There is something unique about discussing the merits of gay marriage while in the locker room showers with 11 other naked men, but that is where I found myself during my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota in 2012.
We had just finished a morning workout and the topic had been making its way around the locker room all week. I could not tell you anything my teammates said during the discussion, since all I could hear was the yelling in my head: "I AM GAY, HOW HAVE YOU NOT FOUND OUT?"
I stayed quiet; quiet was always better than saying the wrong thing, something that might have given me away. When we had that conversation I was still two years away from finally saying those three words aloud to anyone other than the face that stared back at me in the mirror.
To be completely honest I had said those words to one other person, my mother. It was a few days before I started my senior season of high school in Bloomington, Illinois. After days of making deals with myself and breaking promise after promise, I broke down and told her. The next thing that she said to me was one of the best and worst pieces of advice I have ever received: "Hide it, whatever you do, hide it."
I was crushed. I do not think I have ever cried as hard as I did that week. Three days after I told her, Mom had the first of seven strokes that year. She no longer remembers that conversation, but it has stuck with me. I completely trusted her, so I heeded her advice and hid it. Hiding who I was became my obsession — any hint of being gay was avoided, any conversation that may be considered gay did not include me. I became reserved, I became a fake. That year I was elected as homecoming king. I was convinced that people did not like me for me, but for the person I acted as. I was living a life I had only dreamed about before, and could not enjoy it. I was worried about maintaining the facade.
Looking back at it, I am not sure if what Mom said was either totally right or totally wrong. At the time I was focused entirely on maintaining the image of being a straight football player. Football consumed my life — school, practice, hangout with teammates, and repeat. I figured if I just focused on being the best football player everything else would go away.
At the time I don't think I could name a single gay athlete. This was only a few years before Michael Sam or Jason Collins came out. But I was so worried about myself I never searched online for any other gay football players. My mom and I shared the same fears — that if I was open about who I was, I would not have the opportunity to achieve my dream of playing college football. I can understand that fear and it would endure for the next three years. I think the advice was right for me at the time. I was not ready to come out publicly at the time and I don't think the game would have accepted it. The fear that we felt consumed my thoughts each day.
I was an offensive lineman on a team in the Big Ten, playing the game I loved. What more could I dream of? It was everything I had worked for. I got to spend each day with some great teammates, lifting, practicing and joking around. Every Friday, a group of student-athletes would go and volunteer at schools around Minneapolis. The kids would go nuts when they saw all the athletes walking down the hall. We would get to read, sing, answer a few questions and occasionally dance with the kids.
Balancing the scales between who I am and the dream that I wanted to live was a constant struggle. Every moment was tainted by questions of, "Is this how I am supposed to feel?" or "Would I feel different if people knew?" I remember listening to one of Coach Jerry Kill's post-game speeches, when he spoke about simply enjoying the moments in life, and all I could think about was what I would be feeling or how I would act if I was out at the time. The toll of these thoughts finally broke me after my junior season.
As the new year started in 2014 I forced myself to accept that this was the year that I would finally tell someone again. This would be it. No really, this year was it. I could not go another year living two lives. I had to do it. The night of Feb. 9, 2014, I texted two of my closest teammates saying we had to talk.
That was the night that Michael Sam came out. I am incredibly grateful to him. Selfishly he allowed me a chance to judge my friends' reactions before really telling them. It took another two days until we could all sit down together and chat. On Feb. 11, after team training table, Alex and another tight end on the team and I all got in my car and drove down to the River Flats area of Minneapolis, where we could just park and talk.
Luke McAvoy, right, with teammate Chris Streveler and the Floyd of Rosedale trophy, which goes to the Iowa-Minnesota winner.
It was eerily silent compared to our usual banter. Two thoughts dominated my mind: "How do I get out of this?" and "Is this really happening?" When we got to the flats I parked the car and we sat for what seemed like hours. Finally, Alex just asked, "What did you want to tell us?"
