True pioneer

When Michael Sam announced he was gay last February, James Hester couldn’t help thinking of one of his closest friends.

The author and publicist said he has known many gay men who played in the NFL. The one he knew best was Roy Simmons.

Simmons, a former offensive lineman with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, is still the only NFL player to announce that he was HIV positive and was the second former player to come out as gay. He made that announcement on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1992 with Hester waiting for him off stage.

When Sam came out of the closet, some NFL scouts, owners and players declared this a mistake, saying the Missouri defensive end had irreparably hurt his draft stock and locker rooms would not be ready to handle this.

Within days, however, endorsement deal offers started to pile up. Sam signed autograph deals with five trading card companies to sell his merchandise. His agent said he was inundated with calls from various companies expressing interest in Sam. When the Westboro Baptist Church planned a protest of Sam at a Missouri basketball game where the football team would be accepting its Cotton Bowl trophy, Missouri students formed a perimeter around the stadium and locked arms to block out the protestors.

Hester thought Simmons’ announcement 22 years earlier would garner a similar influx of support. Instead, it was met by indifference. The NFL did nothing. LGBT organizations, many of which were just starting at the time, did nothing.

“No phones rang,” Hester said. “No one asked Roy to jump on the bandwagon. Not one speaking engagement. I blame those organizations as well. The gay organizations in Roy’s journey are as much to blame as the NFL.”

When Sam made his announcement, Hester and Simmons’ on-again, off-again friendship was in one of the longest lulls it had experienced. They hadn’t seen each other in seven years and hadn’t spoken in six.

Simmons had tried to contact Hester in November 2013. The ex-NFL lineman was sick. He told a pastor who was close to Hester that he missed their friendship and wanted to talk. Hester wasn’t ready to make amends at that point, even though Simmons’ brother had told him Simmons was sick.

In February, prompted by Sam’s announcement, Hester finally did reach out to Simmons. His call went to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.

One week later, Simmons died due to complications from pneumonia. He was 57, and he died alone in a chair in a rented Bronx apartment.

In the past years, multiple athletes in major sports have come out of the closet. Jason Collins became the first openly gay player to play in the NBA. University of Massachusetts sophomore Derrick Gordon became the first Division I basketball player to come out last April. U.S. soccer player Robbie Rogers, then a midfielder with Leeds United, made the announcement on his personal website. Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL before being cut by the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys last season.

But Hester wants to make something clear. Sam, he said, is not the pioneer.

“Michael Sam is being embraced like he’s a hero,” he said. “He’s a gay (25-year-old). There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just living life. All the forefathers already made it easy for Michael. It’s not a shock any more. He’s not the first. Michael Sam is not the first gay player to play in the NFL.”

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When the Giants selected Simmons in the eighth round of the 1979 draft, he was engaged to his high school sweetheart. By the time he met Hester at The Front Row, a sports bar owned by two of his Giants’ teammates, his fiancée was pregnant with their daughter.

The 6-foot-3, 260-pound lineman was one of the best athletes on the team. Wide receiver Alvin Garrett, who called Simmons one of his top five best friends, remembers that Simmons used to beat running backs in sprints. He took over as the starting left guard following his rookie season and his teammates adored him.

They called him Sugar Bear because of how he looked when he laughed and smiled. Garrett said Simmons was one of the most giving people he’d ever met and said other teammates would echo that sentiment.

When Simmons moved up to New Jersey, he bought a townhouse in Rutherford and brought everyone he could with him. His mother, three of his brothers, his cousin and her son, his fiancée and two of his teammates all lived in the same house.

“I’m just an average white man from this suburban little town,” Hester said. “Now I was in this one house, this big family. He tried to be like a father to his three younger brothers.”

Brad Benson’s feelings toward Simmons mirrored Garrett’s. He started next to Simmons at left tackle and said that Simmons was one of the best athletes, and best people, he has ever met. He added that Simmons was one of the funniest guys on the team.

“I used to love listening to Roy and J.T. go at it,” Benson said, referring to lineman J.T. Turner. “J.T. was like an older brother or something, just getting on him. It was just so funny. It was adorable. I can see that expression. He had really big eyelids and his eyelids would drop when he would smile. He did look just like a big sugar bear.”

But behind that endearing smile was the inner torment that crippled Simmons’ NFL career. Partying, sex and drugs were his demons. Not to mention, he was still in the closet, battling his own sexuality. He peaked in his second season in the NFL. Despite his athleticism, he lost his starting job the following year and was out of the league in 1982.

The Washington Redskins signed him to a deal in 1983, and Simmons got to play in the Super Bowl that season. Hester said Simmons gave everyone he knew a ticket to that game. It was the last time he ever played in the NFL.

When Simmons died, media outlets rushed to talk to any former teammates they could find. All have said they did not know he was gay and did not know the issues he was dealing with when he played. Many have said they would have supported him had he come out of the closet while he was playing.

Hester is more skeptical. So is Garrett.

“Football’s a macho sport,” Garrett said. “I don’t think that would go too well in a locker room. You’ve got guys walking around naked. That probably would be a little uncomfortable. I know it would have been uncomfortable for myself.”

