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Friday, October 24, 2014

Conner Mertens becomes first active college football player to come out as bisexual

Conner-MertensConner Mertens made history on Monday night. No college football player has ever come out as gay or bisexual while they were still playing. Mertens is a red-shirt freshman kicker for Division-III Willamette University, and his team and the public now know that he is bisexual.

Mertens asked Willamette coach Glen Fowles if he could meet with him last week to discuss something important. According to OutSports.com, Fowles was concerned that Mertens — who has the potential to be the team’s kicker for the next four seasons — might be transferring schools. He was relieved to hear that the freshman was staying.

“I’m bisexual,” Mertens told Fowles. “I like dudes. I have a boyfriend. And next week, I’m going to tell the world.”

Before he came out, Fowles had assured Mertens that he was a good kicker and would only be judged by his on-field performance. Fowles was an assistant coach with the Bearcats in 1997 when they became the first college football team to have a female kicker, Liz Heastons, participate in a game and score a point. That was one of the reasons Mertens chose Willamette. However, he feared that telling his teammates might be a lot tougher than telling Fowles.

“It’s always been the football community that scared me the most when I’ve thought about coming out,” Mertens admitted. “I’ve been around athletes all my life. I’ve heard the stuff we say. I say ‘we’ because I’m not going to lie, I contributed to it when I was younger. I made fun of guys by calling them ‘gay’ or ‘homo’ or ‘queer.’ So I’ve always assumed because everyone wants to be masculine, and because they see being gay as a weakness, they’d label me that and not give me a fair shot on the field.”

Fowles held a meeting late last week with 16 team leaders. At the end of the chat, he let his players read a lengthy letter that Mertens later tweeted to his hometown asking for support. After reading the letter, Fowles said the players stood up one-by-one and voiced their support for Mertens.

“It was unwavering support,” Fowles said. “They were supportive because he’s one of their teammates. It was impressive. After that meeting I congratulated the coaches for recruiting good men. We’ve got something special here. I was so proud of those guys. If that’s the future of young men in America, we’ve got a shot. It was awesome.”

Freshman linebacker Kyle Shaver, who is part of the team’s leadership group, told OutSports.com that the team will not accept any type of homophobia and that anyone who is not OK with Mertens being bisexual will have to keep it internalized. One of the team’s bigger players, whose reaction was feared by Mertens because he has a reputation for seeking out fights, had the following to say.

“If anyone has a problem with Conner, I’ll kick your ass.”

Another player asked Mertens to meet him on campus and offered a warm embrace, telling him his sexual orientation changes nothing.

“It’s been insanely incredible,” Mertens said after coming out. “I’m speechless. That is the only word I can use to describe this. Even a lot of the guys on the football team I was most scared of are the ones who have been the most amazing.”

Just as Mertens was incredibly brave for coming out to his teammates, so too were his teammates for accepting him. Society has made football players feel that masculinity and aggression can only be shown by straight men, which is obviously not the case. People like Mertens and NBA player Jason Collins give us hope for the future.



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