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How football saved my life and why I am leaving the sport I love

Between health concerns and academic opportunities, Christian Zeitvogel is leaving the sport that shaped his identity as an athlete, student and gay man.

Christian Zeitvogel played college football for Kalamazoo College in Michigan.

Editor’s note: This article includes themes of self-harm.

I sat alone in the middle of a placid lecture hall, staring at the ground as the world spun around me and my head throbbed.

Despite the heat of August, I shielded myself with a hooded sweatshirt and huddled for warmth. The light hurt my eyes, my thoughts were scattered and incoherent, I was nauseous and could barely stomach food, and I did not know what to do. Overwhelmed in confusion, frustration and exhaustion, I began to shake and break down in tears.

Not even a week had passed since I was diagnosed with my first concussion following a scrimmage with my Kalamazoo College team in Michigan a few days prior.

I felt helpless as I was no longer in control of my mind. In the following weeks, I slowly regained some sense of normalcy, but I felt the concussion’s toll on my mind and body. While I was able to regain the strength and endurance over time, my head never fully recovered.

I was symptom-free, but subtle consequences lingered. My mental sharpness, clarity and fluidity are still tainted, slowing down certain cognitive functions such as math or recall of information.

My short-term memory has been the greatest victim of this experience: Even as I write this, one idea will enter my head, my attention will divert for a second, and then that idea disappears.

Small instances in everyday life, such as frequently forgetting to grab my keys, completing an order or task or encoding what I read or hear, never happened with such frequency before my concussion; not to mention the increase in mood swings and sensitivity to light when driving at night.

The juxtaposition of knowing what I used to be capable of and realizing the mental barriers that now exist is incredibly frustrating.

During those weeks of recovery for my concussion, I was confined to my dorm and instructed to limit stimulation as much as possible. In a world where I was used to be productive in an efficient manner and performing at a high caliber, to be told to drop everything and do nothing was devastating and went against my work ethic.

It felt like a mental and physical penitentiary as I was limited in my capabilities to do most things. In the days of lying on my futon in my dorm, doing absolutely nothing but listening to white noise from my phone and waiting for my brain to heal, my disorganized cognition did paint one clear picture: I did not want to experience this again.

It was during that time that I decided it was finally time for me to retire from the sport I loved at age 19.

Going into the eighth grade, I was on the tail end of my first wave of suicidal thoughts and actions. I had no stable group of friends, I felt as though I did not belong anywhere, I was insecure about my body, frequently experienced bullying and my reputation was that of a nerdy kid with glasses who took life way too seriously.

Being a naive 13-year-old, I thought I was the only person in the world to feel this way and manifested a hatred for myself and the world.

I worked through many of these issues and desperately sought a new start. Ironically, I chose to try football. Growing up on a diet of Disney Channel, I condemned football as a barbaric sport for vacuous jocks. In this new chapter of my life, I turned to the sport I had preached against in hope of forging a new identity for myself.

I was immediately welcomed with open arms by my coaches and teammates on my middle school team, many of whom I used to resent. The socially awkward and introverted Poindexter began to grow as I realized I prematurely judged these people.

One of my teammates used to be my nemesis. We were in the same Boy Scout troop and I always detested him for being one of the immature popular kids who harassed me. We now faced a predicament as we were on the same team, had lockers right next to each other and played the same position.

I feared him, kept my head down and avoided him like the plague. Quickly, however, all of that changed as we soon became friends. Next thing I knew, we were best friends as we spent our time together either with football for practices and weight training, scout campouts or at each other’s houses playing PS4 or making Israeli pearl couscous.

I slowly learned to lighten up and to even laugh. In this, not only did I find my best friend whom I relied on throughout high school, I also found fraternity in my teammates and other people from my troop.

Football saved my life as I struggled with my mental illness.

As I discussed in my coming out article, my sexuality was one of the main reasons why I was depressed for much of my high school experience. My sexuality, in tandem with other factors, eventually spiraled into my second bout of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

I began seeing a therapist after I confessed to my mother about my depression and anxiety, and I am incredibly grateful for my parents’ support in getting me the help I needed.

