In preschool soccer became the sport of my life. Yet it’s volleyball where I’ve found a home as a gay man.

I was a speed demon on the pitch at an early age. I relied on my speed to defend, steal the ball, or dribble past everyone; And I relied on my powerful kicks to shoot from a further distance to score goals.

In eighth grade I started watching Penn State women’s volleyball and saw the force Nicole Fawcett put behind the ball. WOAH! I started practicing on my own in my backyard with no net. I mimicked everything I saw Nicole do. Her form, everything.

I found solace in my volleyball practices while I was also starting to realize my attraction toward other guys. The volleyball took my attention, so I stayed away from the boys. Besides, I actually thought having a little crush on a guy was normal, so I never said anything.

In ninth grade there was an open gym for volleyball. I told the coach I was excited I could finally jump serve on a real net instead of a swing set in my backyard. She chuckled at the idea of a novice jump serving. BOOM! Over the net the ball went. She couldn’t believe it.

Tryouts and practices came around in the spring. She had me try a jump serve against the returning seniors and juniors from the previous season. First attempt, I got an ace. Later on, I was told I would be playing varsity as a freshmen. I couldn’t believe it as this was a team of upper classmen that made it to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association State tournament previously.

As a freshman I was very quiet. I didn’t really know anyone on the team. My awareness of my sexuality grew more and more that year.

When gay jokes would go around the team everyone would laugh, but the jokes made me really uncomfortable. During tournaments I would find a way to be alone because I felt so awkward around my team. I would show up when needed and leave when we weren’t playing.

When we would go out to eat after winning tournaments, I would sit on my own. I just didn’t think they liked me enough to care anyway. That year we placed third in the state tournament.

I felt that they would abandon me as a friend. Instead they wrote me messages how they were proud of me and are there for me.

The following years I grew into a leader on the court. I grew as a player and as a person. Internally I understood who I was, what I liked. I never spoke about my sexuality because I noticed a real lack of LGBT support in my local community. People who were out or people who were different in our school got bullied constantly. I hid that side of myself and tried to remain that “straight” volleyball guy.

I went to Alderson Broaddus University, in West Virginia, on a volleyball scholarship. This little university felt like home. My teammates were so friendly and humorous, and I quickly figured out that a few of them were openly gay. I saw how happy they were and how they never let that change how they played on the court. That was when my eyes opened up. I wanted to be like them.

After being on campus for a month, I was heading home for my birthday weekend in September. On the day I turned 19 I wrote up a whole Facebook post about being gay, clicked “post”… and suddenly felt nervous, sick, scared… but also happy and free. I felt that coming out on my birthday was the best day for me to do it. It’s already my day, and I wanted to make my day more special for myself.

Not only did my family and friends support me, but people I honestly didn’t think would support me took me in their arms. For example, I have a few friends who made gay jokes, or they heard rumors about someone else being gay and didn’t react kindly. I felt that they would abandon me as a friend. Instead they wrote me messages how they were proud of me and are there for me.

I was shocked by their sentiments of happiness and pride. I felt a wave of emotions splash on me and soak into my body. I couldn’t believe that people in my area supported me as much as they did.

I am truly grateful for my teammates. They were accepting of another out athlete on their team. A few of my teammates became my confidants. They really set a spark in me. I know how uncomfortable I felt, but I just needed one person to generate confidence; I ended up getting several all on one team.

During that spring season we won the conference championships – for the first time in school history – without dropping a single set. Being able to play volleyball as an out athlete created a vision of success and I followed it. Overcoming emotions and fears helped build confidence in me as an athlete and as a normal human being.

After a life-changing, positive freshmen year, I transferred back home to Millersville University as ABU made my major dormant. Millersville only has a club team, but I just couldn’t resist taking to the court with the guys.

After a back injury I have been back on the court for one year now. Yet even with the lingering injury of permanent back issues, I now hit harder, jump higher, and hustle faster than I ever could before. I participate in summer doubles tournaments and continuously make it to the playoffs with different volleyball partners.

I also help coach high school girls and boys volleyball teams. In fact, I help coach at my old high school with my old high school coach. She was one of the biggest supporters for me when she heard I came out. I am accepted by the players and enjoy spreading my knowledge onto others. Seeing players improve is exhilarating!

Volleyball carries me when I’m in emotionally dark times. This sport drives me and supports me. Thank you, Nicole Fawcett, for being part of the change that I needed in my life years ago. Stepping on the court the fire burns within, the energy builds, the competitiveness reveals….

Since practicing in my backyard in eighth grade to where I am currently, this has been a journey of improvement, acceptance and overcoming. Now I use my experiences to help others whether it’s their personal life or athletic life. I try to provide the support to those who don’t receive any support otherwise, no matter who they truly are.

Sandon Eaton plays volleyball for Millersville Univ. of Pennsylvania. You can find him on Facebook, on Instagram @RealSandonEaton, or on Twitter @athletevball14.

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