To hell and back for out athlete Greg Congdon

Greg Congdon was Exhibit A for how being an openly gay athlete could be a disaster. In his first interview in nine years, Congdon talks about how his struggles led him to alcohol and how he regained his sense of self and found peace.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

Greg Congdon spent this past New Year's Eve alone in bed reading, a diet Pepsi in one hand and his Kindle in another. By his side were his two beloved huskies, Sasha and Tasha.

"I had the TV on with the [Times Square] ball dropping, reading my Kindle," Congdon said. "Peace and quiet, no trouble, no drama. It was pretty good for me."

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Greg Congdon at home with Sasha

Congdon was reading "Rounding Third," a coming-of-age novel by Walt G. Meyer that deals with two high school baseball players who fall in love. The book took Congdon back to his days as a high school athlete coping with his sexuality. He couldn't put the book down, and was then thrown a curveball when one of the novel's protagonists attempts suicide by downing a bottle of pain pills. Just like Congdon did when he was 17.

"Here I am at 2 a.m. and that [reading about suicide attempt] hit like a ton of bricks," Congdon, 30, said. The author "could have warned me at least," he jokes. He had struck up a friendship with Meyer, the author, years ago and "Rounding Third" uses incidents that have happened to gay teens; Congdon is acknowledged in the book's foreward.

Congdon's mellow New Year's Eve is in stark contrast to years past, when he would get blind drunk nearly every night. It was his way of self-medicating and dealing with his past.

Outed against his will

In the annals of athletes coming out, Greg Congdon is Exhibit A of how it can go horribly wrong. In 1998, threats forced him from school and from the two sports he loved playing - wrestling and football - and he was estranged from his friends in Troy, Pa., a small town in rural north-central Pennsylvania.

Dan Woog wrote the definite account of Congdon's outing, but here is the condensed version: Unable to cope with being gay, he attempts suicide and discloses at the hospital that he is gay; it is written on his medical chart. A nurse sees the chart and tells her son, the quarterback of Greg's high school team. The quarterback then tells everyone at school and Congdon's life becomes hell as he is shunned by teammates, classmates and coaches.

After his mother pulls him from school, his story gets picked up by the gay media, which leads to big-time interviews with ESPN, HBO and appearances on talk shows like "Phil Donahue." Congdon is suddenly thrust into the role of gay athlete spokesman, something he is clearly not ready for. After posting a rant on the Outsports Discussion Board in 2004 (in which, among other things, he came out against gay marriage), he disappears from public life and finds solace in alcohol. He resurfaced on the Discussion Board in late February by apologizing for his rant in a post titled "How I fell off the face of the Earth." My interview with him is his first in nine years.

Solace in rum and Coke

"I never expected to be a spokesman," he said. "Everything happened too fast. I never had time to sit down and just think about it all. And when I did sit down to think about, that's when the bitterness came. And then I was getting e-mails from teens who were going through similar situations. It was a feeling of anger, bitterness and being powerless.

"And then I started going to parties and started drinking. Once I started drinking I realized that gets rid of those feelings pretty quick.

"Then drinking at parties became drinking every other night. Then drinking every other night became drinking every night. I would start drinking at 7 at night and go to bed at 3 a.m., wasted. Always drinking rum and Coke. I would drink a liter [of rum] a night."

This went on for five years and not even a DUI conviction following a single-car crash in 2002 could deter him. The drinking, he thought, acted as a lubricant in his relationships.

"A lot of my problems with relationships is that I have a hard time opening up and I don't allow anyone that close to me. The only way I really opened up is if I was drunk because that would make me vulnerable. When I'm sober I would put up a huge barricade and not let anyone close."

Drinking made him happy, he added, so "I didn't see any harm in it at the time."

Changing his life

His last relationship ended two years ago, and Congdon realized he needed a change. He has a good job at General Revenue Corp. in Elmira, N.Y., as a debt collector for people who have defaulted on student loans. He still lives in Troy and is very close to his family. "My mom once told my sister that I bring home better-looking guys than she ever did," he jokes.

He has devoted himself to simpler pleasures, like reading, music, Penn State football, photography, collecting antique Hawkes glass and his two dogs - which he calls divas and better than boyfriends because "they don't talk back and they don't cheat." He is also thinking about getting back into competitive archery, a sport his family excels at. He has stopped drinking, weighs the same he did as an undersized high school center (145 pounds at 5-11) and is now such a lightweight that a glass of wine this past Christmas Eve caused him to fall asleep.

While scars have healed from his high school years, their memories still remain fresh. In the almost 13 years since he left school, Congdon has not talked to any of his former teammates who harassed and hounded him for being gay. And there is clearly a longing and love of the sports that were so important to him growing up.

"Sports made me happy. And when that was taken away I didn't really find a replacement. And that's when I started drinking," he said. "I replay games in my head, or wrestling matches in my head. Once you're an athlete you never forget it, and you're always replaying it in your mind."

Not forgotten

Congdon still hears from teenagers who are coping with their sexual orientation. Two years ago, someone on YouTube posted a video of his HBO appearance (since removed) and there was an outpouring of e-mails, most of them from teens.

"I would have thought that everyone would have forgotten me by now because I'm pretty sure I would have forgotten myself by now," he said.

"Some of them want words of encouragement to come out. I always say, be true to yourself, come out when you're ready. Sometimes it's better to take baby steps and make sure you have sure footing than taking a giant leap and falling on your ass. Trust me, I know, I think I was taking giant leaps back then and sometimes I think I still have the bruises on my ass."

Despite the pain he went through as a high school athlete, Congdon thinks times are changing and boldly predicts an NFL player will come out in five years. He bases this on what he calls a mindset change among coaches and athletes, especially gay teens "who are having more confidence to be themselves."

He's changed his mind on the issue of gay marriage, and sees it as one key part in getting society to accepting gays and lesbians.

"My biggest mistake when I was young and doing the interviews, being naïve, I thought the gay rights movements should have been more focused on the youth and the suicides that were going on. And I basically came out against gay marriage, saying it was a back-burner issue. But now that I am older, I realize how important it is. I don't plan on getting married any time soon. But I see how it is an important issue and how it could improve situations in high school. Whatever issue you take on could help another issue down the road."

"What would help more -- if a gay sports athlete came out or if high schoolers came out first and other players played with them and got used to the idea of having a gay athlete? It doesn't really matter. Either way it would help each other's situation. Yes, we're all dying for that pro athlete to come out, but it's gonna happen."

There is still some regret that comes through when talking with Congdon, who thinks he "was given a golden opportunity to lead and kind of blew it." But, then again, he never had a coming out on his schedule - he was outed in an environment that was openly hostile to gays. "I would have come out on my own terms." When all the homophobia happened "it reinforced what I knew."

Overall, though, Congdon is living his life as he wants, describing himself as "very happy." He wants to get more involved in gay rights, whether through volunteering or public speaking. The amount of e-mail he still gets from teens is a testament to how powerful and universal his story is.

"I fell off the face of the Earth and now I am getting my sure footing again. ... I'm taking down the barriers and taking a risk in being more vulnerable. Sometimes you can't be happy unless you take a risk or a chance."

Greg Congdon welcomes e-mail, either through his Facebook page or via clubberstud20@yahoo.com.

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