Growing up as a mixed-race kid in Chicago and in his father's native Nigeria, where he really stood out, Brendon Ayanbadejo became attuned to issues of identity from a very young age.
By his midteens, while living with his family in a dorm for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at the University of California, Santa Cruz — his step-father was the dorm's headmaster — he thought no differently about LGBT people than he did straight people.
"I learned people are just people," the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker said.
Ayanbadejo, now 37, has turned those early lessons into an expanding role as a gay-rights activist. After first announcing his public support for same-sex marriage in 2009 — rare and groundbreaking for a sports star at the time — he has continued his advocacy through the Ravens Super Bowl victory last season and beyond.
"It's just one of the pieces of me," Ayanbadejo said, when asked about his commitment to the cause since retiring from football. "It's just something I do. It doesn't take up all of my time, but it's something I live and breathe."
The straight, married entrepreneur with two kids and a second career as a sports analyst frequently finds time to take stages around the country, speaking to young students about bullying or to corporate executives about equality.
He's also helping to craft a campaign for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit focused on ending discrimination against homosexuals in sports, ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where an anti-gay propaganda law has drawn widespread attention.
Ayanbadejo appeared this month before a couple of hundred students at McDaniel College in Westminster to talk about knowing gay people all his life and wishing that the NFL would take more of a stand for LGBT rights.
The NFL is "not lollygagging, but they're kind of hesitant to pull the trigger" to really stamp out discrimination, he told the crowd. "I'd like to see them do more."
Robert Gulliver, the league's chief human resources officer, said in a statement that the league has already stepped up anti-discrimination efforts, impressing last spring on all general managers and head coaches the importance of diversity, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and incorporating those ideas into rookie training.
The NFL has "proactively formed partnerships with LGBT organizations in active dialogue on LGBT diversity," Gulliver said.
Many credit Ayanbadejo for his early advocacy on a still semi-taboo subject — after all, NBA player Jason Collins just became the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport in April.
"He took this stance before the topic really became any kind of controversy, before the Jason Collinses of the world came out and said they are openly gay," said Anthony Fernandez, a sports marketing and branding consultant who has worked with Ayanbadejo in the past. "The key is having authenticity behind that, and he's shown that authenticity by continuing to make it a point to talk about these topics."
Outspoken, and with commanding stage presence, Ayanbadejo is on a circuit of speakers hired to talk about LGBT equality in sports. The three-time Pro Bowl selection has spoken at places including Harvard University, ESPN and Google.
Longtime Baltimore sports agent Ron Shapiro said such honorariums for top-flight athletes can be as much as as $10,000, but that's "the exception, not the rule." Far more often, he said, honorariums cover only transportation and hotel costs.
Fernandez, who does work with AthletePromotions, a sports celebrity marketing and booking agency, said the demand for athletes who can speak to LGBT issues "has probably quadrupled" in the past year.
Still, Ayanbadejo has never been about the money and doesn't always require a fee, he said. "His fee is incredibly reasonable compared to what we have seen for athletes of his level of demand, which is incredibly unusual," Fernandez said. "He just wants to spread his message as wide as possible."
Jennifer Jimenez Marana, McDaniel's new director of diversity and multicultural affairs, said bringing Ayanbadejo to the campus not only dovetailed with a new "inclusive language" campaign her office is launching to cut down on derogatory language on the campus, but also was "a great way to attract students who would not usually come to a diversity-oriented event."
At McDaniel, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,600, Ayanbadejo told the students in Alumni Hall he doesn't consider himself an "advocate" as much as a "concerned citizen" — someone with no agenda other than to make the world a better place, including for his own kids. He used the phrase "the three-letter F-word" for a gay slur.
Ayanbadejo also said that when Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, criticized his support last year for same-sex marriage and wrote a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, it was "nerve-racking," but never so much that he thought about backing down.
"To me, silence was consent," he said.
He said one of his proudest moments was seeing same-sex marriage pass in Maryland, after campaigning for it alongside Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The first paragraph of the biography on Ayanbadejo's personal website, brendonayanbadejo.net, says, "Ayanbadejo, former Baltimore Raven and member of the Super Bowl XLVII Champion team, is a man who understands both the pain of discrimination and the gain of personal joy that comes from embracing an unwavering belief in equal rights for all."
Since leaving football, Ayanbadejo has taken on new career aspirations. He has become a Fox Sports contributor and plans to open a chain of gyms in California in November. At the time he was cut from the Ravens' roster, he was due a $940,000 base salary, entering the second year of a three-year $3.2 million contract.
At the same time, he has expanded his efforts for gay rights. He recently acted as guest editor of a special sports edition of the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper.
"He's one of those folks who is highly educated, who's taken the time to educate himself on a topic that he feels is important," said Fernandez, who advised Ayanbadejo on his website design. "Some athletes who haven't necessarily done that have tried to talk about something, and they find themselves just putting their foot in their mouths."
Sam Marchiano agreed. She's a founding board member of Athlete Ally, led by former University of Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor.
Ayanbadejo became involved in the two-year-old organization early on, Marchiano said, and then did something surprising: He kept becoming more involved.
"He grew and grew and grew with our organization," Marchiano said. "That his commitment was so big and he was so involved, it was like, 'Oh wow, this person is a potential board candidate.' "
Ayanbadejo was named to the board in July, she said. And he's not only attending board meetings but has been working on strategy for the coming Winter Olympics, focusing on a tenet of the International Olympic Committee's charter that bans discrimination, known as Principle 6.
After Ayanbadejo's talk and Q&A at McDaniel, students said he had an impact with them.
"The points he made were really, really good. I didn't realize how difficult it was to be in the NFL and have a politician come in and say, 'You need to be quiet,'" said senior communications major Elyssa Bidwell, 21.
"He's putting his reputation on the line talking about this stuff," said Matt Kammer, 19, a sophomore business major. "I thought it was cool he was willing to do this."