There are 10 seconds left on the clock with my team down by 1 point and the ball. Coach draws up a play and directs each player for the last play, the play that will win us the game and a state championship. We brake the huddle and I get the ball at the top of the key. I take two dribbles going to my left as my teammate sets a monster screen on my defender. I roll off the screen and now have a Shaq-like post refusing to let me past him. I get my defender off balance and take a step back. With that, I have enough space to throw up a 15-foot jumper. It seems like an eternity for the ball to get to the basket but when it does, it's nothing but net and the buzzer goes off. The crowd rushes the court in excitement as we win by 1 point and I'm the hero of my school.
This dream played out in my head every night during my summers growing up. For three hours every night you could find me in my high school's gym throwing up shots, playing out the last 10 seconds of a game over and over. This was my time to decompress and step away from real life and the thoughts constantly running in my head.
My story starts out like many others — scared, confused, and curious. I was in the early stages of middle school and living in a small, conservative ranching community in South Dakota. For kids around these parts, there was not much to do but work, go to school, go to church and play sports.
I was no exception to this. I grew up the youngest of four kids in a Catholic, blue collar working family. My mom worked at the local school as a business manager while my dad worked as a janitor and landscaper. I learned the definition of hard work from these two as I cannot recall a day they didn't go to work, nor did we ever miss a Saturday evening mass. We were the typical working class family, except for one little hitch — I was gay.
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I started noticing differences when I compared myself to other boys my age. I wasn't taking an interest to girls like the other boys in my class. I knew I was different, but I couldn't really figure out what exactly was going on. I distinctly remember thinking this is very bad and that I had to hide and learn to be attracted to girls and everything would be fine. I would go to bed at nights praying to wake up and have God "fix me." I felt ashamed of myself because I knew I was different and just wanted to be like everyone else.
Around this age, I started competing in sports and basketball was everything to me. I competed in clinics and tournaments traveling around South Dakota and attended as many basketball camps as my mom or coach could take me to. When I wasn't traveling, I was at the school shooting hoops, imagining playing for Coach K or getting glared at by Pat Summitt, all while trying to suppress the negative thoughts of being gay.
Going into high school I couldn't control the thoughts in my head and it seemed they occurred more and more. The basketball court was the only place I could go and calm the fears of what would happen to me if my family and friends knew I was gay. With the time I put in the gym, I developed into a pretty good basketball player. I made varsity all four years in high school and picked up a few honors along the way. Sports helped me get through middle school and high school without any traumatic experiences or anyone finding out my dark secret. I managed to blend in with my peers as best as I could with the help of sports. Because of this, I became more unhappy with myself for the "role" I was playing.
As high school ended I was excited to start fresh and go to college. I'd thought with this new phase in my life I could be brave enough and start being honest with myself and others. I attended the University of South Dakota with intentions of going to class and having fun. Sports were still a big part of my life as I played club tennis and basketball and even joined a fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. With tennis, basketball, classes, and house parties going on every night, it was easier than ever to suppress my thoughts and loneliness. I still couldn't find it in myself to be honest. I was letting the thought of everyone's opinion dictate my life and did so for four years. Jared Indahl with a statue of one of his idols, Coach Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee.
Finding a niche in Tennessee
When I graduated from USD I had no clue of what I was doing with my life and felt lost. As I made a reference to Pat Summitt earlier in my story, there's a reason for that. Pat is my idol. I loved watching her coach and interact with players to get the absolute best out of them at the most pivotal times. I grew up following her program and knew she had a male practice squad, which I tried out for and was asked to be a part of. This was a perfect opportunity in a couple of ways. I could get away from South Dakota and everyone I knew and essentially be gay. I would also have the opportunity to play the sport I love with one of the greatest coaches ever and best programs in women's college basketball. So I packed up and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee.
I envisioned walking around Knoxville with the song "Good Life" by One Republic playing on my headphones. In reality it was very different. My first day on campus I received a text alert that an armed robbery and murder happened at my apartment complex with the suspect still at large. In my first meetings with the Tennessee basketball coaches they kept reiterating that the program had to "protect Pat's image and protect her" at all times and practice players are a reflection of the program. This was very puzzling to me for a women who built the Lady Vol brand and women's college basketball to what it is today. Why would she need protecting? A few days later the bomb dropped that she was battling early onset Alzheimers. This was devastating and I began to wonder if this move was really the best thing for me.
If I had learned anything from competing in athletics it was to not give up when it gets tough. I had to buckle down and grow up. The first thing I had to do was openly admit that I was gay and for the first time ever accept myself. One evening I told my roommate that I wanted to be honest with him since we were going to be living together for the year. I stuttered and beat around the bush with stories and it nervously came out of my mouth that I was gay. Saying this openly for the first time is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but at the same time was the most gratifying feeling I've ever had. At that second I didn't care if my roommate was going to be tolerant or not because I realized I had finally accepted myself.
