He stood almost 6-4, weighed nearly 300 pounds of solid muscle, and was one of the strongest guys on the team. I was about 6-2, 195 pounds, strong, but not that strong. John, I'll call him, had a reputation for being a bully and a bigot. I was the openly gay kicker, a perfect target. "Faggot," "queer," "girl," and any other derogatory term you can call a gay man spewed from his mouth when I walked by, fearing for my life.
Such was my everyday life for the first few months of being an openly gay football player at a major Division 1 university (the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) in the fall of 2003. I was scared. Afraid to say the wrong thing, make eye contact with the wrong person, or do anything that might be considered too "gay," which could potentially mean harsh and painful consequences for me from the group of homophobes on the team. Every day I was walking on eggshells. Scared and alone, I set out to earn the love and respect from my fellow teammates and coaches.
I knew my journey wasn't going to be easy, but I wasn't going to live a lie or live in fear. I was going to be myself.(Courtesy of Eric Lueshen)
This wasn't your average football team. This was the big leagues, the Cornhuskers, historically one of the best college football teams. And this wasn't the most accepting state either. Nebraska has a history of being one of the most conservative and anti-LGBT states in the country. In 2000, Nebraska voters adopted a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and prohibited the recognition of same-sex relationships. Gay marriage was still a pipe dream, with Massachusetts still months away from being the first state to legalize it in May 2004. It was also just five years after the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in Nebraska's neighboring state of Wyoming.
I knew my journey wasn't going to be easy, but I wasn't going to live a lie or live in fear. I was going to be myself — an athletic, smart, fun, quirky, driven, caring, and passionate man who just so happened to be gay.
I grew up in the very conservative, tiny farm town of Pierce, Neb. (population 1,745). Growing up in the "middle-of-nowhere" was incredibly difficult, and my childhood and teen years were rocky. I was bullied for being gay even before I had accepted myself, had major family issues and almost committed suicide several times due to severe depression.
My dad and I feuded a lot and physical battles were common, which led to numerous police visits at my home. This culminated in me becoming a ward of the state for two years at the ages of 15 and 16, and forced to live in a group home for a few months. During this time I was even twice admitted to the hospital's suicide ward. Life just didn't seem worth living. My guardian angel must have been protecting me though, because something was always holding me back from going all the way through with killing myself. I think I knew deep down that my life had more value and that I would ultimately prove everyone wrong.
Ultimately, I used the abuse I endured at school and at home to strengthen my resolve to succeed. I would prove the bullies and my dad wrong. My drive led me to numerous academic, musical, and athletic achievements in high school despite my troubled life.
At 17, during my junior year of high school, I came out to my family and friends. My close friends embraced me and said my sexuality didn't matter to them. Despite the turmoil at home, my mother and sisters were accepting of my decision to live an open and honest life. I'll never forget my mother's initial reaction to me coming out. As she sat at the dinner table sobbing, she uttered, "I always knew you were gay. A mother always knows. I had to let you come to terms with it first though. I want you to know that I love and support you no matter what. You're still my same blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy." My father wasn't near as supportive at first due to his own homophobia and our highly dysfunctional relationship. In time though, our relationship improved, and he has become one of my biggest supporters. I am proud to call him my dad.
I graduated high school as salutatorian, and was awarded academic scholarships to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for chemical engineering, where I had also signed on to play football for the Huskers. I have always taken pride in being true to myself and who I am as a person. Therefore, it was an easy decision not to jump back into the closet when going into college. However risky it may have been to start my Husker football career as an openly gay man didn't matter to me. What mattered was that I was being true to myself. If someone asked me about my sexuality, I was ready to tell them the truth.
I remember walking into our first team meeting in early August 2003. The plush, Husker-red stadium seating within the football auditorium filled with more than 100 of the best athletes in the country. Testosterone filled the air. Eyes glared at me. There were puzzled looks on some of my fellow teammates' faces. I'm certain most of them had already found out about my sexuality through the grapevine, since I never hid it from anyone and had already come out to my family and friends. In small-town Northeast Nebraska, word traveled fast about news like this.
