gay bowl huddle

From humble beginnings, Gay Bowl attracts NFL sponsors and touches lives

gay bowl huddle
Denver, Colorado CNN  — 

Questions were asked. Word spread. Kaepernick became the most talked about athlete in America. A villain to some, a hero to others.

Electric runs like the 98-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown in front of 108,000 at Penn State, or the 95-yard score at home against Northwestern, or the touchdown catches of 53 and 41 yards against Indiana State peppered his college football career.

Bryant left Purdue University in 2007 as the school’s career leader in all-purpose yards, setting multiple Big Ten conference records before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Yet just a year later, the playmaker was out of football, walking away from an offer from the Tennessee Titans and reportedly ignoring a call from the Dallas Cowboys.

“I came out when I was 24 or 25,” Bryant tells CNN Sport of his decision to live openly as a gay athlete about a year after ending his NFL pursuit. “It was more of my choice, I didn’t try and push it.”

“I never wanted to be a figurehead for a movement; I don’t want to be that guy.”

Dorien Bryant set records in four years at Purdue University, but walked away from an NFL contract to live an openly gay life.

READ: Black Power Salute to Colin Kaepernick: What’s changed?

For the first time since childhood, Bryant, who also ran track at Purdue, took a break from sports and focused on himself. Football became an afterthought.

“It was either football or being able to live my life the way I want to live my life, and I’m happier than I ever was,” he says. “I love football, but if I can’t be me then it’s not worth it.”

Now Bryant is back in the sport as his true self, featured as the go-to receiver for the 2017 champion New York Warriors at Gay Bowl, the annual tournament of the National Gay Flag Football League.

Fifty-seven teams from 22 cities battled it out in 100-degree Denver weather last month, in seven-on-seven matches that provided a remarkable level of athleticism for a recreational league.

Bryant is one of at least seven players on the Warriors with college football experience, recruited by teammate Wade Davis, a former Tennessee Titans signee who won an NFL Europe title with the Berlin Thunder.

“The competition has progressively gotten better,” says Davis, 41, a figurehead in the league who takes the Warriors’ quest to repeat as Gay Bowl titleholders seriously. “The other teams have had to figure out how to get better players and better coaching.”

"I'm happier than I ever was," said Byrant (#9). "I love football, but if I can't be me then it's not worth it."

Over the past 18 years Gay Bowl has grown from a three-team tournament played in the dirt field of a Hollywood high school to a three-day event held in rotating cities boasting 35 sponsors, including United Airlines, Fidelity Investments, Sheraton Hotels and UPS.

Rosters represent a mix of races, genders and sexual orientations – and welcome straight players, though their numbers are capped by a quota.

Everything is well organized, from the shuttle buses, to the singing of the Canadian and American anthems, to referees in striped uniforms who sound a lot like their NFL counterparts.

Games are governed by a 57-page rule book, and formed by two 30-minute halves, with tackling replaced by the removal of an opponent’s flag belt.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would get this big,” says co-founder Jim Buzinski, “but now it’s so institutionalized. Cities are bidding for this.”

Honolulu, in fact, recently beat out bids from Austin and Toronto for the 2020 games, while New York will host its second Gay Bowl next year.

The New England Patriots were sponsors of last year’s Gay Bowl in Boston, with owner Robert Kraft speaking at the closing ceremony. This year the Denver Broncos made a financial contribution and worked with organizers to boost the tournament’s reach.

“This shows that an issue the NFL probably would have avoided at some point in the past, thinking it was controversial, is now so accepted in mainstream that it seemed a no-brainer to be a part of,” says Buzinski, who also co-founded the news service Outsports. “It is so routine that no one cares.”

“These are all football players and football fans, which is kind of a good business decision. It shows the progress that has been made.”