I tried to respond but I couldn't say anything. My mouth simply would not form the words. "I'm ... I'm gay," came my whisper. I was ready for them to go off, to demand to go home. I expected them to disown me. None of that happened. Instead, I heard, "that takes balls, man" and "I am proud of you."
I did not believe what was going on. Staring ahead as tears rolled down my face, I answered a few of their questions — "How long have you known? Why now?" Eventually they both said that they always thought that something was "off" about me, especially that I never really talked about who I found attractive or who I was dating.
The relief of just two people knowing was incredible. I felt better than I ever had. I finally could focus on what was going on around me even though I still wasn't totally out. After that night, word slowly spread. We never had a team meeting nor did I ever really announce it but people learned and I did not deny it anymore.
"Wow, you really are gay, huh?" laughed one of the tight ends, as I ordered a hot chocolate from Starbucks a few nights later (I don't like coffee and hot chocolate is just delicious). We were all laughing. You might not believe me but that was the moment I knew I was accepted by them. On the team, things that are not really accepted don't really get mentioned. Things that are accepted or don't really bother people are what we joke about. It is a weird kind of reverse psychology. But, for me, actually being made fun of for it was when I knew they were totally cool about it.
I won't lie and say it was all perfect; some people did not take it well. However, the support, acceptance and love I felt outweighed all the negativity. My twin brother, Kyle, was on the team with me and I made sure others on the team heard about it first. It sounds silly, but I knew if my friends rejected me I could deal with that. But if he did, I couldn't. I needed more confidence in myself before I told him. He was totally accepting and that made me feel like the luckiest person in the world.
There were a few teammates that did not like it and mostly they just ignored me. Others took a few conversations before we were cool. It was nowhere near the outright rejection and hatred I had feared. I think the coaches knew, but they never said anything about it. I was not really on their radar much that year since I was not a starter or key backup.
Luke McAvoy with his teammate and friend Peter Mortell after the 2014 spring game. McAvoy had come out just weeks before.
I was a scout team player on the offensive line, nowhere close to a star player. My love of football evolved from one that revolved around actual playing time to the time spent with the team, the workouts, the banter that filled almost every waking moment. I got six plays against the University of Iowa (a big rival) my senior year, and would not trade it for the world. Those six plays made all of the 300s drills and early morning workouts worth it.
Yet it was the acceptance from my teammates that I will remember. Being part of a family that did just about everything together for four years was amazing. Being part of a family that turned out to be so much more accepting and supportive than I could have imagined made me realize that I had nothing to fear. The only thing I should have been afraid of was what was in my own mind.
I am not sure if my mother was right when she said to hide who I am. It has allowed me to live my dream, but it also denied me that dream. I have one regret from my time at Minnesota: I wish I came out sooner. The reality was so much better than I ever imagined. When I was hiding and full of fear, I would imagine coming out and it always ended with rejection, hate or loneliness. I did not once expect it to go OK. In reality, it went great. I was surrounded by people who cared and supported me.
My coming out experience taught me that the fear I grew up with about being gay doesn't need to exist anymore. Yes, there is still discrimination against the LGBT community. Yes, I have lost some friends and family members. But, I believe times are changing, things are getting better. It is our responsibility to not let fear stop us.
I am proud of who I am. I am happy being the man I was born to be.
Because of all that I have been through, ridding myself of my own fear, I have become stronger. I have learned to accept myself and build confidence in who I truly am. I came out to my family to love and support. The vast majority of my friends accept me. I am blessed to have them in my life.
It gets better, it truly does. I have emerged stronger than I was before. Fear does not control me anymore.
Luke McAvoy, 23, played offensive line for the Minnesota Golden Gophers from 2011-14. He majored in English Literature and was named All-Academic Big Ten. He is now a middle school teacher in Milwaukee. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com, or on Twitter: @lukemcavoy.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski