Mason Darrow was in a slump. The freshman offensive lineman for the Princeton Tigers had made it into a couple of games in the 2013 season, but his practices one defining week in early November were a mess. He was slow making calls and his feet were stuck in the mud.

His racing mind was getting in the way of his performance with internal questions he was increasingly tired of answering.

Walking to the sideline after a particularly poor play, Darrow’s head hung low. The strong breeze of autumn brought a chill, the sun setting behind the rainbow of oak and maple trees lining the athletic facilities on campus. A thousand miles from home and playing badly, loneliness and dejection gripped him.

In that difficult moment, someone reached out.

“You all right?” Caleb Slate, a fellow offensive lineman and a sophomore at the time, noticed Darrow’s somber demeanor.

Darrow, playing the aloof college kid who couldn’t be bothered with emotion, blew it off.

“Just got some personal stuff,” he said. “I’m fine.”

Slate wasn’t having it.

“No, you’re not fine,” Slate said, later recalling that Darrow’s mind was “on another planet.” Darrow clearly needed help and Slate would answer the call.

“Come up to my room after dinner and we’ll talk,” Slate said.

For the next hour in the locker room and the cafeteria Darrow sorted through all the possible ways out of the impending conversation with his teammate. He composed a text to Slate saying something had come up; he couldn’t swing by. He would just blow off Slate and avoid it all together. Except, you just don’t do that to a fellow offensive lineman. Maybe to a receiver or a linebacker, but not another guy in the trenches. Darrow had fleeting thoughts about lying, but that wouldn’t fly either.

“It’s not as scary as it all seems.”

He finished his meal, deleted the blow-off text and trudged to Slate’s room.

Poised to knock on Slate’s door, doubt held back his arm. If he walked through that door, there would be no turning back. Football players like him – 6-foot-5, 285 pounds – simply weren’t gay. He was a lineman at a Division 1 FCS program, not some Broadway dancer. What’s worse, his teammates could end up being the lugheads of football lore, men who would tolerate anything but a gay man showering next to them.

“I felt trapped. I wasn’t happy. I wanted to tell people, but I thought there would be a lot of animosity. There are a lot of guys from the South on the team. I wasn’t sure how people would react to it.”

Slate represented everything Darrow feared the most. A big bruiser like Darrow, Slate was from Middleburg, Fla., more Alabama than Miami. Mitt Romney won Clay County, Fla., 73%-27%, in 2012; in contrast, the GOP presidential candidate won only 61% of the Alabama vote. Slate was exactly the guy Darrow most feared telling.

“But I knew at that point I didn’t want to be closeted my entire time here,” Darrow said. “I knew this had to happen eventually, so it might as well happen now. Might as well rip off the Band-Aid.”

After a couple of very deep breaths, Darrow knocked before his mind could think anymore. Slate was by himself in the room, a relief for Darrow. Better to tell one person at a time.

Darrow distracted the conversation with small talk about dinner and questions about Slate’s girlfriend. His teammate wasn’t having it. He wanted to know what was up.

“I’ve just had some stuff I’ve been dealing with,” Darrow said, “and I’m not sure how I want to go about dealing with it.”

Slate chuckled.

Darrow never struggled with the morality of being gay, he just never figured he could actually be queer.

“If this is a girl issue,” Slate said, “I’m going to be pissed.”

Darrow looked around the room for an escape hatch. The moment of truth.

“Actually, it’s kind of the opposite.”

Slate was, understandably, confused. Huh?

“I’m gay.”

Slate’s cocked eyebrows turned into wide eyes.

“Wow, OK,” Slate said. “Didn’t see that coming.”

After a few more words, Slate assured Darrow it would be OK. Then they did what any other teammates would do on a Thursday before a big game: They ate mozzarella sticks and sat down for some video games.

The only thing that changed that night was Darrow’s sudden sense of freedom.

Darrow never struggled with the morality of being gay, he just never figured he could actually be queer. He didn’t enter high school until Barack Obama was the president. Several states had already legalized same-sex marriage by then. Gay entertainers – and yes, even some gay athletes – had received praise for their courage. Darrow had grown up in a country on the doorstep of equality for gay people.

Yet the constant drumbeat of media images of gay men put forward a particular kind of gay guy: Small, 6% body fat, listens to pop music, drinks pink martinis and dances on Broadway. He didn’t fit the bill. Mostly.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like Broadway shows,” Darrow said as I gave him a grand tour of West Hollywood one evening this summer. “But I thought, this isn’t right. I like football. It just made it harder to figure out because I didn’t fit into the stereotype.”

