Bi Book Club: The Yards Between Us: A Memoir of Life, Love and Football
May 18, 2023
Photo credit: Pexels/Jean-Daniel Francoeur
My favorite thing about books is their ability to transport us to worlds and perspectives outside of our own bubbles. Through books, we can see life with entirely new eyes and connect to people whose circumstances are seemingly so different from our own.
I have been a fan of Ryan “RK” Russell since he first appeared on my radar when he came out as the first bi NFL player. Through his essays and poetry in Queer Majority, I glimpsed the man behind the words and felt a sense of camaraderie. So when I heard he was writing a memoir, The Yards Between Us: A Memoir of Life, Love and Football (2023), I knew I had to read it.
The Yards Between Us tells a story that is nothing like my own, and yet it made me feel understood. On the surface, a nerdy small white girl has little in common with a six-foot-five-inch tall black NFL player. But with his memoir, Russell taps into the common humanity that binds us as all.
RK begins his book by immediately naming his bisexuality. He doesn’t dance around it. He uses the B word. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to see him describe himself in such a healthy, matter-of-fact way at the outset. I’ve read countless memoirs of bi people, and this may be a historic bi moment where the author announces it to the world up front. Instant kudos, Ryan.
Reading the tale of his life, my heart ached for this man in every imaginable way. The emotional rollercoaster he put me through is unfair, and yet I loved every moment of it. He recounts his first real romantic relationship with Trina in sixth grade. RK brought the little details of their young love to life so vividly that entire stadiums of book-nerds will be stanning this precious relationship. Trina seemed like a hilariously blunt badass who knew exactly what she wanted — and it was RK. She stuck with him through thick and thin. When they grew together my heart swelled, and when they eventually ended, my heart may have shattered. Russell captures the guileless authenticity of first love as he takes us along through all the stages, from nervous hand-holding to their first kiss after five whole months of official dating, and even losing their virginities.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t walked in Russell’s exact shoes, because he put me in them. The way his heart seemed to shine around her and bring out a better side of himself resonated with the joys of every great love story.
RK’s love life was filled with plenty of women during his challenging teenage years. It wasn’t until he found himself aroused by gay porn that his sense of self was suddenly turned upside down and sent reeling. Trying to reconcile this attraction to men with his feelings toward his then-love interest, Whitney, it became impossible to regain his balance without a word for this weird new thing he had discovered about himself. Had all his past feelings been a lie? Was he confused? How could he be turned on by gay porn while still wanting to be romantically and sexually involved with Whitney?
This is the internal crisis countless bi people have gone through, myself very much included. I have been asked time and again how I didn’t realize I was bi until my 20s and reading RK’s familiar confusion and self-doubt rang so incredibly true to my own experience.
As time passes, and he finds himself enjoyably involved in a sexual relationship with another man, also named Ryan, he asks whether it’s truly possible to be attracted to both men and women. Ryan, who is gay, replies that while he does believe it’s possible, all the men he’s ever known who have said they were bi ended up on a one-way ticket to gay-town. This is a common stereotype about bi men — that they dip their toe in the LGBT waters by first labeling themselves as bi, when in truth they’re simply gay, and eventually come out as such. The problem is, it’s not true. It’s true some of the time, of course, but just as often it’s the other way around, with men who think they’re gay realizing that they are, in fact, bi.
After a while, Russell decides to open up to his best friend, Joe, an honest, no-nonsense guy. The scene RK paints, as he comes out to his best friend while terrified, only for Joe, absorbed in his stupid Madden video game, to sit there unresponsive, is as hilarious as it is frustrating and infuriating. As RK weighs whether his best friend will accept him after this giant reveal, and pours out his heart, all Joe can do is tap away so nonchalantly on his controller. But Joe did accept RK, and turned out to be one of my favorite characters from the memoir. Scenes of this nature — a coming-out between two big, macho football jocks — are so rarely portrayed in popular culture, where bi men are often depicted as femme or fragile. This is the kind of truly diverse representation we desperately need more of.
As vicariously exuberant as I felt during RK’s youthful love with Trina, when RK falls for a different man, only to have his heart beaten to bits, the rage I felt was unmatched. Regrettable though this chapter of the story is, Russell did a beautiful job illustrating how naturally and organically he fell in love with a man. We often get scrutinized in bi media either for not having enough proof of someone’s bisexuality, or having too much proof. What sets RK’s memoir apart was that it showcased the three dimensionality of his bisexuality from every angle, along with all of his relationships. It showed a raw side of RK that allowed him to be vulnerable with romantic partners, no matter their sex.
Later in the narrative, once he’s an NFL player, Russell decides to live his truth and come out as bi, despite the possibility of jeopardizing his football career. He no longer wants to hide his reality or live in fear of being found out. RK Russell made history as the first openly bi NFL player. That’s a big deal, especially because of how rife male sports is with hyper-masculinity and the toxic culture it can give rise to. RK is not someone who wakes up and chooses chaos in the morning. He just wanted to be himself, but to do that took real bravery. I realize that “bravery” is an accolade too casually thrown around these days, but consider the situation: Russell was a famous NFL player. Millions watched him every week. People could buy his jersey. Middle-aged fathers everywhere could tell you weird statistics about this man! And he just openly told the world, in a year while Donald Trump ran this country, that he is bi. That took guts.
And not only did he come out, but he came out in an article on ESPN. He could have easily slid it to a queer publication that most football fans typically don’t visit, but no. He took it exactly where his fans and community would see and handed the information directly to them. That’s a whole new level of wild, inspiring audacity. And it caused a deeper conversation in the sports world that led to a growth of the fans, who in large part embraced Russell.
When RK came out, he was exposed in a way he never had been before. He had no way of knowing who would have a problem with him being bi, and his career turned out to be short-lived thereafter. There are several speculations as to why he never got a call back from any teams after he came out. It could have been his bisexuality, but RK concedes that it might also not have been, and I have enormous respect for him not jumping the gun to play the victim.
I would be remiss to bid farewell to this beautiful bi book without touching on RK’s mother. From page one, we know RK loves his mama. They have a special bond and he has such devotion to her, sometimes to a fault. Due to her relationship with his father, RK is wary telling her he is bi until the night before the ESPN article goes live. At first, she is shaken. She doesn’t lash out or berate him, but she does seem disappointed and insinuates that he is in some sense less than for being queer, which cuts him deeply. In time, however, we see her come around and eventually accept her son exactly as he is, and even apologize for her initial reaction. It is wonderful to see that the first response isn’t always the one that sticks. He is able to have a healthy and open relationship with his mother, and the book ends with his family together celebrating Thanksgiving.
Unlike a novel, this story is what it is without choice, and RK’s dedication to exposing his entire life, and not just the parts that make him look good, turns The Yards Between Us into a pure page-turner. He also embraces his bisexuality instead of sweeping it under the rug. He shows us his scientific method of testing his own bisexuality. He isn’t afraid to explain exactly what was going through his mind as he struggled with these complex emotions and feelings. He gave the reader a genuine look into his heart and mind, and we’re all the better for it.
I never thought I could have so much in common with an NFL player, but the truth is that RK Russell is so much more than that. He is someone who has faced great losses and grappled with abandonment; someone who has lived as a nomad in youth; someone who fought not to be another stereotype; someone who was too shy to speak until he finally found his voice; and a someone who just wanted to be loved for the person he is.
His memoir lays bare the depths of his soft soul, and you don’t need to be bi, black, or a sports bro to connect with it. Beneath the surface of both RK and his book is the simple, messy, boundless humanity that unites us all.