JOLIET, Illinois — Kyle Kurdziolek, an all-state high school football player, faced a difficult decision.
A boy he had feelings for gave him an ultimatum — Kurdziolek needed to tell his family he was gay or they needed to stop seeing each other. No one else knew Kurdziolek’s sexuality except this guy, who lived 50 miles away.
As he thought through scenarios, Kurdziolek felt his heart race; his lungs had no air. He started gasping. His younger brother, Colin, walked in the bedroom they shared. Recognizing the panic attack, Colin guided Kyle outside to get fresh air.
Until Kyle felt calm, they sat under the stars in Streator, Ill. — the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the dwarf planet Pluto. Sitting about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, Kyle decided he could not tell anyone he is gay, not while living in this rural town of 13,500 people.
“After that panic attack, it really set me back wanting to tell people,” Kurdziolek said. “I didn’t want to go through that panic attack again.”
That was near the end of March 2014, which was Kurdziolek’s senior year of high school. Though Kurdziolek did not see his route to telling people he is gay, he saw a model.
On Feb. 9, 2014, Michael Sam publicly announced he is gay. Kurdziolek never heard of a football player being gay until Sam. When the St. Louis Rams drafted the Univ. of Missouri All-American and he played NFL preseason games, Kurdziolek realized he could one day be an openly gay football player.
“Seeing Michael Sam come out like that was just refreshing to me,” Kurdziolek said. “I felt comfortable that I’m not the only football player [who is gay].”
Kurdziolek, now a Univ. of St. Francis linebacker who will be a junior this fall, told his first teammate he is LGBT in May 2016, and in the nine months since, Kurdziolek found acceptance from family, teammates and coaches.
It’s been three years since Sam’s announcement, but it remains rare for an active college football player to talk publicly about being LGBT. Kurdziolek is currently believed to be the only active college football player publicly out as LGBT. He is only the fifth player ever who came out while active, joining Mason Darrow, Mitch Eby, Conner Mertens, and Chip Sarafin.
Kurdziolek is also the first one with an athletic scholarship.
“I don’t feel like I’m risking anything,” Kurdziolek said. “The life I’m living right now is the dream.”
Kurdziolek’s family moved to Streator from Syracuse, N.Y., when he was in second grade. He soon joined the city’s youth football league, which allows tackling starting in second grade.
“I’ve always loved the physicality of it,” he said. “Football is my chance to alleviate any stress or pain I have within myself.”
But football caused stress, too, because it included the expectation to be straight. Dozens of times around his football teams, he overheard parents say if they had a gay son, they’d force him to be straight.
“It wasn’t very accepting in my area,” said Kurdziolek, whose own parents encouraged him and his siblings to be accepting of their gay neighbor.
Kurdziolek never dated girls, and before high school, he decided to focus his life on football and academics. He excelled in football, earning Illinois Football Coaches Association all-state honors at linebacker his senior year at Streator High School. Kurdziolek said Michigan State offered him a preferred walk-on spot on the football team, but he opted for NAIA-member University of St. Francis, where academic and athletic scholarships combined to cover his tuition.
The dual focus on school and football wavered some his senior year of high school. A boy in Bloomington, Illinois, reached out to him on Facebook. He also was gay, and Kurdziolek doesn’t know what led to him reaching out. Throughout most of his senior year, they met once a month, and Kurdziolek started to have feelings for him.
When the ultimatum came, it induced his worst panic attack and the darkest depression he’s ever felt. His mom recognized the depression and took him to a doctor who prescribed Xanax, which put him on a road to managing the depression. He also stopped talking to the Bloomington boy.
“It got better because I just wouldn’t think about me being gay,” Kurdziolek said. “For me, it’s just trying to get over that hump of realizing my purpose in life and being comfortable with who I am.”
He enrolled at St. Francis, a Catholic university, in the fall of 2014. Kurdziolek, who was raised Catholic, sees the suburban Chicago school as welcoming to LGBT students but proving he belonged on the football team took precedent over telling anyone he’s gay. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Kurdziolek redshirted his first year. His second year, he played all 11 games and recorded 33 tackles.
After two years building relationships and showing his ability, Kurdziolek felt ready to take the next step. “Everything in life was going good,” he said. “It felt like there was one piece missing, and that one piece, personally for me, it was me coming out.”
Time to tell the team
For months, Kurdziolek felt close to coming out. When a co-worker at the clothing store Buckle asked about his relationship experience, he used that moment in May 2016 to tell someone straight for the first time that he’s LGBT.
Though Kurdziolek now identifies his sexuality as gay, he initially said he was bisexual “to get comfortable in my own shoes,” Kurdziolek said.
He told family, roommates, and teammates and received only acceptance. By the time practice started in August, Kurdziolek had told about 15 of his 103 teammates. He said none changed the way they treat him, but for some, there remains a conflict.
St. Francis running back Jordon Smith considers Kurdziolek a close friend, but he grew up Catholic and believes those philosophies. “I’m going to support my friend no matter what,” Smith said. “I’m not really for the whole gay rights thing, but I’m working on evolving. I’m trying to accept it more.”
By midseason, Kurdziolek assumed most of the team knew. Telling a coach felt like the next step. In early November, he ran into graduate assistant coach Josh Mander at the library. As they talked, Kurdziolek revealed he is gay.
“I told him, ‘I love you no matter what. It doesn’t matter,’” said Mander, who will be St. Francis’ linebackers coach in 2017. “I tried to just be comforting and let him know that he had my support.”
St. Francis’ 2016 season ended Nov. 12, and he played all 11 games for a second consecutive season. His 45 tackles ranked fifth on the team, and he accomplished that while playing most of the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, requiring surgery in January.
Kurdziolek held off telling St. Francis head coach Joe Curry until the season ended. He told Curry by text message in December and feared Curry would perceive his sexuality as a problem.
“I was happy that he told me,” Curry said. “I always tell the guys, ‘We want to build a relationship with you and not just be a coach.’ … I don’t treat Kyle any different. He is part of the program … and I’m extremely happy for him.”
Curry has coached at St. Francis since 2005, and he said Kurdziolek is his first player he’s known to be gay. The 2016 season was Mander’s first year coaching, but when he played at St. Francis from 2009-13, he said he didn’t know of any gay teammates.
“A gay man playing college football, something that you don’t hear or see ever, it’s one of those taboo things within the football world,” Mander said. “You wouldn’t expect a gay player to be here, but … maybe we start something that shows kids that it’s fine. You’re OK to be out and be a member of a football team.”
Kurdziolek turned 21 on Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, and to celebrate the milestone, he planned a trip to Chicago’s gay neighborhood, Boystown. Kurdziolek made the trip with a few non-football friends and offensive lineman Tyler James.
“I had a blast,” said James, who had never been to a gay bar before Kurdziolek’s birthday. “I did something that I wouldn’t have done normally because of my friend Kyle, and I got to experience this whole new, cool atmosphere.”
Because of Thanksgiving, many of Kurdziolek’s teammates were with their families and unable to attend, making James’ attendance meaningful.
“Having him come along, it just made me feel confident about myself and the people I have around me that love me for me,” Kurdziolek said.
Since Kurdziolek started sharing he is LGBT with family and friends, his panic attacks and depression are gone. Several people said he is a happier person. James said he’s never seen Kurdziolek enjoy himself more than the trip to Boystown in their two years as friends. Boystown provided an experience that Kurdziolek thought was impossible a few years earlier sitting outside, catching his breath under the Streator sky.
“The biggest thing was that there was no judgment about who you came with, why you came, or why you were in Boystown,” Kurdziolek said. “There was no judgment.”