Being in the South, I was worried this would end badly in a fist fight or a forced exorcism. After what seemed like an eternity for a reaction, he was very supportive and encouraging. In a deep Southern drawl, he said it wasn't a big deal to him and he respected me for coming forward. Before this moment I was scared to death of what anyone would think, and now if anyone had the balls to ask I could give them an honest answer. This was a huge relief and a positive step towards accepting myself.
That same week I started an internship with the athletic marketing department at Tennessee. I was in awe of the people I had opportunities of working with and the responsibilities I was given. I was finally at peace with the direction of my life and the choices I had made to get to this point. But I had a long way to go.
During the start of my second year I knew I had to come out to my mom. If she would be OK with this then everyone else in my family would be. I was scared of her reaction and I didn't want to make this a huge deal because to me, this wasn't a big deal. I'm no different than my brothers or sister, but I wanted her to know and be honest with her. With this in mind I chose to send her an email with my thoughts and if she had a problem with it, it's not like she could physically do anything to me being thousands of miles apart. She's only 5'5" but still can put the fear of death in me.
She called me the next day at a golf tournament and broke down crying. She told me she loved me and that I was her gift from God and she loved me just the same. She said she was just worried about me and always wants the best for me and happiness. I had to laugh during the phone call because I spent years worrying about this moment and how it would go. I always pictured myself being the emotional wreck having to be consoled. But this was the opposite. I was consoling my mom, telling her I would be fine and things won't change.
Coming out at my athletic marketing internship was somewhat easier. I still felt a little hesitant coming out because this was mixing work life with my personal life. I didn't care so much if they didn't like me being gay, but I was worried about getting the cold shoulder at work or retaliated against by not being given responsibilities I was capable of doing.
Before a big trip to the SEC men's and women's tournament in Atlanta I decided to tell a few people I would be traveling with. Trying to be the least serious as I could be I sent a text my friends and told them, "I kinda prefer swimming in the dude pond." I got nothing but acceptance and encouragement from my work friends. While this was a work trip, I had the best time with my fellow interns, which wouldn't have happened had I not been so honest with them.
Growing up, I always thought that working in sports meant I would have to be a professional athlete or a coach. While being in Tennessee was a time to get away and find myself, I also learned being gay and involvement in sports can coexist. Through my marketing internship I didn't just learn a job, I found my passion and a career. And marketing for a sports team was my dream. It's like hosting a huge party for thousands of people. How can that not be fun?! While I was looking for a job in sport marketing anywhere in the country, I ironically ended up back in South Dakota.
I am now in my second year as assistant athletic director at Dakota State University. I was worried coming back to small, rural area but it's what I make of the situation. I choose to make this a positive move and a positive experience for myself. I choose not to be around negative or demeaning people. One thing I've learned about the gay community, from living in Tennessee, is that is can be very pretentious. It's like living a real life version of "Mean Girls." I like to always remember my journey and how long I struggled with accepting myself. While South Dakota isn't exactly the most accepting place for gays and lesbians, I feel if I can advocate for the gay community to make this a better place to live, then I'm exactly where I need to be.
I am very optimistic and excited about what the future holds for me. However, I would not have gotten to where I am without having sports in my life. When life didn't seem like it would ever be positive, I could go play basketball and afterward my problems weren't as big as I thought they were. The benefits of sports in my life, still to this day provide positive effects to my psychological and social well being.
Whether one chooses to believe it or not, the LGBT community has been for years and continues to be a part of athletics, at all levels. My platform isn't like that of Michael Sam or Jason Collins, for I wasn't blessed with the amount of athletic talent they have, but I want to set an example as an openly gay man working in a college athletic program.
My message to others is to be comfortable in your own skin and be proud of who you are. God made you and put you here for a reason. I often thought that the reality for me to work in sports would mean living a closeted life, but realistic thinking is what makes people mediocre. I never want to settle for mediocrity. Coming out may be the hardest thing you'll ever do in your life, but once you do you become so much happier.
Jared Indahl is in his second year at Dakota State University in Madison, S.D. as Assistant Athletic Director. He is in charge of the athletic department's Champions of Character Program and community service outreach efforts, marketing plans to increase attendance, brand awareness,revenue for athletic events, and assisting and advising the athletic director with day to day operations of the athletic department. He can be reached via email at Jared.Indahl@gmail.com, Facebook or Instagram (Indahl10_14).
Story edited by Jim Buzinski