Sports have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dad taught me baseball when I was 4 years old. Between then and now I've also played basketball, tennis, track & field, and last but not least, football.
I started playing football when I was around 10 years old. My dad was also the one who got me onto the gridiron.
In high school I always felt that I was "different" from my football teammates. I was a very quiet guy and I usually let my playing do the talking for me. I was a guarded person, and as a result I had no "close friends.”
I also had an inkling that my attractions might be different from my straight teammates, but that was something I kept buried deep down inside. My head coach in high school would make gay jokes about me (not just me, but other athletes as well). I didn’t understand why each joke stung until I truly came to realize that I was in fact sexually attracted to guys, as I became attracted to one of my high school teammates.
Even if I wanted to confront my homosexuality in high school, I wouldn't have known how. The heteronormativity in society runs deep, particularly in sports and particularly in football. I felt like homosexuality was looked down upon. The jokes from coach didn’t help.
I attended Williams College, where the head football coach recruited me. One of the key elements of entering Williams College is the freshman-year “entry” system. In this system, freshmen are divided into groups of 20 to 30 to live together in a section of a dorm on campus.
It's here where I met my best friend, Sergio, an international student from Colombia. When we first met, I was like a brick wall. I didn't talk much. I stayed guarded with him, thinking to myself "Why are you talking to me? I don't know you."
Over the coming months, as we spent more time together, I slowly opened up and we became great friends.
One Friday night our entry group was walking to the hockey game on campus, and Sergio and I were lagging behind. As we were talking Sergio said to me, "There's something I need to tell you."
He came out to me then. He cried and told me everything he has been through as a boy and young man growing up in Colombia. He completely poured his heart out to me.
One of the last things he said to me in our conversation broke my heart.
"If you don't want to be my friend anymore,” he said, “I completely understand."
About a month after that, I came out to him. For the first time, I had really let my guard down with someone and I felt like this was the start of my "gay life" at Williams. Actually, it was the start of my “gay life” period.
Every year at Williams, there is a day called "Claiming Williams Day" in the middle of the winter months. The campus engages in events and discussions about building and sustaining a more inclusive community.
At Claiming Williams 2013, openly gay former NFL player Esera Tuaolo came to Williams to do a talk called "Esera Tuaolo: Creating a World of Tolerance." In his talk he talked about growing up gay and being gay in the NFL. He inspired others to achieve their best by speaking to their individual truths without fear or intimidation.
At the end of his talk, he sang Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." When I was younger, that song would always make me cry. That day was no different (Esera has a great voice).
I saw so much of myself in Esera, and I could completely relate to him. We have a few things in common: We are both gay men of color, defensive linemen, born in July, and our names start with an E.
After his talk, I got to escort him around campus. We went to a discussion about finding a "team" at Williams. As we walked the campus I shared with him that I too was gay. Coming out to another gay football player was powerful for me.
After that, he and I got dinner at Sushi Thai on Spring Street along with several other Williams athletes. There were about seven or eight other football players there, along with athletes from basketball, track & field, and other teams. As we got our food and were eating dinner, Esera ventured into uncharted territory.
"So this question is directed towards the football players,” he said. “You have a gay football player here, how did you guys react when he came out to you guys?"
My heart raced, suddenly pounding in my chest.
"I haven't come out to them yet," I replied.
Esera apologized to me profusely over and over. He felt terrible – an honest mistake from a big-hearted man just trying to help. He even called me the next day to make sure I was all right and if there was anything that he could do. Before this, I had only come out to one other guy on the football team of 75 to 80 guys.
While I cringed when he let the cat out of the bag, the great thing to see was that my teammates were all right with it. I guess it makes sense, considering they were eating dinner with a gay former professional athlete.
“Don't worry,” a few of the football guys after dinner assured me, “we won't tell anyone and you can come out to the team when you're ready.”
It felt great to get that support from my teammates. I honestly thought that they were the last people I would get support from. I’ve never been so happy about being so wrong.
Having Esera accidentally share my secret that day turned out to be a good thing. It opened my eyes to the state of gay acceptance in football – and most importantly on my particular team – in a way I’m not sure anything else could have.
I felt alone playing football at Williams, feeling like I was the only gay guy on the football team, even though statistically that probably wasn't true. As a result, I did go through dark, rough periods at Williams.
I want to share my story so that other gay football players know that they are not alone.
I also felt alone as a gay black man. In society, it is so important to see people who look like you who can relate to what you're going through and vice versa. I see so precious few out gay black men in the media and in my life.
I want to say specifically to black gay football players: “You are not alone.”
I feel like so many gay athletes feel that coming out is an “all or nothing” proposition, that it is “black and white.” There is a gray area, and I'm an example of this as I was somewhere in the middle all through college. I played football and had my football life (where several players knew I was gay), but I also had my life outside of football, which I think was so important for me, where I was totally out.
I hung out with Sergio and other close LGBT friends I made at Williams. With them, I felt like I could let my guard down and be myself. Sergio and I even went to gay parties on campus.
I'm going to be completely honest. Football is a sport I like… but have never loved. It is not a passion of mine.
I feel like football chose me rather than the other way around. Looking back at my football career, I'm starting to think that football chose me to lead me to this point right here, right now, where I'm writing my story for Outsports.
Football chose me to help other people like me.
I'm grateful for having played this sport and for the journey that I've taken and am continuing to take. I want to help you take that journey too.
Etienne Aduya, 23, is a 2015 graduate of Williams College where he majored in mathematics and economics as a member of the football team. He can be reached on Facebook or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story editor: Cyd Zeigler