I can only imagine what some of them were thinking. "We have a fag on our team now? I'm going to destroy that little fairy on the field." I tried my best to hide my uneasiness and walked up the stairs to the back of the auditorium. Luckily I had already made friends with some of the other incoming freshman while on recruiting trips. As I sat down with them I thought, "How am I going to do this? How am I going to win over my teammates and coaches as an openly gay football player? Will I be beat up? Will I survive and thrive in this difficult atmosphere, or will I end up another Matthew Shepard?"
Immediately following that meeting, the gay bashing began. As I walked out of the auditorium, I could hear John utter "queer," while he pretended to cough. A few of his friends on the team chuckled. I pretended not to hear them, and continued my way to the locker room. Thankfully we didn't have practice that day. I wasn't sure if I was ready to pad up and face some of those homophobes on the field.
My folks called me later that evening. "How was Day 1 as a Husker?" I didn't want to scare my worry-prone mother or my father, who was struggling with his own homophobia, so I lied. "It was great! I love all of the free swag, and they feed us very well." Not a mention of the bullying.
Walking onto the field inside massive Memorial Stadium for our first practice was nerve wracking. I could see John and his buddies about 30 yards away. I planned to steer clear of them as much as possible. As a kicker you're vulnerable once your leg has swung by and the ball has set sail towards the uprights. All John or his homophobic buddies had to do was intentionally rough me, causing serious injury to my legs, and my career could be over. I was relieved when the kicking coach said that kickers and quarterbacks got to wear a green jersey, which meant you were not supposed to be hit. But would a green jersey be enough to stop John's hate and anger?
Throughout my first month as an openly gay Husker football player, the bullying from a handful of my teammates was relentless.
Throughout my first month as an openly gay Husker football player, the bullying from a handful of my teammates was relentless. Name calling and degrading and demoralizing comments were all too common. "Whatcha lookin' at, faggot?!" I'd hear if I made eye contact with any of them, especially John.
If I was ever caught walking towards any of these homophobic teammates in the hallway I knew to step aside and let them pass. It only took once for me to learn that lesson. The first time I was caught walking towards John in a narrow hallway resulted in me getting slammed into the wall lined with portraits of past Husker greats. "Watch it, fag!" he yelled as my back crashed into the wall and the portraits shook.
During the first several months, it was common to see groups of athletes and their friends huddle up and whisper when I'd walk into the student-athlete cafeteria or academic center. Often I'd overhear people say "that's the gay football player" and then proceed to laugh. It was very uncomfortable and unwelcoming to say the least. But one day this all changed.
It was lunchtime on a brisk fall day in 2003. I sat down with my tray full of food across from two close friends of mine on the team, Corey McKeon and Sean Hill. As I began eating, Corey, who had no filter, said, "Hey, Pretty Boy. We have a question." I'm thinking "Oh, God, I know what this is." Corey asked, "Are you gay?" He and Sean had probably overheard rumors and wanted me to clarify. I looked up at Corey and Sean with a big smile on my face and replied calmly, "Yeah, is that a problem?" Corey and Sean quickly glanced at each other and then back at me as they said in unison, "No. That's cool. We thought so. Just wanted to check." Our conversation quickly shifted into something mundane, we finished our lunch and made our way to team meetings. It was one of the easiest "coming out" moments of my life.
Word of my coming out to Corey and Sean spread like wildfire. Within a few days, everyone on the football team and within the athletic department knew there was an openly gay athlete among them.
Corey and Sean had upbeat personalities and they were always cracking jokes, which made them very popular and helped them amass a large group of friends within the athlete community and elsewhere. The acceptance and love they, as well as my fellow kickers, punters and long snappers, showed me helped other teammates lower their walls and let me in. To this day, I think that had I not befriended Corey and Sean so early on, my road to being accepted would've been much longer and more painful.
By the time Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around that year, my circle of friends within the student-athlete community continued to grow. Though the majority of my teammates looked beyond my sexuality and accepted me for who I was, John and his cronies still hadn't let up. I continued to be the butt of their homophobic jokes. I didn't let this bullying get to me though. My hope was that in time they'd learn to love and accept me too.
