Former Dallas Cowboys player breaking barriers as first in NFL history to marry a man

PHOTO: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jeff Rohrer in 1982.PlayNFL/AP, FILE
WATCH Former Dallas Cowboys player breaking barriers as first in NFL history to marry a man

Getting married is a big deal for anybody – but for former NFL player Jeff Rohrer, it was monumental. He is the first player in league history to marry a man.

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“I swear to God, of all the things I've done in my life, this is the most courageous thing I've ever done as a human being,” Rohrer told ABC News.

That’s a big statement considering Rohrer was known for his fearlessness during his rough and tumble years as a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.

“Football was nasty back then," he said. "We had bad equipment. We had no rules. We had the worst AstroTurf. And there was a lotta blood back then. There just was. It was a nasty game.”

But now, thirty years after tackling the toughest players in the National Football League (NFL), Jeff was about to take on his biggest fear, revealing a secret that he hid for decades -- by "coming out" and marrying his boyfriend.

Drafted out of Yale in 1982, Rohrer went on to the NFL for seven years with the Cowboys -– during the glory days of “America’s Team.”

“I don't think it occurred to me that I might be gay," he explained. "I mean, I clearly was.”

Rohrer said coming to terms with his sexual orientation “wasn’t part of the story” at the time he was playing for the Cowboys. “It just wasn’t going to happen.”

PHOTO: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jeff Rohrer in 1982. NFL/AP, FILE
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jeff Rohrer in 1982.

It was the 1980s –- a time when homophobia was not only tolerated, it was often the norm -- and coming out in the NFL just wasn't an option.

“Just look at old TV shows and you can see how it was,” Rohrer said. “It was a different world. It was not okay to be gay. And you know, AIDS was going around. So there was a whole thing going on that was anti-gay. It was definitely something that, I don't think, the NFL would've embraced back then.”

So, he lived a life that he felt was expected of him. He married Heather Rohrer, and together they had two kids.

Just look at old TV shows and you can see how it was. It was a different world. It was not okay to be gay. And you know, AIDS was going around. So there was a whole thing going on that was anti-gay. It was definitely something that, I don't think, the NFL would've embraced back then.

“Eventually, I met Heather," Rohrer said. "And we got married and had a great time living our lives… and loved each other dearly."

Heather Rohrer told ABC News said it didn’t occur to her during that marriage he could be gay.

“It all came out when my son was very small,” she said. “I was still breastfeeding … It wasn’t easy. And I’m fine. We’re here, and we’re all very happy, we get along great.”

They got divorced after nearly 17 years of marriage in 2012, she said. It was just a few years ago when Rohrer, who was in his early 50s, truly began facing his sexuality.

“You know, Heather helped me through it, in a lotta ways. And so did Joshua,” Rohrer said, referring to his husband.

The couple met randomly at a restaurant in West Hollywood, Rohrer said.

“Josh was sitting close,” Rohrer said, laughing. “We started talking. And you know, two and a half years later, here we are.”

Joshua Ross grew up in Cowboy country -– in a small Texas town that was not far from Dallas geographically, but in another sense was a world away.

When Jeff and I met, he had never been in a public space with a man. You know, he had never been out on a dinner date with a man...

“I don't think I ever came out. I think I came outta the womb is what it was,” Ross joked. “I didn't have the option to go into the shadows. I kind of just had to confront it. And that's what I did. And so I just led my life and surrounded myself with people that supported me.”

Ross said he didn’t follow the Cowboys growing up.

“We didn't have television,” he said. “My parents were missionaries. And so I grew up in a very religious household.”

It would be decades before they would find one another.

Rohrer built a post-NFL career as an award-winning producer of commercials. Ross was living a high-profile life as an aesthetician to the stars.

“When Jeff and I met, he had never been in a public space with a man,” Ross said. “You know, he had never been out on a dinner date with a man, you know? He didn't have gay friends. He wasn't going to gay bars. He wasn't going to gay clubs.”

Rohrer was dipping his toes into a whole new world and experiencing many firsts. He waited months before telling Ross about his past history.

