An NFL Player and His Dancer Boyfriend Say There Are More Similarities Between Their Fields Than You'd Think

April 16, 2020

Looking at their resumés, Corey O’Brien and Ryan Russell seemingly have nothing in common. An alum of The Rock School for Dance Education and Broadway Dance Center’s Professional Semester, O’Brien is a Los Angeles–based freelancer who’s danced for the likes of P. Diddy, Ne-Yo and Iggy Azalea, as well as appeared on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and in Funny or Die segments. Russell is a veteran of the National Football League; after being drafted to the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 and playing two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he’s currently a free agent.

But the pair met on a dating app last year, had their first date at a coffee shop and the rest is history—quite literally, since Russell penned an essay for ESPN in which he came out as bisexual last August, making him the first active NFL player to come out publicly. The duo went public with their relationship at the same time, and have since started a YouTube channel together.

As each are quick to point out, their careers have a lot more in common than you might think. We caught up with the couple to find out how.

Going where the work is

“When I met Russ, it was the off-season,” O’Brien says. “We were still getting to know each other, and I was expressing to him that as a dancer, I go where work is, whether it be L.A., Spain, Brazil, New York or New Hampshire—I’ve done it all. I was always the one saying I might have to pick up and leave for a job. He was super understanding, and then he calls me one morning and says that he got a call and might have to go to San Francisco.”

“I was going to try out for the 49ers,” Russell says. “I told him if all goes well—which we want—I will sign the contract now and I’ll be there. There’s no coming back and getting more things or saying goodbye. I’ll probably come back for a weekend during the bye week, but I’ll be there until the end of the season in January. We went from spending every day together and getting to know each other to potentially being apart for almost half a year.”

The contract ultimately didn’t work out, but it was an aha moment for the couple. “That was tough, because I was like, Damn, we are similar!” O’Brien laughs. “Our careers have nothing to do with each other, but they’re really similar in the demands. I had told myself I would never date a performer again. I wanted there to be a balance in the relationship, where it wasn’t that we were both always traveling and leaving. When he got that phone call, I was like, Oh, he’s a performer in his own right, and I didn’t even know that. But I was already in.”

What their training looks like

Ryan Russell embraces Corey O'Brien from behind, one hand over his heart and the other cupping the side of his head. O'Brien grips Russell's wrist in one hand, leaning back into him.
Benjamin Romero, Courtesy Metro Public Relations

Unlike dance, football has a set season, as well as off-, pre- and post-season periods, each of which have distinct demands for what kinds of training players do off the field. “When we were first getting to know each other, it was the off-season,” Russell says, “so we were doing a lot of similar training and going to the gym together. But closer to the season, I had to start building more muscle. I don’t know—with dancing, do you need to be super big?”

“When we saw that we were going in different directions with our training regimens, we were like, Okay, we’re going to work out separately from now on,” says O’Brien.

“Even stretching,” Russell grins. “For a football player, I’m pretty flexible, but then I see him do something and I’m like, I could never in my life try to do that and then try to walk right afterward.”

Swapping roles

For their YouTube channel, Russell spent a day taking O’Brien through some classic football drills. “I was like, This is not going to be hard,” O’Brien says. “I can do this. I’m a dancer. I can do all of it. Well it was super hard. It was very different.”

“I think that’s what it was mostly, just different,” Russell says. “But athletically, you could do pretty much everything.”

“What I find interesting,” says O’Brien, “is to watch my boyfriend do certain things, or to see old videos of him playing, and it’s incredible. I could never do something like that. But then to try to teach him something that I know, and I’m really good at, and see he’s struggling a little bit…”

“I can’t do it at all,” Russell interjects with a laugh.

“I could never do the things that you do!” O’Brien says. “But having you try to touch your toes is super hard? That’s crazy!”

Will O’Brien be getting Russell into a dance studio anytime soon?

“Since he did NFL training for a day, I am going to do a dancer regimen,” Russell says. “We talked about maybe going to an audition, but I don’t want to completely embarrass myself. But I’m definitely game for a dance class.”

“That’s next, when we’re out of quarantine and able to be around people again,” O’Brien says. He grins. “I have so many videos of me trying to teach him pirouettes, and he’s good! He’s actually good! He will be practicing in the kitchen without me knowing, and he’s like, Babe, this is hard!”

Dealing with injuries

Injuries are par for the course for dancers and football players alike. How they deal with them, however, tends to be quite different.

At the beginning of this year, O’Brien broke his foot during the opening night performance of what was supposed to be a monthlong gig. “From urgent care, they told me they already had my replacement and wished me well,” he recalls.