LGBTs of all ages were inspired by my courage to live openly in such a masculine environment.Lueshen at a Packers game in September with openly gay former NFL lineman Esera Tuaolo. (Courtesy of Eric Lueshen)
Word about the "openly gay Husker kicker" soon spread throughout campus, Nebraska and the Midwest, and people from all over began contacting me. I would often receive heartwarming emails and letters, or be approached while out in public. When Facebook became popular in early 2004, the emails and messages became even more frequent. LGBTs of all ages, as well as heterosexuals, were inspired by my courage to live openly in such a masculine environment.
A lot of the public knew I was openly gay back then even if no media outlet wrote about it. From the first time I had a Facebook profile, it said that I was "interested in men." I was completely out. I took my boyfriend at the time to football games, major athlete functions and the student-athlete formal, all with media present at each event. We had media members all the time at practices and a couple of these media guys were gay themselves and knew for a fact I was too. We even would talk out at the gay bar sometimes about me and my experience being openly gay on the team. You have to remember that in Nebraska, football is THE SPORT. Back then, people in Nebraska would rather have kept things like this hush-hush and just avoid the topic as much as possible. The media knew that a lot of the people in Nebraska and Husker fans were not ready for something like this. In many ways it was a conspiracy of silence.
The last week of December 2003, my teammates and I were in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl. I consider this week-long trip as another defining moment on the road to my full acceptance on the team. I was forced to be in close quarters with John and his small band of homophobes, from bus rides, to dinners, to staying in adjacent hotel rooms. I could no longer avoid them.
During that week John and his friends witnessed, stronger than before, just how comfortable the majority of my teammates were with my sexuality. They observed me joking around and laughing with other teammates, socializing, and just being "normal" like everyone else. I was quickly becoming "one of the guys", and John and his buddies were there to watch it all.
On Dec. 29, 2003, we defeated Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl, 17-3. The hotel where the team was staying had turned into a huge party. The Husker marching band played "Hail Varsity" in the lobby, balloons and streamers were everywhere, and the air was filled with excitement.
As I made my way down the hall to my first of many stops for the evening, I noticed John and his pack heading towards the same party room as me. John saw me coming and shouted, "fag!" At that moment, one of the other homophobes who had been tormenting me alongside John for the past five months, grabbed John's arm and said, "Dude. Stop. Not tonight." John scoffed, shut his mouth, and continued into the party. The tides were changing.
After our return from the Alamo Bowl, changes were underway for the football program. Frank Solich and his coaching staff were let go and new coaches were brought in to replace them. Now I had to win over them, including head coach Bill Callahan — now a Dallas Cowboys assistant — as well as continue to change the hearts and minds of the handful of homophobes.
During this time, about 50 players were to be cut from the football team in an effort to downsize. I was extremely worried that I would be one of them. What a perfect excuse to use for getting rid of the gay kicker. I had already felt like certain people in the football program (including a few coaches) had been trying to push me away because they didn't want to deal with a gay athlete. However, I was always the guy pushing myself beyond my own limits in order to prove my worth.
Even though I wasn't the strongest, fastest or most agile person on the team, I would be damned if I was going to lose a sprint or any other strength and conditioning drill. In the weight room, on the field, and in the classroom I proved my abilities and showed my determination and hard work ethic. In the end, I was not cut. They saw how valuable I was to the team, despite my sexuality.
After solidifying my spot on the team, things started to change even more in how my teammates perceived me.Lueshen, top right, with the kickers, punters, and long snappers at the 2003 Alamo Bowl. (Courtesy of Eric Lueshen)
After solidifying my spot on the team that spring, things started to change even more in how my teammates perceived me. The demeanor of the homophobic group became less and less harsh, and abusive comments were few and far between. Teammates were even quick to apologize if they said something like "that's gay" around me.
The biggest change would occur that summer.
I'll never forget the night me and some of the guys went out to celebrate my birthday in August 2004. We walked into an athlete house party, and there across the room was John. I thought to myself, "I don't want to deal with him and his bigotry on my birthday." Then all of a sudden, John sees me from across the living room and yells out "Hey Luesh!" and gestures for me to come over. I prayed I wasn't going to get slammed into a wall again.
Instead, when John found out it was my birthday he handed me a bottle of Crown Royal and told me to keep it. He then put his arm around me and confessed in words I can still clearly remember 10 years later:
"I was a homophobe, and I was very uncomfortable being around you. There were times when I thought I was going to beat your ass. I didn't know how I was going to be around you every day for the rest of my career at Nebraska. But through getting to know you, I've realized that you are not the stereotype of what people like to say gay is. Ultimately, you're just a really nice guy. You're fun to be around. You're funny, you're cool."
