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When this gay college baseball coach came out to his team, their reaction made it all OK

Mark Johnson has won five NCAA national championships with the Univ. of Tampa.

Mark Johnson shows off an NCAA regional trophy. Johnson has won national titles with the team as a player in 1998 and as a coach in 2006, ‘07, ‘13 and ‘15.

Controlling my emotions was always a goal of mine. Whether it was playing baseball as a pitcher in high school, college, and then the years following in men’s leagues, I often hung my success on it. I even practiced this goal outside of baseball.

As I got older, my patience and focus stayed with me. They helped me hide my emotions, pain, and secrets for years.

I began coaching baseball at The University of Tampa immediately after college, and I was able to continue playing in men’s leagues until I was 32. As I aged, my legs and shoulder really couldn’t take the grind of both playing and coaching at the same time. My body started telling me it was time to do something else with my free time and continue with my coaching.

Being a part of a team and competing is something I’ll always embrace. Unfortunately, I always felt a little different from the other guys. For years I couldn’t pinpoint what was different about me. I knew it wasn’t because I was gay. I played and loved baseball, so I couldn’t possibly be gay. There was no connection for me to see that possibility. Professional athletes, especially baseball players, weren’t gay, so certainly I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until after I stopped playing baseball that I had the opportunity to explore who I really was. What I realized was that for me to truly be happy I had to accept who I was, despite all of baseball’s norms, and come out.

There was no way I could move forward and have any meaningful relationship while I was hiding in the closet. What I knew was important was that I surrounded myself with friends whom I knew accepted me for who I was. I wasn’t quite sure that was the case in baseball. There weren’t gay players or gay coaches, and all of the talk about being gay certainly had a negative connotation. Always.

I first came out to close friends and family. The reactions couldn’t have been better and more accepting of me. Coming out to friends and family was one thing. But it wasn’t quite the same feeling with my sports world.

Turning points in my confidence level were finding Outsports and the Equality Coaching Alliance. Story after story turned out positively for athletes in a variety of sports. Having the opportunity to reach out to coaches who were already out in their sports, and hearing the same fears that I had, changed how I saw my future.

A trait that I always portrayed on the field was confidence — confidence that I could get out whoever was in the batter’s box. This type of confidence was something I was missing but slowly came back to me as I read more amazing stories of other LGBT athletes and coaches. I really started to believe that I could do the same thing.

Just a few weeks ago I built up the courage and confidence to come out to my head coach. Again, I knew it was time for me to move forward. To be happier I had to come out completely. I couldn’t have been more thrilled with how easy the conversation went. He was supportive and understanding from the start. The funny thing is that he thought I wanted to talk with him about quitting coaching, when losing baseball was actually my biggest concern.

Later that day, his wife called me crying. She was so impressed with my courage to stand for what I believe is right. Additionally, each member of our coaching staff expressed their love and support for me. Being different wasn’t a big deal after all these years of beating myself up inside about it.

Understanding that coming out would actually make me happier really couldn’t be a better feeling. For so many years, coming out was scary and something I didn’t see happening. I feared losing my friends, my family, my job and my coaching career. I can’t express my appreciation enough to the men and women of the articles I’ve read, and how important those successes were in making my own transition. Whether I’ve talked with you or not, thank you for your courage!

I hope the coming seasons for me on the field will be happier and even more rewarding than in the past. I now expect them to be. Over 17 years of coaching, I’ve made a lot of friends and still communicate with a lot of former players. I hope to make those friendships stronger and create new ones. I expect to.

One of my friends told me a while back, “Being gay doesn’t define me. We define ourselves; being gay is simply a part of who I am.” For me, that’s spot-on.

I look forward to stronger friendships now that I can open up more about who I actually am. It’s important to me to share my story publicly with the hope that being a publicly out coach with a successful baseball program might help someone else. I know stories like that certainly helped me.

As a coach, we look to inspire our athletes on the field. Hopefully my story can inspire athletes off the field to become more accepting of others… and themselves.

Mark Johnson graduated from The Univ. of Tampa in 2000 and has been an assistant baseball coach there for 17 years. You can find him on Facebook, Instagram @rebels_chopper and on Twitter @tampamarkj. You can also email him at johson_23@hotmail.com.

Edited by: Cyd Zeigler