The future star of “The Bachelor” had been hiding his sexuality — from his family, his friends and himself — for his entire life. Underwood knew, at the age of six, that he was different; by his early teenage years, he knew he was attracted to men. But growing up in a religious and conservative small town, especially as a star football player, he was taught that being gay was wrong.
“I had the opportunity in 2014 when I entered the draft. Michael Sam came out,” Underwood tells Variety during a cover story interview, revealing that he had considered coming out years ago. Getting choked up, Underwood expresses his regret and says he was not brave enough at the time.
Underwood — who spoke to Variety in a wide-ranging interview for this week’s cover story — came out as gay last month during an interview on “Good Morning America” with Robin Roberts. He is the first openly gay man to come from “The Bachelor” franchise. Prior to finding reality TV fame on the ABC dating show, he was drafted in the NFL, signed as a free agent by the San Diego Chargers, then joining practice squads for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Oakland Raiders.
Underwood recalls that when Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL in 2014, no one in the locker room supported the idea. The homophobia in the football world only drove Underwood deeper into the closet.
“The football and athletic community is not ready for gay people,” Underwood says.
Now, Underwood reveals that he recently spoken with Sam. In their conversations, he told him that after he came out as gay in 2014, he was the butt of the joke in the NFL locker rooms.
“I’ve had a conversation with Michael about this, since I came out. I just sort of had a heart-to-heart with him,” Underwood says. “I said, ‘I just want to let you know that you should have given me the confidence to stand up and say, ‘You’re not alone.’ But unfortunately, I went to a different locker room. And I told him, ‘In the locker room that I was in, they didn’t say nice things about you.’”
Underwood continues to share his conversation with Sam: “I was like, ‘I’m sorry because I could have tried to help you by coming out with you, and then seen if that caused another to come out.’ But I didn’t have the courage and I wasn’t at a point in my life where I was ready to come out — if anything, Michael Sam coming out and being so public about it put me in the closet even further because I didn’t want to be like Michael, in the sense that I didn’t want it to be negative or bad.”
In 2015, Sam announced that he was walking away from football for mental health reasons.
Part of the reason Underwood decided to come out in such a public forum last month is to help other people who are struggling with hiding their identity, he says, specifically in the hyper-masculine world of sports.
Underwood had convinced himself he would live his entire life as a straight man. He never dreamed of the day he would come out and reveal his true identity to himself, let alone the world — and so, he went from the NFL to “The Bachelor.”
“My life was led by presenting to be somebody and living so inauthentic to who I truly was, and I was okay with that. It was easy for me to dive into football and hide behind that,” Underwood says. “And then from football, I remember there were a weird few months of my life where I was like, ‘What’s next, now that football is gone? I can’t hide there, so where can I hide now?’ And then ‘The Bachelor’ fell in my lap, and then before you know it, I am ‘The Bachelor.’ There was always something for me to dive into.”
Underwood smiles as he recalls a time from his childhood when his second grade teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up.
“I said an NFL player, and the teacher said, ‘You need to pick something more realistic.’ So, my second answer was a stay-at-home dad,” Underwood recalls. With a laugh, he quips, “So, I still have the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad! And I already made it to the NFL — so, check on that!”
“I feel like I was born to be a dad,” Underwood says.
Now that Underwood has come forward with his story, including his attempt at suicide, he wants the LGBTQ youth to know that it is possible to live a full life as your truest self — even if you come from the sports world, a religious background or a conservative upbringing.
“If six-year-old Colton could have seen another person that resembled me,” he says. “I feel like this is my opportunity to try to correct what I did wrong and try to impact people out there struggling, deeply in the closet and ashamed of who they are and hate who they are. I hated myself. I hated myself for being gay. If I can do anything to tell someone out there struggling that it’s all going to be okay one day and that everything you think you can’t have, you can, and there is power in your truth.”
Today, Underwood beams with excitement as he speaks out loud — for one of the first times in his life — about his desires for his future.
“I do want to be in love. I still want the white picket fence,” Underwood says. “The whole definition of traditional lifestyle that I thought growing up conservative meant, I can still have.”
While filming scenes for his upcoming Netflix show, Underwood met with a gay couple on their journey to have children through surrogacy or adoption. While footage is still being cut, the conversation will likely air in the streaming show, set to launch later this year.
“I can still do all of the things that I thought were only possible in a straight relationship,” Underwood says. “I have not had an emotional connection with a man. Physically, sure. But that’s the whole point of coming out, so that I didn’t have to just view being gay as pleasure, and I could experience love and the fullness of everything that I want out of a relationship. I want a partner and a husband more than anything, and I want a family. I want kids, I want dogs, I want the whole nine yards, and I never knew that was possible until I came out and got to lean into my truth.”
With an ear-to-ear smile, Underwood says, “I can, for the first time in my life, actually picture myself with a family — and my family looks a little different than when I pictured it four or five years ago, but it just makes me happy, even thinking about it.”