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Conner Mertens has triumphant first season as out college football player

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Conner Mertens came out publicly earlier this year and, other than one incident involving fans, felt welcomed by everyone in football. Oh, and he played well too.

Conner Mertens just completed his first season playing with the Willamette football team.
Conner Mertens just completed his first season playing with the Willamette football team.
Jeff Sheng, Fearless Project

Conner Mertens wasn't sure what to expect from the 2014 season. The place kicker for the Willamette University Bearcats football team had come out publicly in January before every playing a down for the team, having red-shirted his freshman year.

With more national attention than maybe any freshman Div. III kicker has ever received, Mertens performed well. He was second in the Northwest Conference in field goal percentage, making 5 of 7 attempts. He missed only one PAT in 39 attempts - that lone miss was after a holding penalty on a made PAT. It was only his second PAT miss ever. He even contributed some limited punting duties.

The team finished 5-4 overall, winning three of its four road games.

"Considering it was my first college football season, I felt good about the season," Mertens told Outsports between finals this week. "I was second on the team in scoring, and I had four tackles. Unfortunately I don't have the leg strength yet to put the ball in the end zone. But other than that, I'm happy."

Mertens' highlight of the season was helping the Bearcats topple the No. 5 team in the country, Linfield College. Mertens' lone field goal of the game was the difference-maker in the team's big 31-28 win. It was Linfield's only loss of the season; They play in the national semifinal this weekend.

"And being able to watch one of the guys on the team whom I look up to [running back Dylan Jones] break a lot of records, that was awesome to watch him do his senior year."

On the flip side, there was a major lowlight to Mertens' season as well. At an away game for the Willamette football team, Mertens repeatedly heard fans in the student section yell "faggot" at him and his teammates. A female athlete supporting the football team at the game claims she was called "bitch" and "slut" by the school's student fans.

"They were calling me 'fag' all day. But what bothered me was they were doing it to parents and some of the women. It was hard to watch. I had to focus on the game, not what was going on in the stands. They're a good team with a really good program, but I'm not going to remember that. I'm going to remember those fans saying those terrible things. The players were awesome, but their fans were disgusting.

"And thinking there is a gay kid in the stands having to listen to that, it was really hard to watch."

The school's conference mandates the in-stadium broadcast of an in-game sportsmanship statement. The school's broadcast each game reads:

[The school] and the NCAA promote good sportsmanship by student-athletes, coaches and spectators. We request your cooperation by supporting the participants and officials in a positive manner. Profanity, racial or sexist comments directed at student-athletes, coaches, officials or other team personnel will not be tolerated and are grounds for removal from the arena/site of competition.

Like we hear about from time to time, some fans heartily ignore the sportsmanship goals of otherwise strong athletic programs, as they allegedly did during their football game against Willamette.

Yet this lone bump in the road couldn't detour Mertens' strong first season. His 71.4% of field goals made - along with his 97.4% PAT conversion rate - would have put him in the middle of the pack in Div. I. Not bad for his first season on the college gridiron. Mertens sees it as simply room for improvement.

"Of course I can do better," he said, "and I'm going to do better next year."

What goes totally unreported is the number of LGBT athletes Mertens has helped over the last year. Various athletes - including Dawson Roscoe, whom we profiled today - have gotten strength from texting and talking with Mertens. Despite balancing football and school, he makes time daily to interact with LGBT athletes struggling to come out.

This man is one to watch in the years ahead.