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.