I began playing football on a whim in the fall of 2013, as an eighth-grader in Michigan, not realizing how the sport would change my life.

In football I found camaraderie with people whom I never fathomed I could love. Those I had never previously interacted with became my brothers. It was also during this confusing time of growing up that my mind began to wander and explore the unknowns of human sexuality.

While my friends were already solidified in their sexuality, I vacillated in a state of sexual limbo, not really comprehending what I was. I tried having feelings for girls, tried asking them out and falling for them, but a barrier always existed that made me hesitate and feel uncomfortable.

I was beginning to understand that I wasn’t “normal,” but I refused to acknowledge it. I was finally forced to confront these feelings in my sophomore year of high school when I began therapy for depression and anxiety.

For most of high school, I was able to go through life and never give a second thought to my sexuality. It wasn’t until my junior year in football, however, that I began to recognize the toll it was taking on my life.

During the football season that year, I earned respect and status among my teammates as we went to the state semifinals. Not a week after the season concluded, I was named one of the three captains for next season. I was thrilled for the approval from my peers and coaches for the honorary title. At the same time, though, a sense of cognitive dissonance began to overwhelm me.

I scrutinized my life as a seemingly invalid conclusion popped into my brain. I was a leader of the football team, valued by my team. On the other hand, I was also gay, something I thought was an unforgivable sin to my coaches and teammates, as the idea had connotations of disgust, femininity and reason for ostracism.

Even with the progressive nature of my high school, it is undeniable that football possesses a different culture that exudes explicit normative masculinity. I couldn’t fathom how I, someone who identified as “gay,” could be an “alpha-male,” an athlete who was receiving attention from college coaches. It defied my schema of the separate spheres of “gay” and “jock.”

Christian Zeitvogel and Kalamazoo went 7-3 this season.

It was at that moment that I felt alone in the world. I was neither flamboyant nor was I just “one of the guys” on the football team. I couldn’t fully identify with either faction. I was a dichotomy, a paradox.

I felt I could never come out, not without shattering the foundations of the new life I’d built for myself.

My mind churned as I accepted the faulty notion that no matter how talented I was as a player or how influential I was as a leader, I would never be unconditionally loved by some of my closest friends because of my orientation.

I felt I could never come out, not without shattering the foundations of the new life I’d built for myself. I would have to shroud my truth and wear a mask for the rest of my life as a football player.

This fear traveled with me as I embarked on life at college. It wasn’t until recently that this paranoia began to dissolve.

It was brought to my attention that a rumor about my sexual orientation was circulating around my hometown and made its way to Kalamazoo College, a private Division III school about two hours west of where I grew up. I was paralyzed with anxiety as I feared the inevitable reactions of teammates with whom I had barely become acquainted.

To my surprise, however, I have only experienced a few adverse reactions to which I have given little regard. After learning that a sizable portion of my new team was made aware of my closely guarded secret, I realized that there was no point in attempting to maintain a false front.

I suppose I was done giving a damn as to what others thought about me, and that it was time to accept who I was. I was done living a lie. I was done trying to be something that I am not.

I had come out to my family in my sophomore year of high school, and they served as my primary support. Slowly, I began to branch out as I learned to trust more and more people, eventually telling my close friends and even some of my teammates on my high school team.

I have been stunned by the overwhelming support and affirmations from those whom I feared rejection from the most.

Since I publicly came out this past Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, with a Facebook post, I have been stunned by the overwhelming support and affirmations from those whom I feared rejection from the most.

In the days after I publicly came out over social media, I received messages from old classmates, teammates and coaches all offering their salutations and, in some cases, apologies for previous insensitivity or intolerant behavior.

Reflecting on all of this, I realized that while it was smart to wait until college to come clean with myself and the world, my largest critic was myself.

Surely, some people may have taken my news with disdain, but ultimately my insecurity was my largest barrier. Those whom I feared rejection from exceeded my expectations in their support for me; it was my own doubt and intolerance that made life intolerable.

By coming out, I can now focus my full attention athletically to being the best player possible. I wasn’t originally interested in pursuing collegiate football until I met the coaching staff from Kalamazoo. I fell in love with Kalamazoo and withdrew my interests from other schools that I was considering, such as the University of Michigan and Yale University.

Christian Zeitvogel (78) leads his team on the field.

This last season, Kalamazoo went 7-3, our best record since 1963. In high school I was a captain and named All-State Honorable Mention for both athletic and for scholastic achievements in my senior year. Yet at Kalamazoo, for the first time, I was not a starter and was rudely awakened by the culture of college football.

Coming from a high school where I was one of the tallest, strongest and smartest athletes, when I arrived at Kalamazoo, I learned that the talents I relied on in high school were average traits of the players in college. While I did not start this year, I am working diligently through the off-season to learn, grow and improve.

By writing this article, I am joining the list of openly gay college football players.

By writing this article, I am joining the list of openly gay college football players, partially in solidarity of advocating for equality and exposure and to begin to find my pride in accepting my identity.

I would like to be the eighth member of this exclusive community of open and visual LGBT+ college football players and help end the stigma associated with LGBT+ athletes. I want to help join the fight and be a leader for those who struggle to follow in a path similar to me.

My moral is this: while having the love and support of those around you is important, nothing is more essential than one’s love and acceptance for themselves. It has taken me a long time to learn this lesson, and I’m still working to fully accept this, but it is the greatest piece of advice that I can offer to those who may read this and identify with my struggle.

Learn to love yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. The rest will follow.

Christian Zeitvogel is a freshman offensive lineman on the Kalamazoo College football team, a Division III private school in Michigan. He is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Psychology, and is looking to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney through amicus curiae brief submission. He is involved in social public policy reform advocacy, co-led a student walk-out in reaction to the Parkland Shooting and participated in voter registration drives. He can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter @The_Zeisenvogel or on his new Instagram account.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski