A&U was saddened to hear of the passing of former NFL player Roy Simmons, who shared his experiences as a gay man openly living with HIV in our February 2006 cover story.At the time of the interview, he had just published a memoir, Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet.
Former NFL Player Roy Simmons Speaks Out About His Sexual Assault, Addictions, and Positive Diagnosis—and Proves that It’s Never Too Late for the Truth
by Lester Strong
Roy Simmons is a big man—and not just physically. Well over six feet in height, and weighing 290 pounds in his prime, it’s easy to see why for several years he played professional football as offensive lineman for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, including Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. But meet him in person and it’s clear he’s also a big person in spirit—open, gregarious, willing to share his thoughts and feelings about a life whose forty-nine years have taken him to some pretty frightening places, including testing HIV-positive in 1997.
Interviewed recently about his just-published memoir Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction, and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet, in which he has put his life on view for everyone to see, he made it clear he hasn’t always been so open, commenting, “It’s something for me to be this personal, you know. Even now, it’s gut-wrenching for me to think about the things I put in this book. But I had to do it. I had to.”
Simmons also made it clear—as he does in the book—that HIV/AIDS is a comparative newcomer in his life. “I knew AIDS existed, just like everyone else,” he said during the interview. “Friends of mine were infected and died of it, gay men. But I didn’t get tested and didn’t get tested. I didn’t want to think about it. I had so many secrets I didn’t want to think about. I was so busy running away from myself I didn’t have the time to take care of myself.”
Indeed, Out of Bounds is all about secrets, parts of himself and his life Simmons kept carefully hidden for many years from family, friends, lovers, coaches, and football teammates: not just his HIV status, but that he is gay, that he was raped when he was eleven years-old, that he was addicted to crack cocaine, that he lived on the down low for much of his adult life, indulging in promiscuous sex with both men and women. It’s a gut-wrenching book for readers also, and a cautionary tale about the price one can pay—including AIDS—for feeling one has to keep such secrets. The interview took place in a quiet office of the book’s publisher, Carroll & Graf, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan—quite a contrast to the tumultuous life described in the book.
Simmons was born in 1956, in Savannah, Georgia, where he was reared along with several brothers and a sister mostly by his maternal grandmother since his parents never married and his mother was away for long stretches up north, where she worked to help support her children. But the tale he tells in Out of Bounds really opens in October 1967, when he was raped by a neighbor while helping with some household chores.
As with many traumatic events, the act itself was soon over, but the consequences were not. “I was in a lot of pain those first few days after the rape,” he states in the book. “I felt as if I had this huge weight on my shoulders and it was pressing straight down, crushing the breath out of me, crushing me to death.” Eventually he told a cousin of his mother what had happened, and word filtered back to his own home. People were horrified and outraged, but nothing was done. The neighbor was well respected, and “there was no man in my household to take this fight where it needed to go,” he says in the book. “We weren’t educated folks….This sort of thing was completely out of our sphere. I’m not offering that as an excuse for the fact that no one in my family stood up and became my champion. I’m just telling you how things were.”
Asked during the interview if he had reached some kind of peace over being raped, Simmons replied: “Does anyone really have any peace about it? You accept it. You forgive the person because you’ve got to do that to have some type of peace anyway. You just go on with daily life.”
But it was a daily life dogged by guilt, terror, shame, and anger—plus a confusing attraction to the man who had assaulted him, an attraction that meant the two had sex on several other occasions. “Looking back,” Simmons states in Out of Bounds, “this relationship…was probably the beginning of my lifelong tendency to keep secrets. As I continued to grow up after the rape, I found I could withhold more and more of myself from the people I knew.” Damaging behavior that led to even more damaging behavior later on.
Fast forward to Simmons’ college years in the mid-1970s. He attended Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, on a football scholarship. By this time he was no stranger to alcohol, drugs, or sex. If the rape and its aftermath taught him about keeping secrets, his time at Georgia Tech taught him the details of navigating a double life. On the surface, he was a successful jock, a member of Georgia Tech’s first black fraternity, popular with his male buddies as well as the ladies, a regular guy who liked to party, play football, and bed young women. On the sly, however, he sought out men for sex. To hide this, he adopted a kind of eccentric behavior where he often disappeared for a day or so, then showed up again like such disappearances were perfectly normal, inventing stories no one could trace to explain his absences. And to deal with his own fears and anxiety, he sedated himself with booze and drugs.