After a mental breakdown in May of my sophomore year, I consulted a psychiatrist to implement medication into my treatment. For more than a year, we struggled to find the right chemical cocktail. During that time, however, I reached my lowest point when I began harming myself.

Chrisitan Zeitvogel discusses the tattoo he got at the end of May 2019: “The semicolon represents ‘Project Semicolon,’ a nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness about suicide prevention and mental health. Similar to its grammatical function, the semicolon in this case shows that life goes on. The phrase ’tabula rasa’ means ‘blank slate’ in Latin. It’s originally a philosophy term by John Locke, but he appropriated it to mean a fresh start. Coming out, going to college and finding stability in my mental health all occurred around the same time and truly was a blank slate.”

Self-harm is an addiction for me. There were times where life felt too overwhelming and I did not know how to cope with everything I was experiencing.

The emotions and pain I felt were potent and harming myself released so much energy. The nights when I could not sleep because I was too angry or sad or frustrated, converting the mental pain into physical pain that I took out on myself consumed so much energy and felt cathartic. To override the evolutionary default of preservation by taking a knife to my thighs and triceps left me depleted of both energy and emotion. I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I feared the path that I was traveling, so I cried out for help.

Through all of this, I came close to the edge, but there were several people who kept me anchored to this world, first and foremost my family. I love my family more than anything in this world, and beyond my blood my football family also kept me going. When I was having a bad day, I could always go to our coach’s office where there was bound to be somebody in there.

Despite all the stressors in my life, I could at least forget about it for a few hours whenever I had practice or lifting. Football provided a safety net where I could be surrounded by guys I identified with, cared about and who always brought a positive energy. Football provided a physical release as well. I could continue to push myself for the betterment of myself and the team until I was too exhausted to do anything harmful to myself.

Football not only provided an outlet to the negative energy polluting my mind and body, but it also redefined my identity.

While I struggled to understand and accept who I was, football was the redeeming factor to my realizing I was gay.

To my chagrin, I knew that I could not change who I was, but I figured I did not have to let it define who I am. The identity of a football player commanded more respect, so I thought that football could simply overshadow my “flawed” identity.

I found solace in reading the article about former NFL offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan, who is gay, as he talked about using football to shroud something still too often seen as socially taboo, and then dealing with the emotional repercussions in a private setting.

“Thank god I at least have football; otherwise, I would be worse than nothing,” went my thinking.

My high-functioning anxiety manifested in me trying to be the best student and football player that I could be. Until I was able to work through my internalized homophobia, my identity as a scholar and an athlete served as an escape from the other side of my life that I feared. Sports and academics bought me enough time to settle the storm that was raging in my mind.

When I embarked onto college, I was finally in a better place with my mental health as we found an effective combination of medications to help rectify my neurological imbalance.

Medicine regulated my emotions to not be so severe, and therapy reformed my schema, the way I processed information, and how I coped with stressors. It was an arduous road, but it certainly contributed to the reason why I am the man I am today.

During the beginning of my freshman year in college a rumor spread that I was gay. I was paralyzed because I imagined the worst-case scenario of my teammates’ reactions: judgment, ostracism and awkward tension. On the other hand, a part of me was also relieved; the rumor forced me to confront the main barrier to my peace of mind. This rumor ripped the Band-Aid off the wound that I sought to hide at all costs.

When I wrote my coming out story, I said that my coaches and teammates supported me unconditionally. This is all true, but the story also continues.

The following days after publication, I received text messages, emails and letters from all sorts of people. In class and at meals, my teammates discussed the article with me. My coming out was acknowledged, but it did not become my defining feature.

I never received a dirty look or comment, there was never any awkward tension in the locker room and my presence was appreciated. I have even been able to share a couple of jokes between my teammates about the matter. At the end of the day, nothing had changed, and that was all I ever wanted.

And yet, everything changed because I not only felt free, but I also felt proud. The most meaningful messages I received after publishing the article from several guys around my age scattered across the country.

In their emails they thanked me for giving them hope. They were questioning their identities and they needed someone to tell them that everything was going to be all right.

I read about the sports they played, personal dilemmas that they were working through and feeling like their backs were against the wall. They asked for my advice and they felt safe enough to confide in me.