The couple had moved their lives out-of-state for a job that suddenly was no longer on the table. “We had an Airbnb and a rental car for the next couple of weeks,” Russell says. “I thought my career was abrupt pick-up-and-go, but that was the definition…”

“Whether you’re tackling someone on a field or dancing in ballet shoes, it’s still a passion, and we’re still entertainers in our own way.” —Corey O’Brien

Russell, who’s had his fair share of injuries, was shocked at how different the treatment was for a freelance dancer. “As an NFL player, if you break your foot, you’re under contract. They have to do your rehab, and if they do part ways with you, they have to compensate you and pay for your medical things. But for a dancer as a freelancer, it’s not the same!”

“But there’s definitely one similarity,” O’Brien says. “All in all, our bodies are our careers—it’s what we do to make money. He was injured as well, so he understood. It was tough, but we had each other. If I didn’t have him, I don’t know how I would have reacted, to be honest!”

The reality of dating an NFL player who made LGBTQ+ history

When they first met, O’Brien says he didn’t know anything about football. “When he told me he was a football player, I was like, Little League? Which isn’t even football!”

“I didn’t even really talk a lot about football” in the beginning, says Russell. “In my world, I never really have to explain a lot. But someone who doesn’t already have those preconceived notions, it was cool to not even address it, to focus on those other parts of me that were very important and pure to who I was outside of what I do.”

When Russell made the decision to come out, it had been less than a month since the couple had made their relationship official. “I felt in my mind and my heart, I have no place in telling someone when it is a good idea to come out publicly,” O’Brien says. “I didn’t understand the magnitude of it. I just was like, Okay, why are we doing interviews? Why are they interviewing you? What’s happening? When I educated myself more on the NFL, and that he was really making history, I then understood: What you’re doing can change a lot for a lot of people, and also you’re a huge source of inspiration.”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Russell says. “I told him, It might be huge, it might not be huge. This might be a thing, it might not. So when it went down the line of being big, we made sure we prioritized our relationship. For most people going public, it’s posting an Instagram photo together or changing your status on Facebook. But in the spotlight, going public is a completely different thing. We didn’t want to feel like we had to move faster because of the media or move slower or feel ashamed of where we were at in our relationship, in getting to know each other. People were like, When are you getting married? When are you getting engaged? And we’re still just two human beings trying to love each other.”

How their understanding of each other’s fields has shifted

Before meeting O’Brien, Russell had never dated anyone in the entertainment industry before, much less a dancer. “I never realized, one, just how challenging and how hard dance was,” he says. “And also just how vast the different fields, the different focuses. You watch a show, and there’s a dance scene, and you might take that for granted, but people auditioned and trained and were booked and cast for that. Movies, music videos, theater—dance is everywhere, there are people dedicating their life, busting their ass, training, and I took it for granted. Even in one of my favorite movies, if they break out in a huge dance scene, I didn’t think about it. I was like, Maybe actors also dance?”

“I feel like if you’re a football player, you’re training to get into the NFL,” says O’Brien. “Whereas as a dancer, it’s like I just did an Iggy Azalea video, next week I’m filming an Instagram ad and the next week I’m in a contemporary show.”

“In football, it’s more linear,” agrees Russell. “Get into the NFL, be a Pro Bowler, win a Super Bowl. But for someone in a dance career, it can be so vast. It’s whatever you deem success.”

The difference between football’s predictable annual cycles and the gig-to-gig nature of a freelance dance career has been a source of some anxiety for the couple. “There’s a sense of how long I’m going to be gone,” Russell says. “There’s a football season, and there’s some variation with playoffs but it’s pretty much set in stone. He’s had contracts where they’ve been six months, and he’s had music videos or movies filming for two weeks in different locations.”

Nevertheless, “Our careers are a lot more similar than we imagined,” O’Brien says. “Whether you’re tackling someone on a field or dancing in ballet shoes, it’s still a passion, and we’re still entertainers in our own way. I think I’ve been taught, growing up as a dancer and a gay man, that being a football player is masculine, it’s the ultimate dream, it’s harder than you could ever imagine. Because people aren’t going every single Sunday to watch ballet dancers on TV. Being an NFL player is the ultimate dream.”

“But I will say, a cool thing about dating an NFL player, or maybe it’s just a cool thing about my boyfriend: He’s never compared our careers, like being in the NFL is harder than being a dancer, or vice versa,” says O’Brien.

“It’s understanding and respecting your partner’s dreams and passions and life goals and the work that they put in,” Russell says. “Whatever that work looks like, whether you think you can do it or you can’t—it’s respect. If we don’t respect each other as athletes, we can’t respect each other as partners. And if that means trying a dance class for a day to show respect, you should do it!”