These habits followed him right into professional football in 1979, the perfect camouflage he needed during the seven or so years he played in that macho arena. No one except his male sexual partners ever found out about the gay side of his life; no one probably suspected—even the young woman he had known since grade school with whom he fathered a daughter born in 1981, while he was with the New York Giants.
By the mid-1980s, Simmons’ life had become very chaotic, ruled by a frenzied need for booze, drugs, and sex. “Before the sex I usually got intoxicated or something—drank some beer, smoked a joint, smoked some coke,” he commented during the interview. “There was nothing done without booze or drugs.” His years of making big money in pro football were over, and he needed to support himself and his drug habit in whatever ways he could, including eventually prostituting himself at peep shows.
By the early 1990s, Simmons had been outted as gay to his family by a young cousin to whom he confided about a long-term affair with one of his male lovers, and in 1992 he voluntarily outted himself to the world at large on the TV show Donahue. He had tried twelve-step programs, and “was ready for God to restore my sanity,” he says in Out of Bounds. But he was still hooked on drugs, and after one binge on crack in 1993 while living in the Bay Area even contemplated killing himself by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Then in 1997, he started experiencing minor but recurring physical ailments. His doctor convinced him to take a comprehensive physical exam, which revealed he was HIV-positive. “I was shocked,” he states in the book, “but at the same time, how could I be surprised? Given all the reckless sex I’d had—on drugs, off drugs—why should I have ever expected to escape that damned virus.”
Fast forward once again, this time nine years to 2006—and nine years of living with HIV. Asked during the interview where he’s at these days, Simmons replied: “Well, it hasn’t been easy, but I don’t have all those secrets anymore, about being gay or having HIV. In 2003, I went public about my HIV, in a story in The New York Times. My family and friends already knew, and I hoped reading about me would help other professional athletes who feel they have to lead secret lives like I did. I’m a little more knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS these days. I got HIV through promiscuous sex, and my attitude is simple. It’s what I tell my brothers, cousins, and friends: Wrap it up, close it up, whatever you’ve got to do, but be safe. Always use a condom. I know that’s easier said than done in the heat of passion. But that moment of heat can be a life or death moment, so be safe. Also, get educated about HIV, and get tested. Don’t ignore it all like I did for so long.
“I’m no longer sexually promiscuous, and I’ve been clean and sober for quite some time. But like I said in the book: Never say never to an addict. I’ve had my ups and downs over the years. Right now I’m in a good place. But I take it one day at a time. There isn’t any other way to do it.”
After Simmons was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1997, he was put on antiretroviral treatment. Then in 2003, at the behest of a close friend named Jimmy Hester, whom he has known since his days with the New York Giants, he underwent a fasting and detox program at a holistic health retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to remove the leftover poisons from so many years of mistreating his body. He’s monitored medically on a regular basis, but is no longer on antiretrovirals or other AIDS medicines. “I wouldn’t suggest anyone go off their AIDS meds,” Simmons said in the interview. “But I’m in pretty good physical shape these days. I’m still HIV-positive, and I have mild neuropathy in my feet that I have to be careful about. But my viral load is undetectable, and I’ve been told by my doctor that the HIV strain I have is not aggressive. I feel like it’s up to me to keep it like that on a daily basis by how I take care of myself.”
He continued: “I do have some advice for those living with HIV or AIDS, though, and it’s this: You’re alive, so you’ve been spared. What are you going to do now? Continue to beat yourself up and take your immune system down even further? This disease is fierce, so be kind to yourself. I think prayer is good. I don’t think a person should ever stop praying, or should ever lose hope or faith. And sometimes you need to restore yourself. If you can, go to a retreat and deal with your body, your mind, and your spirit because they all need replenishing. But in any case, learn to relax and be grateful you’re alive. Learn to be good to yourself.”
Good advice, indeed, from someone who learned his lessons the hard way.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.