Mackenzie Dunford loves football. They are addicted to the physicality, camaraderie and competition. At an early age, Dunford knew football was the sport for them, and coaches knew they were a football player.
Dunford, who plays on the line, stands at a hulking 6-foot-4 and weighs 280 pounds. Throwing on the pads was an easy decision.
But how Dunford identifies off the field was harder for them to figure out. The long process included lots of research and soul-searching. Finally, in December 2020, Dunford was ready to hit “send.”
That’s when they publicly came out as bisexual and non-binary, complete with a post on their own website, which they started to highlight the stories of LGBTQ athletes.
“At first, I was very much hiding it. I was playing football. I did get self-deprecating: ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I love football. I like masculine things,’” said Dunford on the latest edition of my podcast, The Sports Kiki. “But then it got to the point where, if I didn’t come out, I probably wasn’t going to make it anywhere. I was done hiding, done not being myself.”
To Dunford’s relief, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Some of the messages that meant the most came from their old coaches, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s. They may not be familiar with the concept of gender identity and all of its accompanying terms, but they said they were eager to learn.
“They don’t really understand a lot of that stuff, so I was able to educate [them] with my posts, and I got a bunch of ‘thank-yous’ for that,” said Dunford. “I felt great about where the direction of the sport was going based off the attention I was getting.”
Last year, Dunford’s head coach pulled them aside, and said to correct him over any mistakes.
”He said he was trying, and I appreciated that,” said Dunford.
A high school standout, Dunford planned to continue their playing career in college at Vanier College in Montreal (Dunford is from Canada). But Covid wiped out their season, and when students were sent home, Dunford dropped out.
Like millions of young people around the world, they found “Zoom University” to be disengaging.
Today, Dunford suits up for the Quinte Skyhawks, who play in the Canadian Junior Football League, a highly competitive conference consisting of 19 teams spread across five provinces. Many CJFL players wind up playing professionally in the Canadian Football League (CFL) and elsewhere.
That’s Dunford’s goal, along with providing visibility for other young football players who may be questioning their identity. Dunford knows they are just one person, but they hope their experience can lead to the game becoming more inclusive.
“On my team, I have changed the narrative a bit, and I feel like more and more football teams are starting to head towards getting rid of the language in the locker rooms,” they said.
One piece of that is Dunford’s website, LGBTQ Sports. On it, they publish personal essays about their journey as a young football player whose journey of self-discovery has coincided with their time on the gridiron.
Most importantly, Dunford has their contact information available. They want to help.
“I’m not afraid to be me right now. I’m in a healthy situation. I can afford to be me,” they said. “I want to be that voice for people who can’t.”
Click here to check out this episode of our Outsports podcast, “The Sports Kiki.” You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.
Follow Mackenzie Dunford on Twitter.