When Byron Perkins hit “share” on Instagram and publicly came out as gay, he didn’t think he was doing it for anybody other than himself. The Hampton University defensive back was in a dark place, and as he put it, needed to “destroy his mask.”

But as the first gay football player to ever publicly come out at an HBCU, Perkins didn’t just remove his own mask when he revealed his sexuality to the world.

He broke a barrier. We are proud to name Byron Perkins our Outsports 2022 Male Hero of the Year.

“I didn’t realize it was going to have as much impact as it had,” Perkins said about his coming out on The Tamron Hall Show. “I thought I was just doing something that was going to help me. I didn’t realize I would be an influence for everybody else.”

Perkins is not the first college football player to publicly come out as gay. We’ve profiled multiple out college football players over the years, including Scott Frantz at Kansas State and Arizona’s My-King Johnson.

They’ve all talked about experiencing widespread acceptance from their coaches and teammates. All four College Football Playoff teams this year have distinguished histories of supporting LGBTQ athletes.

But Perkins recognizes his situation is different. His status as a football player at a Historically Black College provides him with the opportunity to reach other young Black men who may be struggling with their identities.

“Especially at an HBCU, young Black gay men need an outlet,” Perkins told Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler. “They need a support system. There hasn’t been an out gay football athlete at an HBCU. I want to end the stigma of what people think. I want people to know they can be themselves.”

Perkins thrived as his true self on the field this season. The junior recorded 22 tackles in 12 games, including five against Albany on Oct. 15, four days before his big announcement.

Perkins says coming out prevented him excelling in all areas of his life. Now, he is finally free.

“I’ve noticed that I’ve been a lot less stressed, worried, and anxious,” he said. “I’ve been able to be greater at what I do, and therefore be a better person [and] player.”

We can’t wait to see what Perkins accomplishes next, and whom he inspires along the way.

You can follow Byron Perkins on Instagram.