Retired NFL Player Jeff Rohrer Opens Up About His 'Real Modern Family' After Coming Out

"I'm thankful to not have to live in the shadows anymore," says Rohrer, who came out this week

Photo: Allen Zaki

Jeff Rohrer is opening up about his journey from closeted professional athlete, to coming out — to becoming the first NFL player in a same-sex marriage.

Rohrer revealed he was gay in a New York Times profile published Wednesday. In an emotional interview with PEOPLE the next day, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker shared how his fiancé and family helped him embrace his sexuality after struggling for years in secret.

Today, “I’m thankful to not have to live in the shadows anymore,” says Rohrer, 59.

A Star Athlete with a Secret

Raised in Inglewood, Calif., Rohrer kicked off his football career at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. He went on to play for Yale University, then was recruited by the Dallas Cowboys. While on the Texas team from 1982 through 1987, Rohrer silently battled an identity crisis.

“Gayness was not a part of my life when I played football,” he says. “Of course it was always inside me. Many nights you cry yourself to sleep, begging God, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ and ‘Why am I this way?’ when really you should be able to embrace it.”

Joshua Ross and Jeff Rohrer. Allen Zaki

Rohrer found reconciling his sexuality difficult, in part because of the pressures he felt as a professional athlete.

“The way society has been in the past, it’s not just as easy as embracing it. Because of me being a great student athlete in high school, then going to Yale, and then getting drafted by the Cowboys. … It was not part of my story — and it was not allowed to be a part of my story — whether I had feelings or not,” he says.

So, Rohrer suppressed what he was feeling, for years.

“It was something I honestly didn’t understand, and it was something I managed. Part of it is because, when you start managing something like that, at a young age, you don’t act upon it, then you think you can do it your whole life. And I did,” he says.

Finding Love — and Freedom

After leaving the Cowboys in 1987, Rohrer settled into family life in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Heather, welcomed two children, and Rohrer continued to live as a straight man — until he ended his marriage a decade ago.

“When Heather and I got divorced, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not marrying another woman. I’m gonna do what I want to do,'” says Rohrer.

Over time, he began quietly dating men: “It was a slow progression,” says Rohrer, who went on to become an Emmy-winning TV commercial producer.

Three years ago, everything changed. To avoid rush hour traffic, Rohrer opted for happy hour at the West Hollywood Mexican watering hole Tortilla Republic — and he met his future husband.

Jeff Rohrer and Joshua Ross. Allen Zaki

“I was just having a drink, and he was there, and we started talking,” Rohrer says of meeting celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross. The founder of SkinLab, Ross has appeared on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and calls Lisa Rinna, Teddi Mellencamp and Camille Grammer clients.

“We fell in love over our love of Tex Mex,” says Ross, 36, a native Texan. “We just struck up conversation, and we’ve been together ever since.”

Adds Rohrer: “It’s probably very much like straight people meet: You meet at a bar and you fall in love.”

Once he started seeing Ross, Rohrer began opening himself up to a life he’d always concealed.

“I got really lucky that I found Josh, that we found each other,” he says. “The timing was right, and we are soul brothers.”

Their romance wasn’t always easy, though, especially in the beginning.

“I wasn’t out — it was clear as day as I wasn’t out — and Josh is just the opposite of that; he’s been out his whole life,” says Rohrer. “We just kind of eased into.”

“With Jeff not being out of the closet, there were moments of discretion,” adds Ross.

But Ross was patient as Rohrer embraced being gay. And this past year, Rohrer popped the question.

“It’s so amazing that we’ve gotten to the point we are today,” says Ross. “It’s just crazy how far we’ve come.”

A Modern Family

Rohrer only recently began coming out to close friends and family. Some of the first were his ex-wife and their children, daughter Isabella, 15, and son Dondillion, 14.

“We were super careful because I wanted him to take it easy with my kids. Slowly, everybody got onboard,” says Rohrer. “My ex-wife has been so amazing. She’s such a sweet lady and a great mother, and she has been helping Josh and I through this thing. Without her, I don’t think any of this would have happened. She was so supportive, and because of her… the kids were always cool. They wanted to see their mommy happy too. As soon as we all got on the same page, it’s been really great.”

His kids’ happiness weighed heavily on Rohrer as his relationship with Ross grew more serious.

Jeff Rohrer and Joshua Ross. Allen Zaki

“Because I had a family and an ex-wife, it wasn’t just as simple as coming out,” he says. “I made a commitment to them when I married Heather and we had kids. And that was my first commitment. And if they weren’t onboard, nothing could happen with me and Josh. Because we had to make sure that they were okay.”

The family is more than okay today, as Rohrer, his ex-wife, their kids and Ross have all lived under the same roof for a couple years.

“I would have never in a million years expect the way we were gonna end up,” says Rohrer. “This is a real modern family. We get up in the morning at 6 and make breakfast, and get the kids off to school and everybody goes off to work and we come home and have dinner — the whole thing.”

“A lot of my friends would think is that this is a lot of baggage,” says Ross. “What I would say is that it’s a family.”

Adds Rohrer: “Everybody’s happy, everybody’s smiling, everybody’s laughing, and it’s really really a good scene.”

Josh Ross and Jeff Rohrer Portraits
Jeff Rohrer and Joshua Ross. Allen Zaki

Moving On — and Marriage!

After the Times story published Wednesday, Rohrer received an outpouring of support from friends, family and former teammates.

“I didn’t expect such positive response,” says an emotional Rohrer through tears. “I was really scared: I thought I’d be ridiculed, I thought people would be pretty hard on me — but it has not been that way. It’s pretty amazing. I can’t believe it. … It’s like being free from that torture that you’ve been in your whole life.””

Adds Rohrer: “This was never a plan to make any kind of impact on anything, but I would hope that people that need to set themselves free can take a little bit of solace in our story, and maybe take steps that make them feel better and live their life.”

Rohrer credits Ross for helping him become comfortable enough to come out.

“I don’t think it would have ever happened if I hadn’t met somebody like Josh, because we really do love each other,” he says. “We have a great time together. We’re so much not alike, that it’s hilarious when people see us. We’ve had our ups and downs, and we’ve gotten through everything. We were basically living in the shadows, which was wrong and unfair to him, and I didn’t like it either. But we’re in a good place now.”

Indeed, Rohrer and Ross are ready to wed and will walk down the aisle on Sunday in L.A. Following the wedding, the retired Cowboy will become the first former or current NFL player in a same-sex marriage.

“I feel so honored that I’m the one he chose,” says Ross. “After all this time, for him to like take this big leap — it definitely gives me all the feels.”

Adds Rohrer: “We’re the one for each other. It’s unexpected, but it’s undeniable. And people can see it when they’re around us. It’s a very, very, very special love affair.”

Follow Rohrer and Ross’s love story on Instagram: @joshuaandjeffrey.

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