Conner Mertens came out to his team & the world
A place kicker at Willamette University in Oregon, Mertens came out as bisexual to his team. He now comes out publicly in hopes of inspiring other LGBT athletes to come out and be true to themselves.
It was a year ago Wednesday that college football had its first publicly out active athlete, when Conner Mertens told the world via Outsports that he was LGBT - It was a day after he had bravely come out to his team.
It's been an incredible year for Mertens. In those 365 days he has become a touchstone for other LGBT athletes, so many of them reaching out to him for insights and advice. His selfless behind-the-scenes work with so many of them earned him Outsports' Male Hero of the Year Award for 2014.
Yet for Mertens, two moments since he came out stand out as particularly impactful.
The first came in Portland at the LGBT Sports Summit, hosted by Nike. Attending the "unreal" event with about 100 other LGBT people in sports, Mertens found true comfort to be himself. While he had found acceptance from his fraternity brothers and football teammates at Willamette, spending the weekend under Nike's #BeTrue banner was the first time he felt himself let go of his guard completely and let his true self shine.
"It was the first time I was allowed to be 100% me," Mertens said. "It was the first time I was surrounded by people who were like myself. It was the first time I had zero inhibitions as far as hiding who I truly was."
Mertens also got to meet some real trailblazers in the movement that weekend, like NCLR's Helen Carroll and former Penn State coach Sue Rankin, along with other young athletes like Derek Schell and Matt Kaplon.
"I looked around and saw all of these people. I literally took a deep breath, like the one I took when I came out to my team. It was so relaxing, such a calming atmosphere."
The second impactful moment came after his first game. A publicly out LGBT athlete had never played NCAA college football at any level. In his first game - at home against Trinity College from Texas on Sept. 13 - Mertens went 4-for-5 on PATs with his lone miss coming after a 10-yard holding penalty.
Yet it wasn't the historic context of the game that got to Mertens, it was his father striding onto the field, beaming about his son having made it to a starting position on a college football team.
"He had this pride about him. He was walking taller, almost like he was trying to get everyone to see him be proud of his son, like he was showing me off. My dad got to see his boy play college football, and I got to play and experience that. It was a really liberating moment."
It hasn't always been easy for some of Merten's family to understand him not being straight. Yet these two moments helped build an indelible connection between the athlete and his family...and help him see his family as something far bigger than the people with whom he grew up.
Here's to another incredible year of being true, Conner.