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ROHNERT PARK - The Cooperage, a Sonoma State campus event room, was filled Tuesday night, 400 strong, and Wade Davis brought all of them to silence when he told them what the St. Louis Rams scout said.

"Is Wade a ladies man?" the scout asked a coach from Weber State at the Ogden, Utah, college. Davis was a cornerback at the school. The 2000 NFL draft was coming up.

"What I heard was, 'Is Wade gay?'" Davis said. "My heart sank."

How could have that scout known? What could Davis do about it? This is the NFL. It's tough enough to be tough enough already in the league, without adding an extra anvil on his back. So Davis went into heavy macho cover for the scouts.

"The (Tennessee) Titans signed me as a free agent," said Davis, 36. "I made it, I thought to myself! I'm a good actor! They bought it. Then I'm in the locker room in training camp with Jevon Kearse and Steve McNair and I'm digging it. Then a veteran comes up to me and says, 'Don't talk to that guy. He's bisexual.'

"I'm thinking to myself, 'Why did he tell me that?'"

Did that veteran notice something? The lie Davis was living left him paranoid. It required a lot of work. It led to a lot of anxious moments. Was that the right thing to say? Was that the right thing to do? Was his response convincing?

Then came his first check from the Titans. It was for $9,000. This was going to erase all doubts.

"I took all that money one night and made it rain cash at a strip club," Davis said.

As if that was going to wash away all the anxiety. Davis popped a hamstring that Titans training camp, was released and played for the Barcelona Dragons the next summer in NFL Europe. He was in Seattle's training camp the next year, wrecked his knee and played for the Berlin Thunder the next summer in NFL Europe. Davis made it to NFL training camps two more times, with the Titans in 2002 and the Redskins in 2003. Each time he was released. Each time his left knee continued to shred so that by the time Washington let him go, that knee looked like someone took a hammer to it.

"The last time I had a day without pain was when I was a sophomore in high school," Davis said.

Davis never played a down in a regular-season NFL game, but that didn't prevent the SSU students from attending. He made it to four NFL training camps. He played two seasons in NFL Europe. He was a skilled football player. He wasn't a joke.

And he was gay.

A gay football player, yes, that set the hook deep into his audience, curiosity being a bait hard to refuse. With the national conversation being filled more and more with dialogue on an individual's right to freely choose his or her companion, Davis is a man for such a moment.

Thursday night, Davis was scheduled to speak to athletes at the University of Arizona. Two weeks ago, he spoke at Rutgers, to the school's administrators, coaches and athletes. Since he publicly declared his sexuality in June 2012, Davis estimates he has given 100 speeches to colleges, high schools and interest groups.

"What did you think when Chris Culliver made his gay-bashing remarks at last year's Super Bowl?" I asked Davis of the 49ers' cornerback.

"Thank you!" Davis said. "What better place to have a discussion on homophobia than at the biggest sporting event in America?"

As a second choice, what better place than a college campus, a place of learning, of discovery, of being taught how to see all sides of the same coin? Davis didn't hide his story. He brought it all out, completely, very raw, and at times very difficult to hear.

"But you're already black!" his mother said to him eight years ago when Davis told her he was a homosexual, as if the color of his skin was enough of a handicap in life.

"She told me she wished I had told her I had cancer rather than telling her I was gay," Davis said. "She told me she wished I had told her I was going to prison rather than tell her I was gay. She told me she never wanted to see me again."

For three years mother and father never spoke to their son. They have reconciled. His has not been a simple journey, like a football game in which the result is known immediately, within hours. Winners. Losers. Good guys. Bad guys.

"I first realized I was gay when I was 16," Davis said. "I was terrified. The very first night I went home and watched porn for hours. I wanted to get that same feeling I had for guys but for girls instead. I wanted to fit in but I didn't. Self-hatred came up. I'm making good progress. On a scale of 1-to-10 I'm an 8 right now. There are still remnants."

The stories he remembers, they give him a shudder. Like when he was in high school and wanted to be one of the guys. So he joined the boys when they tormented a kid. "I yelled the f-word at him along with everyone else. I was a horrible person in high school. I have since located him on Facebook to make amends. He doesn't respond. It's the one big regret I have."

Does he ever foresee the day in which an openly gay athlete can play in the NFL without fear?

"I know I may be in the minority here," said Davis, 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. "But I think it will happen. It'll happen because in team sports everyone has to be on the same page to succeed. If not, people will be released or traded. Can you ball? If you can't play, you're gone and it's irrelevant if you are gay or not."

Davis said he has found acceptance from his former teammates, counting Keith Bulluck, Champ Bailey and Kearse among his friends. He said he never felt he had to hit harder than his straight teammates. In fact, he said he felt most comfortable inside a locker room.

"It was when I was alone, that was the toughest," Davis said. "I had no distractions. I just didn't want to sit there and think."

He would go out and do anything to relieve the anxiety. Now, 16 months after he came out, Davis is way more comfortable in his own skin, way more comfortable.

"Wade, how old are you?" a female student asked.

"I'm 36 but I look young, don't I? That's because I moisturize."

You should have heard the roar. It was the best kind of acceptance, spontaneous laughter, the kind that lifts veils.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com

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