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Gay soccer player Sam Johnson’s college career ends, defined by legacy of advocacy

“Soccer’s always been great... but I would say that the experiences I’ve had as a result of being an out athlete ... have been more rewarding to me.”

Sam Johnson
Sam Johnson
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Everything is finite.

It’s a lesson we all learn countless times throughout our lives, and sports careers are no different. But those short shelf lives don’t have to define the people that lived through them.

Case in point: Whittier College’s Sam Johnson.

The out gay soccer player enjoyed years of success on the pitch, helping the Poets to reach new heights during his collegiate career. But that career came to an end on Nov. 4 after Whittier exited the conference tournament semifinals, falling to the University of Redlands, 2-0. The loss marked Johnson’s final appearance on the collegiate pitch.

“I’m ready to move on to the next aspect of my life and put my time and my effort into something else,” Johnson told Outsports.

“My senior season was good and I think it was a really good and very appropriate way to end my career. We had really big goals and we were looking very strong through the season. And ultimately didn’t reach those goals, but we got pretty darn close. So, the satisfaction there is fine by me. I don’t have any regrets.”

As a kid, the Seattle native delved into the sport with the same fervor that fueled his academic success before donning Poets’ purple. That drive was a product of being a young gay man fearful of being seen as anything less than who he truly is.

That need to overachieve propelled Johnson into roles across Whittier’s campus that reach far beyond sport. He’s taken on multiple roles in student government, worked in Whittier’s admissions office, given campus tours (complete with rainbow lapel pin) and worked with the Poet Student Athlete Leadership Academy (PSALA) to host events with Kirk Walker, Andrew Goldstein and Outsports’ own Haley Videckis.

He even joined a committee charged with choosing the school’s new athletic director.

“I don’t think it was one thing over the other where I had the most influence or was able to do the most things,” Johnson said. “I was in the admissions office. I was on student government. And then I was also out ... It was important for me.”

While he’s done so much off the field, the pitch has been a refuge for Johnson since adolescence.

“It was somewhere where my sexuality didn’t matter and it was that equal playing field, I guess,” Johnson said. “After I came out... it changed a little bit and it worked in my favor. I think I was able to play a little bit more free.”

He carried that sentiment to California after graduating from high school.

Now, at the end of his college career, Johnson recognizes that his relationship with the sport has changed, especially after a homophobic slur was hurled at him during a game against Occidental College in September of 2018.

“That threw me for a loop,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say I started to kind of not want to play anymore, but I think that’s where I was like, ‘alright, this is going to come to an end at some point.’

“I think obviously anything like that is going to cause someone to reevaluate everything. Especially something that you have always had and considered somewhere you felt safe.”

The incident lingered, forcing Johnson to confront his own mental-health struggles while diverting focus from his athletic, academic and extra-curricular work.

“That impacted my whole semester,” Johnson said. “Those meetings, those phone calls with the Occidental administration, that took time out of my semester. It made me a bigger advocate and less tolerating of behavior like that, because it’s just simply inexcusable.”

He returned to Whittier in 2019 with a renewed strength.

That didn’t mean he didn’t take some satisfaction in beating Occidental, 3-1, on their home field when the two matched up in September.

“That was kind of a good closing of the chapter for me because we got to go back,” Johnson said. “We won the game ... I think that was the official moving on point.”

The end of a playing career inevitably brings a period of reflection, and Johnson isn’t exempt from such.

“Do I have an impact on the team? Yes. Did I help bring players in? Yes. Did I literally help the team? I did. My impact is, I think, is a little bit more nuanced in respect to soccer.”

Still, he believes his time at Whittier will be remembered, both by himself and those his story and experiences affected, more for his work off the field.

“My impact on campus is a little bit more visible, which is something I’m proud of. I don’t think I’ve done a lot of work per se, but I would say that the experiences I’ve had as a result of being an out athlete, and the things that I’ve chosen or been picked to be a part of have been more rewarding to me.

Soccer’s always been great. It’s always been something that I’ve loved. But these experiences are the real-life experiences. The people I’ve met and the people I’ve been able to connect with through the You Can Play projects and working with Outsports and getting the opportunity to go and speak at Nike and all those things, those are fantastic.

“Those have been everything. I’m super grateful.”

With his collegiate career done, Johnson now turns his sights toward nursing school and continuing his LGBTQ advocacy. But he isn’t leaving the sport that helped him grow into himself behind completely.

“I’m still actively involved in my high school with my soccer team,” Johnson beamed. “The coach is a huge ally. He’s been supportive of me since day one.

“Obviously, I know I’ll join the league at home. I’ve got a niece or nephew being born in February and you can bet they’re going to be a soccer player.”

You can follow Sam Johnson on Instagram @_sammyj_, or on Twitter @Sam_Johnson._

Out college athletes, their coaches and their friends are encouraged to reach out to Outsports, so we can tell their stories. From freshmen to seniors, email us at outsports@gmail.com or send us a DM on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!