As a linebacker helping lead Yale to Ivy League championships, while he was starting with the mid-1980s Dallas Cowboys, for nearly all of his life, Jeff Rohrer kept a secret.
Or more precisely, he kept lying to himself.
But once Rohrer started telling the truth to himself and those in his life, he found that he never had anything to fear.
‘What am I going to do, come out then?’
The 53rd overall pick in the 1982 draft, Rohrer played at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. He was a reserve for his first three seasons, but started 40 games from 1985-87. During training camp in 1988, Rohrer needed surgery for a bulging disc in his lower back, and missed the entire season.
In 1989, the Cowboys hired Jimmy Johnson, and Rohrer was cut as Johnson remade the roster.
During all of that time, Rohrer did his best to play the role of “straight” football player with teammates and family, internally wrestling with what he knew was his truth: He is gay.
“Living with my family in that [Southern California] community, it was not acceptable,” Rohrer told OutSports. “That was not part of the plan, and it wasn’t going to happen. When I went to Yale, it was the same thing there. And then I got drafted by the Cowboys. What am I going to do, come out then?”
And long-held stereotypes didn’t help.
“Football is a gladiator sport. It’s very, very physical, very tough. At least at this point in our society, toughness is not associated with the gay community. It’s not a natural fit to a lot of people,” Rohrer said.
Despite his fears, Rohrer doesn’t recall hearing any gay slurs in the Cowboys locker room.
Rohrer was married to a woman (they’ve now been divorced for a decade), had two children, and lived a life he enjoyed; after his NFL career ended, he moved back to California and is now a successful television commercial producer.
“So many nights I cried myself to sleep, feeling like I was the Wolfman, or Jekyll and Hyde, or Frankenstein, some kind of monster that only comes out when it’s a full moon, always living in the shadows,” he said.
But just a few years ago, now in his mid-50s, Rohrer finally stopped living in the shadows.
Teammates accept Rohrer after he comes out
Three years ago, Rohrer went to a popular gay bar in West Hollywood after work and met a man named Joshua Ross.
This weekend, the two will be married. Rohrer is the first known former NFL player to be part of a same-sex marriage.
Rohrer came out to a few of his former teammates, but word spread quickly to others. He’s been nearly universally supported, in a way he never imagined.
It makes him emotional to talk about it.
“The kindness of my friends and my family and my teammates … It’s just been [expletive] ridiculous how nice they have been, and how supportive. And how they don’t care about any of that. They just love me, they always have. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed.”
Longtime NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, who recently retired, was part of Dallas’ public relations staff when Rohrer was with the franchise. He acknowledged to the New York Times it would have been taboo for a player to come out as gay during the era Rohrer played, but that the NFL and member teams have worked “to ensure tolerance and inclusion.”
“Jeff was a bright and very personable guy that everyone liked,” Aiello said. “People who really know Jeff will be happy for him, and proud of him for living his truth.”
‘I feel like I’m 16. I feel revived’
Rohrer will celebrate his 60th birthday on Christmas (at least one invitee to the wedding thought Rohrer was joking about who he was marrying and that it was a way to announce a 60th birthday party), but said he feels “like I’m 16. I feel revived” as he readies to begin his new life with Ross, who is a skin-care expert.
During Rohrer’s time with the Cowboys, the team wasn’t too successful. But as a commercial producer, he’s seen his work play during the Super Bowl, including ads for Doritos, Heinz, and the NFL – he was behind the “Super Bowl Baby Legends” commercial that ran during Super Bowl LI.