I remember every detail about that day like it was yesterday because of how much I grew as an athlete.
I picked Northern State University to continue my wrestling and academic career after searching across the nation for the perfect fit. After a visit and my commitment, I would later attend Northern State University in the fall.
I moved in knowing that this was a fresh start and that I could do anything and achieve anything I worked hard towards. We would later meet for the first time as a team and start our off-season training after a week of arriving on campus. After starting classes and getting in the swing of things, I would eventually start joining and leading various organizations and clubs on campus.
I started building my legacy, my brand, and my name on campus. I was Justice Horn. I know image means a lot in the real world, and I wanted to be a leader on and off the mat.
After a couple months on campus, our team grew closer after several weeks of training. We were encouraged by our coach to go out and hang out with one another early on. The important thing that was preached to us and followed at Northern State Athletics: athletics, academics and community.
We started picking up our off-season training with on-the-mat practices, weightlifting and cardio workouts put together by our strength-and-conditioning coaching staff. By then I knew all my teammates and we all had started to see each other as family with just a couple months of grinding towards season.
I trusted these athletes who went through the daily grind with me, even though I thought of them as strangers just a couple months ago.
Yet I knew thinking to myself that I must hide a key aspect of myself. What mattered most at the time to me was staying focused and getting ready for our first competition.
It was late October and the season was right around the corner for us. We had all grown mentally and physically as student athletes. Our program was run and operated by Coach Rocky, Assistant Coach JR Lewis and Graduate Assistant Tim Prescott. The accepting environment on the team had formed by this time because of my coaches. What was right and what was wrong in the program were clear.
One important day in the fall of 2017 was coming to an end. There were three hurdles I had to get over that day. I remember struggling with how and when I would pass them. I came out my freshman year of high school, but with a new team came the task to always share.
This instance was different. I was an NCAA athlete in the highly competitive and intense sport of wrestling. I knew that I had two choices: stay in the closet and live my wrestling career hiding... or live a full life authentic life as an out college wrestler.
I worked so hard to get to this point in my life, and so many people had sacrificed for me to have this opportunity. I was conflicted and started thinking inward of what I would do.
I didn’t know what to do, so I sought guidance with the resources available to me. My coach had told us about the counseling services available to us, and we had a counselor who happened to be a wrestling alumnus.
I called my mom about what to do, and I told her that I needed to talk to the counselor. I cried because to me it showed that I was weak.
After the phone call, I went and scheduled an appointment and sat in his office wondering if this was the right choice. I was filled with courage that day. I thought, this is me and I will not live my life hiding.
When I confided in my counselor he defended my coaches’ integrity and character and said that Coach Rocky would be accepting about it. He then helped me set up an appointment 10 minutes later with my head wrestling coach.
I left the counseling center with pride knowing I had to go conquer my second hurdle. I walked into my coaches office and I told him I had to talk about something serious. I told him I really want to be a part of this program and family, and because of the environment I wanted to be open about myself.
I told him, “Coach I am gay.”
He said it didn’t matter to him.
I was surprised by how accepting he took the news. He told me that he accepted me and that it can stay between him and me, or I could tell the team. Knowing that we had practice later that day, I made the decision to tell my team.
I left my coach’s office knowing I had one last hurdle to surpass. We went through a regular wrestling practice, and honestly that is all I was thinking about all practice. We ended practice by circling up to stretch. He brought us all in and told us when our next practice was. He added weekly reminders, and then he told the team that I had something to tell them.
As we were all sitting and listening to my coach, he opened the floor up to me. I remember positioning myself sitting down so that I could face them.
At this moment I knew that I was doing the right thing. This was my team, and these were my brothers. I started off saying that I loved being a part of this program and that I wanted to be a Northern State wrestler for a long time.
“Yet there is something you guys need to know about me,” I said. “I’m gay. It doesn’t change anything, but I just wanted you guys to know because I want to be a part of this group for a long time.”
I was met with smiles, pats on the backs, head nods, and responses from a couple teammates calling me brave, and even stating that must be why I wasn’t talking to any of the girls on campus who like me.
I was met with only positive feedback, and I truly believe that that moment made us all stronger as a program.
What I hope to accomplish with my story is to give hope to other athletes, give inspiration to athletes that no matter who they are, they can play at the college level if they have the dedication, and to show that the highly competitive and masculine sport of wrestling is an small but welcoming community.
Justice Horn, 20, is working towards a Business Administration degree at Northern State University, as an student athlete on the NSU Wrestling team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram @justicehorn and on Facebook.