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Able to breathe: This gay college football player was stifled by masculinity and Christianity

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Andre Apodaca struggled with being gay as a Christian athlete.

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Andre Apodaca was a standout high school football player in Colorado before attending Azusa Pacific University.

All my life my family lived and breathed football. It was a family affair, with my dad the head coach at Silver Creek High School, where I eventually played linebacker. My brother, two years older than me, was the star quarterback of our mid-sized town of Longmont, Colo. Even my sister was a manager for the football team in her offseason. My mom was in the stands at every game, home or way, perched right at the 50-yard line.

Being a coach’s son created a lot of pressure, especially when all that I ever knew growing up was sports as I played football, baseball, basketball and volleyball.

Being raised in a household that revolved around sports was amazing. Athletics helped build my character, and I am forever grateful for that.

I was the captain of my football team my junior and senior seasons. I helped lead my team to three state championship appearances, winning one state title my junior season. I was the Daily Times Call football player of the year my senior season, an award my older brother, who now quarterbacks for the Univ. of New Mexico, also received two years before me.

I was our conference player of the year, and I was All-State as well. I am No. 11 in the Colorado high school football record books for most tackles in a career. I was fortunate enough to play under my dad as my head coach, and alongside my brother.

While football was my family’s de facto religion, I was raised in a Christian non-denominational home, going to church every Sunday with my family.

Growing up I always knew I was different, which sounds clichéd. I was unsure of what being gay really meant, and I wasn’t ready to deal with the repercussions of being a “gay Christian athlete.” Those three things didn't seem to mesh well with each other.

Both of my family’s religions played a huge role in that.

I was always happy to go to Sunday church with my family, but there were times when I specifically remember hearing from the preacher that homosexuality is a sin. Was he talking to me? Right from the pulpit down to the pew? While I know he wasn’t, it felt like he was talking directly to me – directly at me.

This didn't really anger me, it just scared me every time I heard it, driving me even further into the closet. I was very active in my church, going to a youth group weekly, and even leading a middle school youth group.

I thought that by going to church and being involved, I could “pray the gay away.” I thought God would miraculously fix me one day.

Andre Apodaca was a standout on the Silver Creek (Colo.) High School football team.

Masculinity was something with which I never had a problem because I was a “normal,” masculine high school athlete. I was a “jock.” I was “big man on campus.”

I was also a captain of my team, and I feared that if anybody knew I was gay they would not want to be led by me. I thought I would lose their respect.

I feared that people assumed being gay meant not being masculine. I sometimes overcompensated with hyper-masculinity, often using the word “gay” synonymously with being weak, just to make sure I would never be found out.

I feared that people would not want to give me the awards I had earned if they knew I was gay. The only things I knew how to be were athletic and masculine, and to pursue sports for as long as I possibly could. So that’s exactly what I did, ignoring being gay and instead focusing on football.

When it came time to choose a college, I decided to double down on all of it.

As signing day was fast-approaching, I had different offers to play football from multiple colleges. I decided that I would attend Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian school in southern California.

I constantly tried to bury my being gay with football and religion. I felt that those were the two strongest forces in my life, and if I came out of the closet I would lose both.

At Azusa Pacific, it is okay to be an openly gay student, in that the administration won’t do anything if you simply say “I’m gay.”

Engaging in any kind of same-sex relationship was strictly prohibited. Expulsion from the school was a real fear.

I remember my first week at Azusa Pacific, a gay male student decided to come out of the closet. Soon after, an anonymous note was left on his door stating, “Faggots don’t belong at APU get out.” I remember the administration brought up the incident in chapel, saying that the student who posted the note was wrong, but it was never brought up again. It seemed even bringing up being gay at the school made people too uncomfortable to even talk about.

That incident forced me even further into the closet. I would go to mandatory chapel and hear that marriage is between one man and one woman, and any other behavior is wrong.

I started to believe that this school I had chosen was not a safe place for me to be who I was created to be.

I would then go to football practice and hear words like “faggot” being thrown around. In the locker room I heard many homophobic slurs, casually used with no thought. No one ever interceded to stop it. Every time I heard it, it was like my teammates punching me in the stomach.

There was never a positive message about being gay from anyone at the school. Not administration, not coaches, not teammates. The only thing I ever heard was that “gay” was something I absolutely could not, or should not, be.

It was a really destructive environment for this closeted gay college football player.

After one season at Azusa Pacific I herniated a disc in my back, forcing an end to my football career. I stayed at Azusa Pacific for the remainder of the year then transferred to a public non-religious institution in southern California. I now go to school at the University of Hawaii, where I am finishing my degree in public relations.

I have hesitated to share my story for quite a while because I didn't want people thinking I am doing it for attention. After three years of people asking me if I would like to do a story, I finally felt like I didn’t just want to do it, I needed to. I share it not for me now, but for me four years ago, for the gay football player who needed to know he wasn’t alone.

I have watched guys like Gus Kenworthy and Robbie Rogers come out and still excel in their sport, and it inspired me to be open about my story, and that I have been able to overcome the struggles of being a closeted football player.

The only thing that I really want to come from sharing my story is for an athlete to feel like they can be gay and masculine and still excel on the field.

I know what it is like to sit up at night, struggling to think about what the repercussions would be if I came out in the sports world, and how I would be viewed as an athlete or a Christian. I want this story to reach somebody who feels like they have to hide who they are because they are afraid of how they will be viewed by their teammates, coaches and fans. I am here. I want to help.

Coming out is the most freeing feeling in the world. It took a huge weight off of my shoulders and allowed me to stop focusing on what people will think of me. I only wish I had been able to do it while I was still a college athlete so I could have focused on just excelling in my sport.

Andre Apodaca wants to help other gay athletes struggling with their sexual orientation. You can find him on Facebook, or on Instagram @AndreApo5. You can also reach him via email at andreapodaca5@gmail.com.