called her at-promised, and it’s my responsibility as an adult to see that promise and to use the privilege that I have to help her realize that promise."
Can’t do it alone
Davis made it clear that it’s not just his responsibility. It’s all of ours.
"You all have a lot of privileges or you wouldn’t be here right now. Use that privilege to allow those kids to see their promise," he said, addressing his audience. "I’m begging you to get involved, because you don’t need another Wade Davis … You have the time … These kids need you, but they don’t need your pity, and they damn sure don’t need your judgment. What they need is a friend."
"Can we get involved?" he asked. The students in the audience were quiet.
"Can we get involved?" Murmurs run through the crowd.
"CAN WE GET INVOLVED?!"
"YES!" they yelled in unison and broke out in applause.
That was then end of his presentation, but it wasn’t the end of the conversation. Davis said there was no question he wouldn’t answer, and the audience wasn’t lacking any.
One Castleton student, Karsen Woods, called attention to the issues females face in sports and in the media as well.
Davis agreed, saying, "sexism is the root of homophobia." It gives people the impression that if they don’t fit into their gender box then something is wrong, Davis said. We have to have a conversation that lets people know regardless of they’re gender, sexuality or gender expression, that they are accepted as an athlete, Davis said.
"What coaches and administrators need to do is create an environment where they’re intentional about the language that they use. You have to use language that lets your players know that you see them … That lets the gay athlete know you know there’s a possibility they’re there."
Davis hopes to be able to have that conversation with every NFL team as a part of his work with "You Can Play."
When asked how this Soundings event compared to others, students Taylor Peters and Jake Kobryn said that it was more engaging, and it really was a conversation, not just a lecture.
"Frankly, I don’t really care what you are, gay, straight, animal. If you can play, you can play. It doesn’t matter," said Kobryn, a football player at Castleton.
When the event finished, students waited in the lobby to talk to, hug, and take pictures with Davis.
"I’ve never had a bad reaction so far, which I’m grateful for, and I’ve probably spoken at 100 schools," Davis said.
"I really love being here," he said of his visit to Castleton. "From talking to the athletic directors, coaches and students here I think this school is doing an amazing job of making sure their students feel safe and embraced."
Davis gave his entire audience a challenge to get involved and share their privilege with young people, but what he really wants is small.
"If just one of you get’s involved in the life on a young person then I’ve done my job here," Davis said.