Archive for the ‘the closet’ Category

Kwame Harris And That Tenth of A Second

May 30th, 2013 No Comments

Writing this story about Kwame Harris’ life as a closeted athlete for ESPN magazine, I learned  about the intricate relationship that offensive linemen have. To succeed, they must be so attuned to each other that they can communicate without speaking, making it that much harder for a gay athlete to keep a secret from the “brothers” on the line with whom he spends most of his year. I spoke with other offensive linemen for this story to get a sense of what is at stake at that moment when the ball is snapped.

Kwame Harris on the 49er offensive line

When the huddle breaks and the offensive line jogs to the scrimmage line, most are silent and few look their opponents in the eyes. Instead they scan the other team’s bodies, comparing what they see in front of them with what they learned watching hours and hours of film. They know who is the tallest, who the strongest and who the fastest. And each player knows well the idiosyncrasies of the guy whose nose is inches from his own. He knows if he is early or late on the snap, has studied the way he cranes his neck before a blitz, and he knows his injuries. He also knows the injuries of the men on his side of the line, who is feeling strong that day and whose shoulder is bothering him, so that the whole line coordinates to cover that weakness, a weakness the defense is sure to pick up on pretty fast.

“If he speed rushed you last time, he’s going to come on the inside or bull rush you the next time,” said Bob Whitfield, an offensive tackle who played most of his career for the Atlanta Falcons. “You’ve got to push him out. You’ve got to push him. If he’s got a bad shoulder and every time I pop that shoulder he’s wincing, guess what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna whop that shoulder.”

At the snap, the offensive line punches up while running backwards as the defense presses into the pocket around the quarterback. Former Buffalo Bills left tackle Steve Hoyem called it, “a Sumo wrestling match. Whoever has the most push will win that battle. You target the numbers on his jersey. You try to get your hands inside under his pads. If the ref sees your hands holding on to his shoulder pads you’ll get called on holding. But if you get up under those pads, you can get away with a lot.”

In the screaming in the stadium before an important play, the offensive linemen can’t hear the snap. Sometimes to stay in sync, as they line up they hold hands. At the drop of the hand, they surge together. The goal is to hold that line just four seconds, enough time for the quarterback to step back and the receiver to get down field. Both teams are usually so evenly matched, the advantage one has over the other is slight. With everything on the line in those four seconds, a slightly sharper focus, or a stronger bond between the players provides that tenths of a second edge.

“Where is the game played the fastest? It’s not at the wide receivers, not at the running back. It’s at the line,” said Tyrone Willingham, former Stanford head coach. “You ask a lot and expect a lot from your offensive line.”

Despite how much is asked of them, the offensive line doesn’t get much glory. Their success is measured by their failures: how many times they draw the team off sides and how often the quarterback gets sacked. This anti-hero status is part of what binds them. They’re a band of brothers who make a stand against the onrushing forces; each movement has to be carefully choreographed for the whole unit to succeed.

They train together, eat together, recreate together on the road and during the holidays and in the summers. They are the groomsmen at each others’ weddings and godfathers of each others’ children. Knowing each other in this way builds cohesion, and the warrior mentality. “We practice, bleed, sweat and hurt together,” said Kwame Harris, former offensive tackle for the 49ers. “For defensive linemen it’s a you vs. me battle. With offensive linemen it’s us vs. him.”

Kwame Harris knows about the intense bonds of brothers in arms. Among him and his two athletically gifted brothers, Duevorn and Orien, and all of whom played professional football, Kwame was the best. A unanimous All-American selection in high school, the most sought after college recruit, winner of the Morris Trophy as the top offensive lineman in the Pac-10, and selected 26th in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft. In his third year at the 49ers, Kwame’s game started to fall apart. He allowed nine sacks and committed fifteen penalties including seven false starts in 2005, and allowed eight sacks with four holding penalties and one false start the following year. While Kwame tried a number of things to improve his game, as I described in the ESPN magazine article, this once promising player’s career sputtered to a close. He had a disappointing 2008 at the Oakland Raiders after the 49ers let him go, retiring from football at the age of 29.

