Mitch Eby had been repeating the word "gay" to himself for months. Not quietly, but out loud as he was driving, studying or lying in bed. He decided months ago that he wasn't yet used to saying the word or using it to describe himself. He felt funny about it, but that had to change: He would say it out loud to himself until it didn't sound funny anymore. Finally accepting that he was gay, Eby wanted to be comfortable saying the word when it came time to say it to the people he cared about most.
For the junior defensive end on the Chapman University football team, his teammates and coaches were near the top of that list. The team's 2013 campaign was a stellar success, finishing 8-1 with only a blown 10-point fourth quarter lead to the University of Redlands standing between them and a spot in the NCAA playoff. The men of the Panthers football team represent Eby's closest friends and roommates - the nearest group he has to a family away from home.
Hiding his identity from these men had eaten at him for a year. Coming out to them became a necessary - but difficult - decision.
Growing up around sports all his life, the soft-spoken Eby (EE-bee) carried a stigma in his head about gay athletes that conveyed a sense of weakness and disapproval.
"A lot of people use the word ‘gay' with a negative connotation," Eby said. "They say something is ‘gay' and most of the time it's in a very negative light. That made me feel like people have a negative association with somebody being gay. Comments from my friends, my teammates, coaches, everyone I know. Whether they realized it or not, it definitely had an impact on me."
Eby, who played football and baseball in high school, said he refused to accept being gay for years, even as he developed attractions to other boys. That refusal was founded on the messages he heard in sports. It's no surprise that, despite finally accepting his own sexual orientation, Eby was reticent about sharing the revelation with his teammates and coaches.
"With the team I struggled because I didn't want to make waves or upset the team dynamic. I liked where I was and I was having a lot of fun. I didn't want that to end."
That's when Eby found Conner Mertens, the redshirt freshman kicker at Willamette University who came out publicly as bisexual on Outsports in conjunction with You Can Play in January. Eby reached out to Mertens several weeks ago and the two hit it off.
"As soon as I got an email from him, it was exactly what I wanted, to see athletes like Mitch reaching out to me for help," Mertens said. "The first thing I asked him was, ‘Are you ready to start living your life?' He said he was very ready for it. Being out of the closet is so different from living life in it."
For Eby, who had only ever come out to one other person, talking with Mertens was a revelation. The two kibitzed over football, Eby shared his fears about coming out and Mertens talked about his experience with telling his team. Mertens had chosen to have his Willamette team read a letter from him at a team meeting - without himself present.
Eby knew he wanted to tell his team himself, but there was some work to be done before that was possible.
The first order of business was to share the news with his two roommates - a running back and a defensive end on the team. Since they lived with him, Eby figured it was only right that they knew first. When his roommates heard Eby's news, they said it didn't change a thing.
"They apologized for what they may have said or done before," Eby said. "They said they fully support me and they'll stick up for me and have my back no matter what. They were happy that I was able to come out to myself and to them."
He also knew he had to approach his head coach, Bob Owens, before talking with the other players. Owens has been Chapman's head coach since 2006, compiling an impressive 14-4 record over the past two seasons.
"He thought it wouldn't be a big deal at all to my teammates," Eby said of his conversation with Owens. "He thought they'd say 'okay' and move on. It wasn't a big deal to him whether I told the team or not, but he just said if I wanted to do it, I should do it for myself."
Owens was unshaken by Eby's revelation in part because he had already coached two gay players at Chapman. One of them was on the team when Eby was a freshman. That experience pushed Eby deeper into the closet because the player was, according to Eby's recollection, particularly unpopular with the rest of the team. Eby said the former Chapman player called a black teammate "the N-word" and disparaged his teammates on more than one occasion.
"People would say stuff about him being gay," Eby said, surmising now that it was used more as a weapon against him than a basis for their discontent. "I focused on them not liking him because he's gay because that's the common factor I had with him."
With the support of two teammates and now the head coach, Eby decided to address the entire team on March 18. It was the team's last meeting of spring football, just before their spring break. As the meeting neared its conclusion, pizza was brought in for the always-hungry young men. Before they could dive into dinner, coach Owens told them that Eby had asked for a couple minutes to address the team.
This was the short speech Eby gave, which he had written out beforehand:
"I came up here today to talk to you guys about something that I've been dealing with for quite a while. It's something personal that I've always thought I could just bury away, but I can't. We live life so worried about how other people view us that we forget about ourselves. I can no longer go on living in fear, repressing myself because of how society may view me. I can no longer lie to my friends, family and teammates. It's time I lived life for myself for a change.
"With that being said, I am ready to share with you all that I am gay.
"It has taken me years to accept myself for who I truly am, so it's irrational to expect everybody to unconditionally accept me right away. However, the one thing that I hope that I can count on from each of you, my teammates, is your respect. Your respect as a friend, your respect as a teammate, and your respect as a man.
"Being gay may be something that defines me, but it does not limit me. It is such a small part of who I am. I am the same person you all know, no different than before. I'm still the kid that is obsessed with pretty much anything having to do with sports, I'm still the kid that some of you love to call stupid nicknames like ‘mom' and ‘hot dog,' and I'm still someone who will continue to go out there every day and push myself and push my teammates to be the best football team around. I am your teammate, I am your classmate and I am your brother. And I know that my brothers will continue to stand by my side, no matter what."
When he had finished speaking, the team erupted in applause. Eby smiled, taken aback by the overwhelming response. As the clapping ceased, Eby broke the silence with the most profound words he would share all night:
"So how about some pizza?"
As the team gathered for dinner, various teammates hugged Eby, thanking him for sharing himself and trusting them. One teammate even called Eby his "hero."
It's been two weeks since he shared the news with his teammates and coaches. Eby has been pleasantly surprised by the lack of response by most -- It just hasn't fazed them. After the initial flood of support, he's heard only positive comments or neutral banter about life in general.
"Some of the people I thought would take it the worst have since been the friendliest to me," Eby said. "More people have said ‘what's up' to me in passing and been even friendlier than ever before. Maybe they feel bad for what they said or did before, but whatever the reason they feel like they need to be nice to me, to show me that I'm still a part of the team."
Eby's story is the latest in a potentially transformative year for gay athletes. In January, Mertens became the first active college football player to publicly declare he is bisexual; By our count, Eby is now the first active college football player to publicly come out as gay. Michael Sam declared he was gay after his college football career ended, three months before he heads to an NFL team. They join about two dozen athletes who have chosen to come out publicly just this year. More are coming.
For Eby, it's just part of a bigger mission. He wants to help as many young athletes - particularly football players - struggling with their sexual orientation.
"I got a lot of help, even indirectly, from people who have gone through similar situations as mine," Eby said. "I feel somewhat of a responsibility to pay that back.
"There's a lot of bad stuff that happens and kids feel alone and they feel depressed because they're repressing their feelings because they feel like they can't talk to anybody. People shouldn't have to go through that. It's sad, and I want to be able to help if I can."
Chapman University Men's Basketball Senior Night (via Mitchell Eby)