That struggle has kept him from engaging more with the gay community. While he came out to his team, family and friends two years ago, our rendezvous in West Hollywood in August was the first time he had ventured anywhere near a gay bar, let alone one of the epicenters of the gay community.

“I look at Outsports a lot, and I identify with a lot of those guys. But I don’t identify with the gay community very much.”

Mason in High School.

“I felt like I had to keep appearances up. I didn’t want to arouse suspicion that I might be gay, so I went along with the flow and did what I thought was expected of me.”

While he knew he liked guys in the sixth or seventh grade, images of powerful gay football players like Esera Tuaolo were few and far between. Michael Sam had revealed his truth to his teammates but not yet to the world.

Darrow was, like so many gay athletes tell themselves, a complete anomaly. He was part of an athletic family, attending Princeton in the footsteps of his brother, Mack, who played basketball for the Tigers. At 6-foot-5, 285-pounds, Darrow was a beast. On the high school football field he turned heads with his strength and acumen.

Mid-major football programs like Wyoming, Bowling Green and Western Michigan offered him athletic scholarships. Michigan State made inquiries, and Vanderbilt was interested in making him part of the team.

This was not the life of a gay man.

So he hid. He dated women. When someone in his high school asked him if he was gay – and that happened a couple of times – he denied it.

“I felt like I had to keep appearances up. I didn’t want to arouse suspicion that I might be gay, so I went along with the flow and did what I thought was expected of me.”

He kept up those appearances until Nov. 7, 2013, when his teammate Slate didn’t let him off the hook and Darrow was tired of living a lie. It didn’t take long for word of “the gay teammate” to spread across the entire team. Darrow told some of them, and Slate shared it with others with Darrow’s blessing.

“The only prerequisite to being on a football team,” Slate assured him, “is that you work hard. This isn’t going to bother people if you tell them.”

In the coming weeks various players asked Darrow if the rumor was true. While he’d rejected the notion from the guys in high school, he didn’t hold back with his fellow Tigers.

Jack Knight, a fellow offensive lineman from North Carolina, is now his roommate. Knight hadn’t been friends with a gay person before he met Darrow. He didn’t believe the rumors about Darrow being gay before he heard it straight from his mouth.

“He’s a great guy,” Knight said. “I live with him now. I’ve known him for three years. I see what he does off the field in the classroom. I know what he does on the field. I know he’s a very accountable person. He’s a hard-working person. And I know when I’m out on the field making a block that he’ll be right there with me making a hit as hard as he can.”

Slate’s outward acceptance had empowered Darrow, and the reaction of each subsequent teammate was more water for the germinating seeds of his courage. The clear message that nothing was going to change – Thursday nights would still be full of fried mozzarella and video games – was the most powerful one he could have received, echoed by every teammate with whom he opened up.

Nothing was going to change.

“The only prerequisite to being on a football team,” Slate assured him, “is that you work hard. This isn’t going to bother people if you tell them.”

Just about the only people on the team who didn’t hear about Darrow’s news until this summer was the coaching staff. Somehow the players had kept their teammate’s personal life away from the guys in the polo shirts.

“We knew if we told the coaches, then that would make it a thing,” Slate said. “He’s still just our teammate to us. We didn’t want to go to the coach about it, we wanted Mason to do it when he was ready.”

When Darrow decided this summer that he wanted to share his story publicly to empower other gay football players, he knew the first step was to tell his head coach, Bob Surace.

Surace, a former fellow offensive lineman for Princeton and former assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, was at a Minor League Baseball game with his family this past August when he got the worst text message a coach could receive from a player:

“Coach, can we talk tomorrow?”

“That’s never good news,” Surace said last week after a blazingly hot practice at Princeton’s practice facility. “I knew he wasn’t arrested or in any trouble, it’s not who he is. But I thought he may have had another setback in his knee or might be leaving the team for some reason.”

As he drove home from that baseball game, Surace was consumed with dread, his mind spinning about his backup tackle.

“He’s one of our best players. We need him in the rotation at tackle if we’re going to succeed this season.”

Night. Ruined.

The next morning Darrow shuffled into Surace’s office. After a round of small talk the head coach braced for the worst. When Darrow told him that he was gay, it was like a Christmas present in August.

“That’s great,” Surace said. “Geez, I thought you were injured.”