All I ever wanted in sharing my journey was to provide some affirmation to someone who feels like they have nowhere else to turn. Everything in my life changed because I gained a platform to make my story visible and to help others reach the same place.

I also recognize the privilege I have in being a white, cisgender male, and I utilize the privilege I do have to advocate for those who share my fight.

Until we have equality before the law and equality in status, our work is not done. Until coming out is no longer necessary, until my story no longer resonates with audiences, then our work is not done.

Christian Zeitvolgel (78) runs on the field with his Kalamazoo teammates.

My identity as a football player provided a special dynamic to advocate for the LGBT+ community through visibility. This May, I received the opportunity to present at a community reflection about LGBT identities and the abstract concept of “pride” on college campuses. Pride is the bravery to not only live authentically, but to love yourself while doing it. (The speech can be read here).

After everything I have said about football, it seems almost unfathomable as to why I would leave. Football has done so much for me throughout the years, and my identity will always be marked by my experiences from this sport that I love.

It is not an easy decision, but it is a rational decision that was reached after extensive consideration. The primary reason is my health. My stamina and endurance declined significantly in my senior year of high school, for reasons still not very well known. In preparing for college football, I ran every day before lifting. At my best, I could run a mile under nine minutes. Suddenly, however, I could barely run for more than five minutes before I could no longer breathe.

My doctor diagnosed it as asthma, yet none of the treatments or medications that we tried have restored my body to what it was once capable of. By the time I reached college, I could barely keep up with the rest of my teammates. I went from thriving to barely surviving.

More importantly, of course, is the concussion. In my seven years of playing football, I had been incredibly lucky to not sustain an injury until this year. Even after the concussion, a sense of fear still lingered, causing me to hesitate on the field. As much as I love this sport, it is not worth jeopardizing the head that sits on my shoulders.

Furthermore, other opportunities lie outside of football that I would not necessarily be able to achieve with the time and energy that is demanded by the sport. One of my majors is in German, and I am finalizing my application to study abroad in southeastern Germany for seven months next year.

Due to the timeline of this enriching program, it would mean that I miss a season of football.

I am also planning to invest my time into volunteer work for groups such as OutFront Kalamazoo, an LGBT+ advocacy organization, where I am looking forward to contributing towards their advocacy branch such as discrimination litigation consultation, trainings, and outreach programs in the community.

Football is a chapter of my life, but it does not dictate where I am going in life. My college and its city present other opportunities that will be more beneficial for me in the long run in my zeal for jurisprudence and advocacy.

My love for football has slowly dwindled from a conflagration to an ember. Somewhere along the way, football began to feel more like an obligation than a privilege.

The chance to don a collegiate jersey is an immense honor, yet I took it for granted. Daily practices, meetings, morning workouts and all the other devotion necessary for the sport began to feel monotonous. I am a different person and football does not bring the same joy it once did.

I should not spend my time and energy on something that I do not wholeheartedly love. More importantly, the team does not deserve a player who is not committed to the same degree. I love this sport and I love this team, but I cannot bring myself to continue to sacrifice for the team that deserves everything.

Football gave me confidence, pushed me outside of my comfort zone, challenged my abilities to work as a team and as a leader, provided an outlet for my mental illness, forged a network of brothers, enriched me with life-long memories and achievements, and gave me something to be proud of.

During adolescence I was often scared, confused, and angry at myself and the world about my sexuality and other insecurities, but football was always something that I could point to as a point of pride.

Today, however, I can confidently say that I am not that same person from high school. I can still be frustrated or upset, but I am much more comfortable in my own skin and wield the necessary tools and networks to deal with the stressors in my life.

Since coming out, I am more confident in who I am as a man and an advocate, and even if I am not on the field, football will always be a part of me.

Christian Zeitvogel, 20, is a sophomore at Kalamazoo College, a Division III private school in Michigan. He played two years as an offensive lineman on the school’s football team. He is pursuing a double major in Political Science and German, a minor in Psychology, and is looking to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney through amicus curiae brief submission. He can be reached at czeitvogel78@gmail.com, on Twitter @The_Zeisenvogel or on Instagram.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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