After he left the NFL, Simmons eventually moved to San Francisco, beginning perhaps his most severe period of drug addiction.

Hester later got a high-end public relations job there and reached out to Simmons, not knowing what he would find.

“What I saw in San Francisco was really sad,” he said. “I’ve known this guy since I’m 13 years old. Here he is in this horrible room. I remember he did some really stupid things with roommates and drugs. Coke, pot, alcohol, crack. He wasn’t a prostitute, but he did prostitute himself at times for money for drugs.”

Hester convinced Simmons it was time for a change. That was when he suggested Simmons go on TV and announce he was gay.

Simmons went with Hester back to New York City. He lived on Long Island and went to rehab while Hester lived in Manhattan, with his career continuing to blossom. Simmons got clean and decided announcing he was gay could help with the fresh start. Hester hoped it would create a network of support that would keep Simmons on his feet.

He came out of the closet on national television. And nothing happened.

“Thinking about it,” Hester said, “that had to make him feel like, ‘I just exposed myself. No one wants me.’”

Simmons regressed. He went back to San Francisco, but Hester eventually brought him back to New York. In 1997, Hester let Simmons borrow his new Mercedes to go pick up his mother on Long Island so they could go to a friend’s funeral.

“It wound up in a crack den,” Hester said. “He went on this party binge. Ten days later, he got arrested in my car.”

They didn’t speak for three years, until Hester moved to Martha’s Vineyard. He realized it was a place he could keep a close watch on Simmons and offered to let him stay in the finished basement at his house.

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They continued trying to build support for Simmons. He went back to rehab, got clean again, and Hester decided to have him start working on his autobiography, which he helped him co-write. In 2003, Simmons told The New York Times that he was HIV positive. The book was due to be published in 2005. In December 2004, Hester caught Simmons smoking crack in the basement. He kicked him out.

The book, however, drew positive publicity and led to other newspapers across the country featuring Simmons. Hester soon invited his friend back into his home.

“We’re talking about all of this dark stuff, but they didn’t call him Sugar Bear for nothing,” Hester said. “Roy’s funny. Roy’s my friend. I enjoyed him being around. I really did. If I didn’t, he wouldn’t have been around.”

But the new support from the book release quickly dissipated. Hester finally seemed to reach that point where he didn’t enjoy having Simmons around in 2007. There was no specific reason. Supporting Simmons became too difficult a daily task.

“He just overstayed his welcome,” Hester said. “It was too much. It was too much volunteer work.”

Hester stayed in touch with Simmons’ family despite not talking with Simmons himself. In 2008, while Hester was in Italy, he got a call from Simmons in the middle of the night. Simmons needed money to get to his hometown of Savannah, Ga. His mother had died, and he wanted to attend the funeral. Hester declined.

“I was like, ‘No Roy. If you can find out how to get money to pay for drugs, you can find out how to get to Savannah. Figure it out,’” Hester said. “That was it. I called the family and gave my condolences.”

Seven years later, Sam made his announcement, leading to Hester’s last attempted reconciliation. It was too late. Simmons died alone in a chair in the Bronx apartment he was renting one week after Hester’s phone call.

After learning that Simmons died, Hester went to the Bronx to see where his friend had lived. What he found, he said, was similar to what he saw of Simmons’ life in San Francisco. He chose not to disclose any intimate details of Simmons’ apartment or neighborhood because he thought it would tarnish Simmons’ legacy.

“It’s not a good scene,” Hester said. “It was a quite regular kind of Roy life. It was sad. His neighbors were not well people.”

Simmons family didn’t have insurance and could not afford to fly his body down to Savannah so he could be buried with his mother. The NFL Players Care Foundation, however, helped with the costs, which totaled about $25,000.

His former teammates were shocked and saddened to learn Simmons had suffered so much. They had all lost touch with him, and he never reached out to them. They said they would have helped had he asked. They remember how giving he was, how much he helped the people he was close to.

But they also saw that he never overcame the same demons that haunted him during his time in the NFL. He didn’t reach out because, they guessed, he wasn’t comfortable doing that. He wasn’t comfortable with who he was.

“I guess that’s part of that football culture again,” Benson said. “Of being too proud to reach out and ask for help. His case is a little different because he was gay, and he was probably concerned.”

Garrett echoed Benson’s sentiments. The last time he spoke with Simmons was immediately after his appearance on “The Phil Donahue Show.” He didn’t know Simmons had HIV, that he was living in New York again or the shape he was in until he was interviewed for this story. He thought the man he described as one of his top five best friends still lived in San Francisco. He figured Simmons never reached out because he believed his teammates wouldn’t accept his lifestyle.

But the opposite never happened either.

Simmons’ teammates didn’t check in on him after he left the league. He got no response from the NFL or any LGBT organizations when he announced he was gay or when he announced he had HIV. His family and Hester were the only people who continually reached out to him, and even Hester hadn’t seen him in seven years.

And on Feb. 20 — eleven days after Sam’s announcement and in the midst of the flood of support for the soon-to-be first gay man drafted into the NFL — one of the league’s first openly gay former players, and the first to announce he was HIV-positive, died alone in a chair in his rented Bronx apartment.

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