Outsports continues a new feature, Out in the World: diving into our deep archive of Coming Out stories and updating the stories of out athletes, coaches and other sports personnel who continue to prove, everyday, that Courage Is Contagious.
When Rock Island, Ill. High School cross country and track coach Jarrin Williams wrote his coming out story for Outsports three years ago, the first line was as blunt as his coaching style.
That first line harkened back to the start of his coaching career twenty years prior. That opening line something he chuckles about now.
“It began as a defense mechanism,” he stated. “Mainly I didn’t want appear too close to kids and being seen as a pedophile or something. That was something I attributed to internalized homophobia.”
Since 2016, he’s been a teacher in the Rock Island-Milan School District. Currently he teaches freshman English at Rock Island High School. In 2017, he added “coach” to his title as head boys cross country coach and assistant track and field coach at RIHS.
He is also a gay man who came out to his school the same day he was hired. He’s not only found an accepting school community, he’s become Rock Island High’s “unofficial PR department” on social media.
I have worked in some great school districts during my career but nothing beats being at home. Every day is Homecoming for me and I love it. ❤️ I get to work alongside some phenomenally-talented folks too. #PondTheRock #ThisHouseRocks @R_I_Schools @RockIslandHigh2 pic.twitter.com/xSLApLuiLn— jarrin (@coachjw) September 20, 2019
“I picked up photography as a hobby. I teach media. Plus, my degree from Southern Illinois is in PR,” Williams said. “I’m fiercely defensive of my community. So people think they know Rock Island? I’m like, ‘no’. There are good kids and good people here so they have no idea. I have to opportunity to showcase what they are doing.”
His pride and emotion for his hometown of 40,000 along the banks of the Mississippi River is evident, but there was a time when he was prepared to put Rock Island permanently in the rear view mirror. As a student at Rock Island high, he was a hurdler and sprinter on the their Illinois Class AA state championship squad in 1989. At that same time his pride and emotion for being his authentic self was still dormant underneath the struggle on whether to affirm it or hide it. Despite winning on the track, he was teased off of it for what some thought he was.
Excelling on the track in high school and and in college at Southern Illinois gave him a competitive confidence. “I was an average athlete, but I loved competition,” Williams explained. “There may have more talented runners and they may be talking trash, but I knew that you better have you best between 250 and 350 meters because If I’m in the race, you better be ready to run, and it might hurt you.”
Williams’ competitive fire paced back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference championships in the 400-meter hurdles. Away from the track he was trying hard to fade in the background even as he tried to take tentative, halting steps out of the closet.
“I was out to my close friends and living out in my daily life but not out to my teammates,” Williams recalled. “I never met another out athlete. A lot of great things happened at SIU, but as far as being a gay athlete I can’t tell to many stories that felt victorious.”
After college he went back into coaching at a few high school in Illinois and in 2009, making the moving to coach at a high school just outside of Minneapolis, Minn. However when his old high school event coach reached out, Williams return to his roots. He returned to Rock Island High as a much different person than what he was as a high school graduate in 1990.
“This isn’t mecca for LGBTQ+ anybody and now that I’m older and more comfortable in my my skin, I have no intention of going back into the closet,” Williams said emphatically. “I’m very much out here as a head coach who is Black and gay. I am proud to be in front of the program and the kids can see that and they can be like ‘If I’m different, I don’t think that would be a bad thing because my coach can embrace that.’”
Being out and proud has rubbed off on his school community and that confidence he’s built was needed in the head coaching job he holds. Cross country is something he’s had to learn on the fly after years and sprints and jumps coach. Rock Island High cross country teams have consistently struggled in the past. To start building a winning attitude and tradition the coach has drawn on his own experience an athlete.
“When I start running the 400 hurdles, I learned to embrace the pain,” he said. “Cross country is the perfect sport for getting the kids to embrace the pain, because you get to that last mile it's about who wants it more and getting the kids to understand that the race is harder but what we are asking them to do at practice may be equally hard or harder. You have to have faith that your training will get you through. They have to decide how tough they are willing to be and getting them to see how much they have in them.”
The same challenging manner he has as a coach, he also brings to the classroom as an English teacher. Even with hopes and frustrations of teaching, pushing toward a goal of winning a Western Big Six Conference title in cross country, and for this year having to navigate education during a global pandemic. He sees the challenge, after over 20 years coaching and teaching, as fulfilling.
“Even on the days I’m frustrated, I can’t see myself doing anything else. My identity is tied up in being a teacher and an educator and I’m doing my life’s work,” he said. “I’m enjoying being with my group of guys in cross country, and the fact that these are good students and good people and their parents are proud makes me know that I’m doing my life’s work.”
His confidence and impact has also shown up in the community as large. He points out that he is not seen as “the gay head coach” or the “gay teacher”. He points to a meeting with a classmate from his high school days as an object lesson in how much change has occurred just by being visible. A week after the original Outsports story in 2017, a local sports writer wrote a follow up and couple of weeks beyond that Williams ran into a high school classmate who bullied him back in school.
“We ran into each other at a local grocery store and he approached me and said he was glad that I was able to navigate all that mess and good for you for living your truth,” he recalled. “That was huge for me because I thought this would be the first person to say something negative about my story and it wasn’t the case.”
Jarrin Williams is an English teacher, head boys’ cross country coach and assistant track and field coach at Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Illinois. Jarrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @williamsjarrin on Instagram, @coachjw on Twitter, and Jarrin Williams on Facebook.
Outsports welcomes suggestions for our Out In the World series. Who would you like to hear from again? Also, please reach out if you yourself would like to update us on what you’ve been doing since coming out.
Check out our archive of coming out stories.
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (email@example.com)
If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.