Linebacker Eric Striker has been a leader on the University of Oklahoma football team that faces Clemson on New Year's Eve in one of the two college football playoff games. But it's his social activism off the field that sets him apart and that includes supporting gay rights.
Striker is friends with Tanner Williams, an openly gay member of the Sooners' track and field team. Striker was one of the people who was supportive when Williams came out publicly after announcing his engagement to his now-husband Scott. Both athletes belong to Bridge Builders, an OU group for African-American student-athletes that has broadened its mission.
"In the 2014-2015 school year, Bridge Builders invited me to be one of their executive members to help bring diversity and inclusion to sports," Williams told me. "Eric Striker was one of the first people that I got connected with and he and all the others gave me the courage and strength to come out publicly and to stand for what I believe in.
"Eric is very supportive of the LGBT community and believes that everyone was created equal and we should all respect one another based on who we are as individuals, not the color of our skin or the people we fall in love with. He's a great person to have as a friend. He cares more about everyone else before he does himself. I'm very lucky to call such a man my friend."
This spring, when a racist video from members of an OU fraternity was made public, Striker's video response went viral and showed his passion for the issue. Around the same time, he told Jason Kersey of the Daily Oklahoman about his changing views on gays based on a friendship with a gay classmate in high school.
"I was never really against gay people, but I maybe thought things like, 'That's not me; I don't really wanna be around them,' " Striker admitted. "But as people, we have to allow people to change us. I hung around with him, had classes with him and he was just a normal, funny guy. Now I've got no problem saying I've got gay friends. So what? I know who I am. The hatred some people have toward gay people is just not right. It's not fair."
Striker is not the only Sooner player who has spoken on gay issues. Cornerback Zack Sanchez was critical of Indiana's proposed law that would have allowed LGBT discrimination based on religious beliefs.
"I think discriminating is the dumbest thing anybody can do as a human being," Sanchez told Kersey. "I've been guilty of it before, but at the end of the day, I know it's not right. Hopefully people will realize that it's a new age. It's not the 1800s or 1900s anymore. Things are changing. We've just gotta learn to love each other.
"Whether you're gay, straight, black, white, orange, purple, it doesn't matter. We're all people at the end of the day. We can't go around judging people based on their preference or what color they are."
I don't have a strong rooting interest in the college football playoffs this year, but I know that Striker and Sanchez will be two players I will be rooting for to succeed.