Brentson Buckner has coached a slew of NFL defensive linemen, including All-Pros Jason Pierre-Paul and Calais Campbell. Something other than talent has distinguished another one of those players.
That would be Carl Nassib, who on Monday became the first openly gay active NFL player.
“If it was a person that I’ve coached that would be willing to take a stand and be brave enough to do it, it would be Carl because he is his own man," said Buckner, a former NFL defensive lineman who coached Nassib on the 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Carl is secure in who Carl is. And it was great to have people like that because a lot of NFL players are insecure and like to hide behind the mask."
Long before he publicly revealed his sexual orientation, Nassib, a 28-year-old defensive end now on the Las Vegas Raiders, set himself apart from the pack. He has 20½ sacks in five NFL seasons, but numbers reflect only part of his story and reputation.
Nassib regularly challenged coaches during practice, according to Buckner.
“He kept me on my toes as a coach,’’ Buckner, now the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals, told USA TODAY Sports. “Any drill we did, you’ve got to give him the why. He’s got to understand why you’re going to ask him to do it."
Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. (Photo: John Bazemore, AP)
It earned him respect from teammates, said Will Clarke, a defensive end who in 2018 played alongside Nassib for Tampa Bay.
“I think one of the things a lot of guys liked about Carl is he wasn’t afraid to be himself,’’ Clarke said.
Of course, Nassib being himself also meant correcting people’s grammar and lecturing teammates on finance.
“When we had our d-line meetings, we would talk pass rush and we would talk football but we ended up switching and talking about stocks and the market,’’ said Jerel Worthy, a defensive tackle who in 2018 played for the Bucs. “He’s the whiz kid.''
HBO's "Hard Knocks" captured that when Nassib was playing for the Browns and during a meeting gave his teammates financial advice – spiced with profanity. The video clip went viral.
“He’s a great teammate, a great friend and he’s funny,’’ Worthy said.
In assessing one of his favorite pupils, Buckner describes Nassib as a “one-of-a-kind guy.’’ The resume certainly stands out.
'That's just Carl'
Nassib did not start a game for his high school football team at Malvern Preparatory School, an all-boys Catholic school within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Then 6-foot-7 and gangly, Nassib walked on at Penn State in 2011 and he soon began to create his own lore. He has told people he went to see Bill O’Brien, then Penn State’s head coach, and the following exchange took place:
“You know, I’m going to play in the NFL someday.’’ Nassib said.
“You’re going to have a hard enough time making this team,’ ’’ O’Brien shot back.
Four years later, having gained more than 50 pounds of mostly muscle, Nassib was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and won the Lombardi Award, given to the top college lineman or linebacker in the country.
O’Brien left Penn State to become head coach of the Houston Texans in 2013, but not before awarding Nassib a scholarship.
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“Carl’s story is great no matter his sexual orientation,’’ said Bob Shoop, who was defensive coordinator at Penn State during Nassib’s junior and senior seasons.
Intelligent. Confident. Determined. These words are used to describe Nassib, and Shoop said “quirky is a pretty good word, too.’’
Quirky as in Nassib’s non-verbal communication, Shoop said.
“You know, the coach talking to the player kind of making a smirk underneath the helmet," Shoop told USA TODAY Sports. “Just the facial expressions and the body language he used sometimes. those were the times where you go, ‘OK, that’s just Carl.’ "
At Penn State, there was a soft side to Nassib.
While making an appearance at a 5K race, Nassib met a woman who had a brain tumor and was the mother of two young boys, said Kristina Petersen, Associate Athletic Director of Strategic Communications for Penn State’s football team.
One of the boys was struggling with anger over his mother’s illness and Nassib befriended the family, according Petersen said.
“Her health took a turn for the worse the summer after and he went and visited her in the hospital every single day,’’ Petersen said. “And then when she got sent home, he made sure that everybody was set at home.
“It’s those kinds of things that make him really, really special."
What Nassib has done on the field is making him rich.
In 2020, he signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Raiders with almost $17 million guaranteed.
Selected by the Cleveland Browns in the third round of the 2016 draft, he spent two seasons with the Browns and two seasons with the Bucs before joining the Raiders in 2020 as a free agent.
Derek Carr, the Raiders starting quarterback, on Tuesday released a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and other media outlets.
“I have often said I love my teammates. I mean it,’’ Carr said, according to the Review-Journal. “We always say we are a family in that Raider locker room, and we mean that too. I want to win a championship here with Carl and the rest of our teammates.”
Months ago, Nassib reached out to the Trevor Project — the nation’s leading suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth — according to Amit Paley, CEO of the organization.
“Our team has been in touch with him a few times before the announcement,’’ Paley said.
During the taped announcement, Nassib said, “I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now. But I finally feel comfortable enough to get if off my chest.’’
Nassib said he is donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project.
“I don’t want to go into the details of our private conversations, but I think … he really is interested in how he can support LGBT young people more broadly," Paley said.
How the news broke, said a handful of his former coaches and teammates, was pure Nassib. He recorded a video outside his house in West Chester, Pennsylvania and posted it on Instagram.
With a hint of a smile and no sign of self-importance, Nassib began, “I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay."
Kacy Rodgers, a defensive line coach who worked with Nassib in Tampa Bay during the 2019 season, said, “I wouldn’t have expected any other manner. That’s him. Totally."
Nassib hasn't spoken publicly since his announcement, saying on the video, "I’m a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know I’m really not doing this for attention.’’
During his senior year at Penn State, Nassib resisted attending news conferences even while he was setting the single-season school record with 15½ sacks.
“I don't think he liked the spotlight on him,'' said Peterson, Penn State’s communications director for football.
After the announcement on Monday, Petersen said, Nassib had a FaceTime call with her from a sushi restaurant.
“He showed his Mom,’’ Petersen said. “He was just like, ‘We’re having some celebratory sushi.’ ”
No surprise that Nassib was with his football-loving family.
Nassib’s older brother, Ryan, played quarterback at Syracuse and in the NFL, playing in five games for the New York Giants from 2014 to '15. His younger brother, John, played defensive lineman at Delaware, where the boys’ father, Gilbert, played tight end.
Nassib also has two sisters.
“I really have the best life,’’ he said during the announcement. “I’ve got the best family, friends and job a guy could ask for.’’
After saying he was not making the announcement for attention, Nassib added, “I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day videos like this and the whole coming out process are just not necessary.
"But until then I’m going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting and compassionate.”
For Buckner, the NFL defensive line coach, those words reinforced something he felt in 2018 when he and Nassib were in Tampa Bay.
“What made me excited when I coached him was this is a standup guy for what he believes in,’’ Buckner said. “If Carl feels strong about something, he’s man enough to stand up for it.’’
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