“I could tell he was extremely nervous… And I anticipated something, you know, some kind of bomb being dropped, you know?” Ross said.

Ross said he “had no idea” what it could be –- and when it was revealed Rohrer had been married before and had two children, Ross said he wasn’t surprised.

“I think what was the big jaw-dropper was that he played professional football in the NFL,” Ross said. “And I'm like, ‘Wait, what?’”

Ross said other people may think it’d be “amazing” to date a football player but “[i]mmediately, I knew, in my mind, that that was gonna be resistance to our relationship and might make it more difficult.”

He said he “absolutely” knew how big of a deal it’d be for a former Cowboys player. “I’m from Texas,” he quipped.

Rohrer said getting married again “was a huge decision” for him.

“We certainly loved each other enough to be married,” Rohrer said. “We decided that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. And we love each other dearly. And decided to make that -- make that formal.”

It's just so amazing, how nice people have been. I didn't give society enough credit. I didn't give people enough credit.

Rohrer said he was acutely aware of this matrimonial milestone and was terrified about the world’s reaction.

“I didn't wanna hurt the Cowboys," he said. "I didn't wanna hurt the league. And I wanted to be respectful of them."

“They were kind to me, for many years, letting me wear the silver and blue and be a Cowboy.”

Rohrer has a lot of sympathy for those still living in the shadows. He said he’s heard from many of them, including other athletes.

“There's a lotta people that have jobs they don't wanna lose," Rohrer explained. "And there's a lotta people that have, you know, relationships with, you know, their family and friends that they don't wanna change."

“They don't wanna tell people they're gay. And you know, my lesson is that it's okay. It's not easy. But once you do it, you're gonna be a lot happier.”

His now-teenage kids, Isabella and Dondillion are part of a generation raised with tolerance.

“All my friends were just super supportive,” Rohrer’s son Dondillion said. “Nobody was against it or anything. It’s 2018. This is the new normal.”

Isabella said “I was happy that my dad could finally say it… ‘cause he could be who he’s always wanted to be.”

With their family’s blessings, the happy couple tied the knot in November 2018, surrounded by loved ones.

“It was in a courtyard, like, a beautiful, tiered, trellised garden,” Ross said. “And Jeff's children, my step-kids Don and Isabella… Bella sang.”

“Isabella stood on my side and it just meant so much for her to do that, and for them to be there and to really be happy and excited for us and this new chapter,” Ross said.

“A lotta times, when I told my friends, ‘I'm getting married. He has kids,’ you know, they would think that was baggage, you know? And I said, ‘That's not baggage. That's a family.’ And so to be given a family and a partner… it was a lot. It was a lot of emotion.”

PHOTO: Jeff Rohrer with his blended family including ex-wife Heather, husband Josh, and children Dondillion and Isabella. Ashley Riegle/ABC News
Jeff Rohrer with his blended family including ex-wife Heather, husband Josh, and children Dondillion and Isabella.

“You feel like you're walking into the rest of your life.”

A New York Times feature story elevated their coming out story, and their wedding news went viral.

Rohrer said he was “scared” about what reaction he’d receive.

“You can ask Josh. I mean… there was nights I cried myself to sleep. I mean, it was horrible.”

His worst fears never came to fruition.

“It's just so amazing, how nice people have been,” Rohrer said. “I didn't give society enough credit. I didn't give people enough credit.”

“I was talking to my dad. And he goes ‘Jeff, what goes around comes around.’ He says, ‘You've been a good guy. You've been nice to people. Your whole life, you've always been a giver. And now, it's the people's chance to come back.’ And they have.”

For the few fans who have given the couple a hard time, Rohrer has sympathy for them too.

“For me, those are the people I wanna sit down with and say, ‘Hey, how are you doin'? I'll buy you a beer. Let's talk -- let's talk about it. We could hug it out,’ he said. “Because I think the people that are not okay with people being gay don't know gay people.”

Today, they are a truly modern family. Jeff and Josh live together with the kids in the main house, and ex-wife Heather lives in the guest house. They all have dinner together every night.