What few people outside Kwame’s family knew is that he blamed this downturn on staying in the closet. As I quoted him in the ESPN magazine article about his football career, “If the world had been more comfortable with gay players on the football field, it wouldn’t have been so consuming when it came up,” he said, with an edge of fury in his voice. “Everything would not have been filtered through that, being gay. Like when I had a bad game or if we lost or if I did something awful, it was because I was gay. It was the easiest way for me to beat myself up, being gay. I know it affected my play,””

NFL players will tell you that a homosexual cannot be a warrior. Although Kwame Harris is outraged by this prejudice, his personal experience supports it. In a battle where a tenth of a second is the margin between success and failure, for Kwame that tenth of a second was the fact that he was scared that someone in football would find out he was gay. Or that tenth of a second was that his fellow linesman already knew and hated him for it.

To me, this is one of the many costs of the Don’t Ask/Don’t tell attitude of the NFL. The coaches spend a lot of time building this wordless cohesion between the players, creating this brotherly bond, but if one of them is keeping a secret despite the intense forced intimacy of the offensive line, does that hamper his ability to get that 10th of a second advantage? By making the players’ homosexuality something that cannot be discussed and therefore is not tolerated, that tenth of second becomes the moment when all of it is on the line.

Interviewing Kwame Harris

May 29th, 2013 No Comments

 

 

 

Kwame Harris said he needed to meet me before he’d agree to being featured in an article about his life as a gay player in the NFL for ESPN magazine.  Many journalists had contacted him after his preliminary hearing on domestic violence charges outed this former 49er in January, me among them. He’d turned them all down.

 

We met at Four Barrel Coffee on Valencia Street in San Francisco. He drove up from Stanford, where he was completing the undergraduate work he’d delayed in his junior year when the 49ers drafted him in the first round. Kwame had prepared carefully before meeting me.  He’d read the articles on my website, something that no other subject I’ve written about had bothered to do.  Fitting for someone who had switched his major from music to English when he re-enrolled at Stanford.

 

He said he liked my writing style and quoted a few phrases from my articles from memory. “In each of these articles you have a personal interest in the story,” he said. “Why would you be interested in the problems of a gay man?”

 

I was speechless for a minute.  No subject of a story has turned the tables on me like Kwame Harris did.  In every other article the subject is so pleased to be profiled he or she inquires no further about the writer.

 

I told him I’d grown up in San Francisco, fourth generation in fact.  All of the women in my family had gay male friends who were just part of the world we lived in.  Their sexuality was never a topic of conversation. They broke up or coupled up just like our straight friends.  I thought this was the way of the world until I left the tolerant atmosphere of Noe Valley.

I had always had gay friends too.  One of my closest was Scott, a man who was my boyfriend before he embraced the fact that he was gay. I was in the room with him when he phoned his parents to tell them he was gay and that he had AIDS.  And I was with him when he died. I understood, as much as a straight woman can, the problems of a closeted gay man.

After I told him this, Kwame agreed to the article. I said we’d need to speak three times, but it turned out we saw each other seven. I’d meet him at a Starbucks at the southern end of the Stanford campus and we’d drive up Stanford Avenue in his battered gray SUV, the Yukon Denali he bought with his 49er signing bonus a decade before. Then we’d wander the campus to find a place to talk.  At 5’4” I’d hustle along, my stubby legs pumping to match the effortless stride of his much longer ones.

Kwame busted my stereotype of football players in the first conversation. If I had met him not knowing about his struggles inside the NFL, the fact that he was gay would have been about the fifth or sixth quality I’d used in describing him. He is a talented athlete, a gifted musician, a trained chef, someone who reads with great insight, a man with a strong analytical mind and he’s gay.

He asked me almost as many questions as I asked him. His were more philosophical than personal, although my answers often veered into personal history.  Seated together at a table in the student union or on the patio of the English Department, I’d forget how much larger he was than me.  He’d lean in as he asked a question about the true nature of love or one about the impossibility of relationships. Those were the topics that interested him the most, although we ended up discussing cooking, the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the nature of family, true brotherhood and friendship.

The story that posted today focuses on his struggles staying in the closet, how he played at the edges of wanting to be known and fearing that he would be. There are some who will judge him for his inconsistency in both wanting to taunt the coaches with the truth of who he was, and the terror of being known. What I wanted for the story is for it to be a true depiction of that struggle and the costs both to the man and to the team for this “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” way of handling a gay player.  I see Kwame as very brave to be as candid as he was about how he played on that edge.