Willamette coach Glen Fowles thought redshirt freshman kicker Conner Mertens was going to discuss transferring when the two met last week.
Instead, Mertens had something else to tell him.
"I'm bisexual," Mertens told Fowles, according to OutSports. "I like dudes. I have a boyfriend. And next week, I'm going to tell the world."
Mertens told the world Monday night in the form of a letter posted to his Twitter account, and became the first college football player to come out while currently playing.
I don't ask for a lot of favors-but I'm cashing one in right now. Please take a minute to read this for me. pic.twitter.com/571c5v9NeO
— Merts (@ConnerMertens) January 28, 2014
After Mertens met with Fowles, Fowles told 16 members of the team in a meeting and gave them a heads up of what Mertens was about to reveal.
Fowles did the best he could. He told the team leaders that Mertens is coming out publicly, that it's important to him to do so, and he let them read the letter Mertens intended to post to his hometown. There was a moment of silence in the room ... followed by a parade. One by one the players stood up and voiced their love and appreciation 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."
Mertens told the rest of the team following that meeting. With Wade Davis, the former NFL player who runs the You Can Play project, in attendance, Mertens braced for backlash. There was none.
Willamette, a Division III school in Salem, Ore., has been home to firsts before. In 1997, Liz Heaston became the first female to score a point in a college football team when she kicked two PATs against Linfield College.
In April, former Middle Tennessee kicker Alan Gendreau came out as he was working out for a chance in the NFL. He was openly gay with his teammates and the subject of an anonymous article by a sociologist four years prior, but didn't discuss his sexuality publicly until after his career was over. Much like the players at Willamette, Gendreau's sexuality wasn't an issue amongst his teammates.
In September 2012, a junior college linebacker in North Dakota said he was kicked off the team when the team found out he was gay after he kissed his boyfriend in the press box. In a letter to him, the school said that he was dismissed for a violation of team rules.
A Houston Chronicle story about the 1993 Houston Oilers in December, revealed that two of the team's players were gay. And much like Mertens's teammates, no one on the Oilers thought much of it. Given the reactions of the Oilers 20 years ago and Gendreau's and Mertens's teammates recently, as well as a 2012 survey of NFL players, openly gay players may be a much bigger issue in the public spectrum than in the locker room.
- - - - - - -