Onetime aspiring NFL player Wade Davis knows difficulty for NBA's Jason Collins in coming out

As an aspiring NFL cornerback a decade ago, Wade Davis wanted to stand out on the field, not for his sexual orientation.

So he kept the fact he was gay hidden from teammates. He spent four preseasons with three NFL teams — and also played in NFL Europe — trying to fit in with the group, even going to strip clubs when invited just to maintain appearances.

Only after his playing days did he come out as gay. And only then did he feel a sense of relief.

His one tiny regret? That maybe he didn't reveal his sexuality sooner, much like Jason Collins did Monday. Collins, a 34-year-old NBA veteran, became the first active player in the four major American professional sports to come out, writing a first-person account posted on Sports Illustrated's website.

"I would have loved to have the opportunity to live in my true lot when I was playing. ... But it wasn't right for me," Davis told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "It was so taboo that I thought I was the only one.

"When I was playing, I had never had conversations around what it meant to be gay. I wasn't ready to have taken on the mantle as Jason Collins has now. The world is very, very different."

Davis chatted with Collins on the phone and was struck by how calm Collins sounded, how at peace he appeared with his momentous decision.

"I was smiling from ear to ear, to hear Jason say he was happy to be the first, happy to continue his career as a basketball player," Davis said.

For years, Davis kept his secret closely guarded as he tried to latch on with Tennessee, Seattle and Washington in training camps. He didn't want coaches or general managers to use it against him on cut-down day.

"I was a journeyman. I had to play every down as hard as I could," said Davis, who came out to his family around six years ago and made it public in June. "The last thing that I was going to do was add something else in there to stop me from making the team."

But that was 2004. He thinks there's more tolerance now.

"Sports leagues are a lot more open to the idea of gay teammates," Davis said. "I think that the NBA is a place that's always been highly inclusive.

"Jason can play. He's not a scrub. ... He's not someone who they're going to put on the roster to prove a point. He can actually play."

Davis played his college ball at Weber State and spent the 2000 and 2002 preseasons with the Titans, becoming friends with Jevon Kearse and Samari Rolle. He said he didn't tell his teammates he was gay because he feared the impact it would have in the locker room.

And when he did, they were supportive — along with a little hurt.

"They were mad because I didn't give them an opportunity to prove that they would've still accepted me for who I was," Davis said. "There have been some very interesting conversations lately about me learning that they cared more about me as a person than my sexuality."

He thinks athletes get a bad rap, that players will be more welcoming to Collins than people believe.

"Sports in themselves aren't homophobic environments," Davis said. "The one thing we have to do as a society is make sure we're training our kids, from the time they're 5, 6 or 7, to be tolerant, to not discriminate against other people.

"If you're already in the NFL and homophobic, there's nothing I or anyone else can do to change that. If we do the work as parents, then there will never be another Wade Davis (having to hide their sexuality)."

These days, he works at the Hetrick-Martin Institute as an assistant director of job readiness, where he helps lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth develop life skills. He's trying to show them, "a different side of what it means to be gay."

This July in Chicago, Davis will help run a four-day basketball camp called "YOU Belong," featuring sports instruction and leadership development clinics for LGBTQ youth and allies. Davis said there will be NBA and WNBA players in attendance.

"It's going to be very powerful," Davis said. "It's the perfect storm for my camp to be launching since the first athlete to come out is a basketball player. I'm just thrilled about this."

Not to mention how prominent athletes are stepping up lately, with NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe supporting state gay-marriage amendments during last year's elections. The topic made waves during Super Bowl week when one player, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, said he wouldn't welcome a gay member on his team.

"I think in some ways we need to thank Chris Culliver. Chris created a conversation around homophobia in sports during the biggest time in sports, the Super Bowl," Davis said. "Granted, what Chris said is highly inflammatory and awful, but in some ways Chris did something very great, too."