For the head coach, gearing up for a 2015 season with high expectations, having a gay player was and is of no concern. Princeton sports an epic history in football, starting with the very first college football game ever played – against Rutgers in 1869. The school claims 28 national titles, the most recent of which was a shared title in 1950 (with Oklahoma topping the AP and Coaches polls).

In 2010, Surace took over a team that had three straight 4-6 seasons. He won the Ivy League in 2013 (Princeton was ranked No. 24 nationally in the NCAA Div. 1 FCS poll) and hasn’t had a losing season since 2011. At a strict academic institution like Princeton, teaching young athletes is paramount, but victories are next to godliness. Surace just wants the best athletes he can get through the rigorous review of an Ivy League school. Darrow — an economics major with a certificate in German — is one of them.

Then Darrow told Surace he wanted to share his story publicly.

Oh, and he wanted to do it the week before their season opener.

“Here at Princeton, if we can’t handle this and say, ‘we’re supportive of everybody no matter what their background, religion, race or sexual orientation,’ then we don’t have the right guys in the locker room.” – Princeton coach Bob Surace

There is so much talk about the “distraction” a gay player can bring to a team by coming out. If you’re going to share your truth with the world, the mantra goes, you need to do it early in the offseason so no one gets “distracted” by any attention that might come.

The media would have had their fill of interviews and “so what’s it like having a gay teammate?” questions by the season opener. Darrow wanted to do it now. No holds barred. Put it all on the line.

Surace wasn’t fazed.

“Here at Princeton, if we can’t handle this and say, ‘we’re supportive of everybody no matter what their background, religion, race or sexual orientation,’ then we don’t have the right guys in the locker room,” Surace said.

“We’re going to support Mason 100%.”

The struggles Darrow has faced since coming out to his team have had nothing to do with his sexual orientation, but with the realities of football itself. In the third game of the 2014 season, he tore his ACL on a fluke point-after attempt. Darrow’s commitment to the team and to his sport drove him to continue to play the rest of the game on that season-ending injury.

“He kept playing after tearing his ACL,” Surace remembered. “It just epitomizes his toughness as a football player.”

Darrow had dealt with injuries before – two broken feet in high school. The recovery from the ACL injury was more demanding than that of any injury he’d ever considered.

Yet day after day over the last 11 months Darrow has been focused on his 2015 return to the field. He’s exceeded every time table the coaching staff has laid out ahead of him.

The injury has, to an extent, brought out the best in him. With adversity has come opportunity to lead by example. During training camp the coaching staff conducts several “two-a-days,” where the players suit up for on-field practice twice in one day. It’s the most grueling and dreaded part of football training from high school to the pros. Surace always gives the guys with leg injuries a pass on the second practice in a day – better to keep them healthy than risk a setback.

Darrow wouldn’t have any of it.

“He gives you the look like ‘I’m good,’ ” Surace said. “So far we’ve had three doubles and I’ve given him one off, and that one he fought me on because he wants to practice. It’s really credit to the type of athlete he is.

“He’s tough, he’s physical. He’s one of the guys you enjoy and you love. He’s one of our leaders.”

Surace said Darrow has been playing “really well” in camp, and that he will be in the rotation now at left tackle. Coming off the injury, Darrow is aiming for the second-string and expects to play in their season opener, a road game at Lafayette College this Saturday, Sept. 19.

Darrow is now just “one of the guys” like he never has been before. He has shared his truth with everyone in his life. In all of that, he hasn’t experienced a single negative reaction. Not from a teammate, not from a coach, not from a friend, not from a family member. Not one.

He even gets teased about being gay in the locker room, a sign of true acceptance. His teammates aren’t afraid to mix it up with him, make him the butt of jokes (pun intended) like so many other athletes are on their teams in every sport and every school in America. It’s a rite of passage for American athletes, to be teased by fellow teammates.

For Darrow, it’s a source of pride.

One memorable moment for Darrow came during spring ball earlier this year. The team was walking out to the field, and Slate let his daydreaming get the best of him.

“What if we went out to the field and coach had strippers for us?” Slate asked the guys around him. Darrow was in earshot.

“Well we can get Mason his own little booth,” another teammate quipped.

No one jeered. Everyone laughed.

Darrow knew then he had charted a new life for himself that just 18 months earlier was impossible.

“Telling my teammates was the best decision I have ever made.”

Photo: colorgraphics

You can email Mason Darrow at [email protected]. For media inquiries, please contact Craig Sachson at Princeton at [email protected].

Producer: Justin Bopp | Video Editor: Alex Hawley | Copy Editor: Jim Buzinski