The first time I heard about Jacob Lancaster was a tweet from his mom about her “fabulously gay” son who happened to be an offensive lineman in high school. “Fabulously gay” isn’t usually the first words that come to mind describing the behemoths of football, so her choice of words stuck in my head.
Weeks later when I got on the phone with the “fabulously gay” high school junior in Northern California, I asked him why his mom called him that.
“She knows I can come home at any point in my life,” Jacob said, “and not say the words, ‘I got a girl pregnant.’”
While that certainly may be fabulous for a mom of any teenage boy, that isn’t quite what she had meant.
“He encompasses the actual definition of fabulous,” Kathleen shared with me later, “which is ‘extraordinary, especially extraordinarily large,’ and also ‘having no basis in reality, mythical.’”
The more I’ve chatted with Jacob and his mom, the more present I’ve become with just how “fabulous” he is. I’ve talked to a lot of football players in my 20 years with Outsports. I’ve never talked to anybody like Jacob.
The bright-eyed disposition of this 310-pound football prodigy is sometimes offset by the serious tone of conversations about women’s equality and LGBTQ rights. Despite being one of the strong men of football, conversations about Donna Summer and make-up aren’t off-limits.
And while there seems to be a national culture on the edge of embracing him for everything he is — enamored by what Billy Porter wears to the Met Gala while studying the X’s and O’s of football — he’s currently stuck finding his way through a local community is still at times struggling to understand who he is.
Navigating football and being gay gay gay
Jacob is used to being different from the other kids. His size, for one, has set him apart since he was pulled into playing football around fourth grade. Even at 9 years old playing for the Rio Linda Junior Knights in central California, coaches would “get excited” at the prospect of running an offense behind this young giant.
Like so many big kids, he initially relied on his size to do the job, but as he inched toward high school he became a student of the game. He didn’t just want to be good. He wanted to be great.
”My technique changed,” he said of working with a JV coach and his father in the eighth grade. “When I was younger I would just listen to what the coaches were trying to tell me. I was trying to copy what they would do, but I wasn’t doing it.”
At the very same time his seriousness about football was taking off, his eyes were opening about being different from the other guys in a bunch of other ways.
“I was more into arts and politics,” he said. “I was interested in watching househunting shows and fashion.”
Plus, in eighth grade he met his first-ever boyfriend and knew, beyond all doubt, that he “wasn’t like the rest of the guys.”
It was his phone exchanges with that first boyfriend that clued in his mom. Ever on top of protecting her kid, she was curious who was the guy “with the pink heart and googly eyes” next to his name in Jacob’s phone. A couple conversations with his parents told him their love wasn’t going anywhere.
Yet football loomed over his blossoming sexuality. When football started later that summer, he found himself at one practice suddenly surrounded by upperclassmen on the team asking him, “What’s your deal with girls?” and “Are you? Just answer our question.”
He sidestepped the questions and deflected. He had heard the constant “straight-guy talk” that was becoming more and more a part of the locker room. The reputation of football as homophobic had been beaten into him by people around him and media messages painting the football locker room as oppressively homophobic.
Even after that confrontation with the upperclassmen, he knew he didn’t have it in him to hide his true self, so he came out to friends and teammates one-by-one in the coming weeks.
Some of those same seniors who had approached him before practice told him, “if anyone is messing with you, let us know.” When he did just that later that season, some of the seniors approached the kid harassing Jacob, and he backed off.
”The seniors who talked to that player, their maturity level rose to the occasion, knowing we’re all brothers and we should all be respected as brothers,” Jacob remembered. “It doesn’t matter who we are.”
The acceptance buoyed Lancaster’s self-confidence. He felt he would have a permanent home on the football team.
A shifting culture
Last year, after the seniors on the team his freshman year had graduated, Lancaster said his football experience changed.
”Last year felt completely different. There were disrespectful remarks. There were a few times I was called a ‘faggot’ or ‘gay,’ in a bad way. They were trying to say I’m a bad player with those remarks.”
The change in tone on the team has added to a growing feeling of loneliness for Jacob. Living in West Sacramento, he hasn’t found it easy to find other young gay, bi and queer men like himself to date, something he really wants. Despite how much of his life’s time and passion he’s putting into football, strong friendships haven’t been part of the return on investment.
“I do what needs to be done on the field, and I try to build relationships with players, which is probably one of the hardest things. People on my team and I, we have very different interests. With teenage boys, their interests are girls, and my interest is not girls.”
The conversation about gay football players has been bubbling in the United States since David Kopay came out publicly in 1975. Over the last four decades, Americans have come to understand that gay men do play football, and that homosexuality is not the mark of physical weakness. To be sure, that notion hasn’t set in everywhere with everyone, yet it’s a conversation that’s moving in one direction.
What makes Lancaster so unique, so “extraordinary,” is that who he is as a person flies in the face of everything we know football players to be, and how they behave. While the concept of gay men playing football is becoming widely understood, there’s still the powerful notion that only a certain kind of gay man plays football. Lancaster doesn’t fit that notion.
Jacob’s future in gold... or gold Lamé
Lancaster’s dreams are varied, but he most definitely has a big football dream: to wear the golden dome of Notre Dame. His family are longtime fans — “We idolize coach Brian Kelly.” Last year they went to the USC-Notre Dame game in South Bend. Walking the campus was a religious experience for the budding lineman.
Yet Lancaster knows a stop along California’s successful community college circuit is a possibility. Attending the Linemen Win Games camp at American River College — and having, according to Jacob, some success there — has him thinking of attending. In a game that continues to gravitate more and more toward the passing game, a pass-protection specialist who can keep the defensive ends at bay is a valuable commodity.
Jacob is hopeful — confident — that his varied interests will be accepted on his next football team.
While he and his teammates weren’t born until the 2000s, his music taste gravitates toward the divas of their parents’ — or grandparents’ — childhoods. Britney Spears. Paula Abdul. Of today’s emerging artists, Lizzo has his attention.
When he saw what Pose actor Billy Porter wore to the Met Gala,
“Did you see what Billy Porter wore to the Met Gala?” The budding fashion designer asked his mom as soon as he saw her that day. “Oh my God I need to go home and start sketching!”
He’s seen the power of strong leadership on a football team. He just wants to make friends and win games. And he knows he’ll find the right next team and give it everything he has while not losing who he is as a person.
“I don’t just do football. I’m a dancer. I’m an aspiring fashion designer. I’m a fighter. I am an advocate for LGBTQ+ people. And I’m all of these things at the age of 16.”