By this point in the conversation, the rest of the small band of homophobes from the team and more teammates had gathered around. John then said to me, "I want you to know that if anyone has any problem with you, or even says anything bad to you, let me know because me and the guys will take care of it."
That experience will forever hold a very special place in my heart. At that moment I realized that if I never got playing time, never saw the field, or never got an opportunity it was OK because I did something bigger than anyone ever could at the University of Nebraska.
Even though my teammates and most of my coaches now fully accepted me, a few coaches and a large chunk of Husker nation still did not. One assistant coach in particular would often sneer at me in disgust and sometimes comment on how feminine I was acting or whatever flipped his homophobic switch at the time.* I'm not certain coach Callahan knew of the assistant coach's actions or comments since he never mentioned anything to me about it personally. I am certain, though, that coach Callahan was well aware of my sexuality. It was common knowledge, and people would openly ask me questions around him and other coaches. I even introduced coach Callahan to my then boyfriend at a team picnic after the 2004 spring football game. He was always very friendly and professional, and never discussed my sexuality with me. I don't think it mattered to him.
My dad, who by this time had overcome his own homophobia, even called me up one night to tell me not to turn on a certain sports radio station because of the homophobic comments being said regarding the topic of the hour. That topic was "Is Nebraska ready for an openly gay football player?" Even though they never mentioned my name, I knew the discussion was about me. It hurt.
The negative impact these specific fans and coaches had on me was huge. Even though I knew I was good enough to start, doubts set in. I kept reminding myself what the only pure placekicker in the NFL Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, once told me. After I won every competition at his kicking camp the summer before my junior year of high school against numerous high school and college kickers, he pulled me aside, placed his Hall of Fame ring on my finger, and said, "You'll have one of these some day." Even with reminders like that, it was hard avoiding depression while dealing with the stress, anxiety, and frustration of constantly struggling to answer the question of "Would they ever give me a chance due to my sexuality?"
After almost two years of proving myself, I was finally given an opportunity as a frontrunner for the starting kicking position. The blood, sweat, and tears looked as though they had finally paid off until one day in 2005 during fall camp when I was accidentally roughed by a fellow teammate, which resulted in me partially tearing my upper hamstring. I sat out for the next 14 practices, and was rushed back into kicking before I was fully healed. By this time I had already been written off and replaced.
My football career was over before it could really even begin.
Unfortunately for me, after that season fate took its course. I had always struggled with back problems, and one day after a conditioning session I couldn't stand up. I felt almost paralyzed. The pain was so intense I could barely move. At that moment, I knew it was time to get things fixed.
Numerous doctors told me the same thing, I had a severe spondylolisthesis and I would need to have a spinal fusion. My football career was over before it could really even begin.
I'll never forget the day I went in to tell Coach Callahan that my career was over and that I needed back surgery. I was very emotional and tearing up. It was the end for me. All those years of training, countless weightlifting and conditioning sessions, team meetings and games no longer served my now-squashed dream of playing in the NFL. Football was done.
I remember looking across the desk through my watery eyes and seeing Coach Callahan shedding a tear. I knew at that moment I was fully accepted for who I was as a person and that my sexuality was not anything that defined me. My coaches and teammates loved and respected me for who I was and for my character and values. That meant the world to me.
Even though my football career ended early due to back surgery, I did something on a much larger scale by just being me. Not hiding who I was, not living a lie, but instead living life as my most authentic self.
* * *
As I reflect on the 10 years since leaving football, my goal in life has always been to help people. In college I did so through numerous community outreach programs, which earned me a spot on the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team two years in a row. Since football, my journey to help people has led me to pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which I'm in the process of finishing this year. Books and studying aside, my football story has given me another opportunity to help people. This time, I'm able to help my fellow members of the LGBTQ community.
In the wake of Michael Sam coming out, I was approached by 93.7 The Ticket FM in Lincoln to share my football story. I ultimately did so in order to open minds, inspire LGBTQ people everywhere, and further progress the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Through sharing my story of struggle, love, and acceptance, I have had the opportunity to help other struggling LGBTQ, not just athletes, overcome their fear, accept themselves, and be proud of their sexuality and who they are.
