Story from April 27, 2011
Nick Clark vividly remembers the turning point. He was driving home to Michigan in mid-2007 after a sexual rendezvous with a guy in Toledo, Ohio. It was in the wee hours of the morning and he had been heavily drinking when he started to fall asleep at the wheel. It was all he could do to stay awake and make it home.
“I then had a God moment,” Clark said. “I had this incredible urge to go to church the next day.”
|Nick Clark plays for the Michigan Panthers flag football team.
Clark had been raised a Catholic but was not very religious. The next day at church, though, “I really felt like someone was speaking to me. Everything was speaking to me – the songs, the priests. From that point, my life really started to change.”
Clark, 25, is the assistant men’s volleyball coach at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich. He is now openly and comfortably gay with a boyfriend whom he is crazy about. In the past month, he came out to his coach, Mike Watkins, who told him his sexual orientation doesn’t change anything.
Clark went from a closeted young man whose sole interactions with gay men were furtive meetings on dating websites, to an active member of the religious Athletes in Action, to someone who now wants to help other gay athletes and coaches come out. All this happened in the space of less than four years.
Clark’s journey will be familiar to many gay men. He knew he was “different” from other boys from the age of 10. He grew up in Carleton, a small community south of Detroit. From the outside, he had what appeared to be a stress-free upbringing. He had two loving parents and an older brother and sister, both talented athletes who doted on their baby brother. In high school, he played football and basketball (he was a 6-foot, 195-pound guard). He also started honing his coaching skills by managing the girl’s volleyball team. “I had a lot of friends and I got along with everyone,” he said.
Inside, Clark was terrified that he would be found out. He was nervous about managing the girl’s team because people might think he was gay. In his team’s locker rooms, the words “fag” and “homo” were tossed around liberally. “They were said jokingly, but there was an edge,” he said. So he kept his head down and went with the flow. He dated girls and started to make out, thinking it would change him.
All his attempts felt forced. Like many closeted people, he assumed people were watching his every move and taking notes. This despite fitting in and looking like the classic high school jock. “My guard was always up because I was afraid I would be found out. … Sure, I was blowing it out of proportion.”
As a junior in high school, Clark started going to gay porn sites, being careful to get on the computer at home when no one else was around. “I liked it. I thought it would be a sexual outlet,” he said.
Clark enrolled at Eastern Michigan University in 2003, where he played on the volleyball club team. He also started coaching volleyball and a local high school football team. Between his classes, working a job and sports, there wasn’t much time for anything else.
He then discovered online dating sites in his freshman year and things changed. “I really was uncomfortable going on the sites, but would do it after a night of drinking,” he said. Over the next few years he had a series of random meetings, made easier by Eastern Michigan’s close proximity to Ann Arbor, Detroit and Toledo. He felt hollow and was seeking a purpose when he had his “God moment.”
He started to explore Christianity and read the Bible. In December 2007, he discovered Athletes in Action and began attending Bible study classes. (Coincidentally, at one AIA meeting he met Austin Hendrix, who told his coming out story on Outsports in December.)
In his early days with AIA he continued to get on dating sites and had “a constant battle with my urges.” Still, no one suspected anything. Another turning point came in 2008, when he participated in AIA’s Colorado Project, a two-month summer retreat in Fort Collins.
“It was an amazing summer,” he said. “I made a lot of friends with people I am still friends with.”
During the summer, Clark said he felt as if his attraction to men “was going to go away.” He was focused on the retreat, where he worked at a rec center in addition to the constant emphasis on religion.
Clark came back to Michigan and started to date a girl, Jenna, he had met as a freshman (“she is a sweet girl and an amazing person,” he said). They agreed to take things slow, which was good for Clark since intimacy involved just kissing and holding hands. His attraction to men, though, was never far from the surface, so he concentrated even more on coaching and his involvement in AIA. “I seriously thought [my sexual orientation] was something I could conquer,” he said.
He went to Dayton, Ohio, for AIA training in a variety of sports and had what he called an amazing trip with the group’s traveling volleyball team to Moscow, Russia. He came back home in July 2009 and his relationship with Jenna started to get serious. “She was ready for the next step, marriage,” Clark said. She wanted a commitment from Clark before she decided on whether to accept a job offer locally or move to Baltimore.
By this time, Clark was all but done lying. “I knew the truth. I was gay. But I was still trying to hide it.” In August 2009, he made the only decision that seemed right – he broke up with Jenna.
That winter Clark started seeing a therapist. And he discovered something: Nothing was going to change. The therapist helped him accept that he was gay and that he could continue to coach sports. There was nothing wrong with him that needed to be fixed.
The idea was liberating and in May 2010, Clark started coming out to close friends, including those from AIA. Far from condemning him, they embraced Clark and told him they loved and supported him; they peppered him with questions about being gay, out of curiosity, and his friendships with them deepened.
He also came out to his family, and the acceptance was total. His brother joked that he suspected something was up even when Nick was a kid, “because I always chose Storm when we played ‘X-Men.’ “
Clark discovered a gay sports outlet when he joined the Michigan Panthers gay flag football team, and played in the Chicago Pride Bowl last June. He plans on playing in the upcoming Pride Bowl and in Gay Bowl XI in Houston. He also has a boyfriend, Rob, whom he met in late December. “He’s so sweet and great and very stable and mature,” Clark said.
Now that he is out and not trying to hide, Clark is less religious. “I still believe in God and I still pray, but it’s been a while since I went to church.” He describes himself as “the happiest I’ve ever been,” the days of loneliness, paranoia and questioning himself long gone.
Despite the support from his head coach, Clark does wonder whether being openly gay will hurt his coaching career, but he’ll take that uncertainty over the fears he dealt with before from constantly hiding.
His goal is to help other coaches and athletes wrestling with their sexuality, and thinks his experiences will resonate with others. “I still got that teacher, educator, coach mentality,” he said. “I got a lot I have to give.”
Nick Clark can be reached via email at email@example.com