Watching numerous LGBTQ athletes of all ages have the courage to come out gives me hope that we are on our way to full equality among all facets of life. I'm so proud of each and every one of these athletes. I never had any LGBTQ athlete role models to look up to for inspiration when I was growing up, at least I didn't know of any back then. It was a different time back when I played college football. Thankfully, public opinion and societal views on homosexuality and gender identity have taken a monumental shift in this country.
We now have athletes like Jason Collins, Brittney Griner, Robbie Rogers, Michael Sam, Derrick Gordon, Billy Bean, Megan Rapinoe, Esera Tuaolo, Chris Mosier and numerous others who are collectively breaking down the barriers for other LGBTQ athletes. Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL this year was monumental. Michael is living out one of my dreams, and I'm thrilled for him.
With each LGBTQ athlete having the courage to come out, another brick is knocked down from the barrier of inequality. It's only a matter of time until there is an openly gay athlete in each of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States. I look forward to that time.
Things are even changing in Nebraska. This past March and April I had the honor of helping to lobby the Nebraska Legislature to pass a bill (LB 485) that would ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We had majority support, which would have passed the bill had the opposition not filibustered. Although the bill did not pass, a lot of progress was made seeing that this was the first time any LGBTQ rights bill had even seen the Nebraska legislative floor. The Human Rights Campaign has since announced that it will form a Nebraska chapter under Project One America to advocate for laws that protect LGBTQ people in my home state.
Since having the opportunity to share my story with the world through numerous radio interviews, print articles, podcasts, panel discussions, speaking engagements, etc, I have heard from numerous former teammates, fellow athletes, and fans. I have yet to hear from John; however, shortly after my initial interview I received the following Facebook message from my buddy Sean Hill:
Pretty Boy ... Corey Thomas and I are both honored that you think we played such a large role in your acceptance on the team. We never looked at you as anyone other than our friend. It makes us both happy to know that our acceptance of your lifestyle, which to us was "no big deal," was so important to you and played a big role in your life.
Hearing stories from youth made me realize how much of a role each of us can play in one another's lives simply by setting an example.
Messages like this reiterate how important our straight allies are to the LGBTQ community. The more straight allies we have standing up for us, the stronger our movement for equal rights becomes. I'm lucky to have had Corey and Sean sticking up for me all those years ago. As for John, I have not spoken with him since my football career came to a halt thanks to back surgery. At that time it was too difficult to be around sports or any athlete. However, I pray that today John stands up for and supports the LGBTQ community the same way he ended up having my back all those years ago. Even people like John who were once homophobic can have their minds changed about homosexuality simply by meeting and getting to know someone who is gay and getting a little education on the subject.
In June I had the honor of going back to Nebraska and western Iowa to be the Youth Ambassador for Heartland Youth Pride and the Grand Marshal for Heartland Pride. It was at these events where I got to see firsthand the positive impact I have had on the LGBTQ community simply by being true to myself and living an open and honest life. It was so touching to be welcomed back with such open arms. Hearing stories from youth about how I've helped them overcome struggles, defeat suicidal thoughts, accept themselves and come out to their family made me realize how much of a role each of us can play in one another's lives simply by setting an example.
I encourage each of you to be that example for one another. So many LGBTQ struggling to accept themselves feel alone. Show them they are not alone, and lend a helping hand when they need it.
Life isn't meant to be easy. The hard times serve to shape our character and to help us develop solid morals and values. I know firsthand that life does get better, so please don't give up. It's not easy to come out and different circumstances make it hard for everyone to do. But I am living proof that a player on a team in a conservative, football-mad state can do it and be accepted and change minds. #BeTrue
Author's note: I know readers will want to know why I did not disclose John's real name. The point of my story was not to shame him for the way he acted more than a decade ago, but to prove that even homophobes can change. He is not the same person who tormented me back then and I did not want to bring undue negative public attention to him. Therefore, John was kept anonymous out of respect for his privacy.
*Since I know some will wonder, the assistant coach that hassled me for being gay was not Ron Brown. While I am aware he has spoken out against gay rights bills in Nebraska, in his dealings with me he was always cordial and professional.