Jason Collins’ uniform tribute to Matthew Shepard draws tears, applause from Shepard’s parents

For many, the most surprising takeaway from Jason Collins’ revelation of his sexuality on Monday was the news that Collins wore the No. 98 during the 2012-13 season as a tribute to Matthew Shepard. Shepard was an openly gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally tortured and murdered in a hate crime in October of 1998. The fact that we had been watching one of the more poignant tributes in sports history during the waning moments of Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards games this year came as a huge, and most welcome, surprise.

Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy, felt the same. They learned of Collins’ announcement and his tribute as we did on Monday morning, and reacted exactly as you’d expect them to. From an exclusive interview with FOX Sports’ Sam Gardner:

“It made me cry,” Judy Shepard told FOXSports.com during an interview Monday afternoon. “It was really quite a tribute, and I was very honored. And I know Matt would be thrilled.”

And the Shepards hope, someday, to be able to thank Collins personally for his bravery in opening himself up to the world and honoring their son’s name in the process.

“I would really love to speak to him, because I know Judy and I would just like to thank him,” Dennis Shepard said. “Because, No. 1, he had the courage to come out, period, and No. 2 that he wore 98 in honor of Matt, the year that he died.

“(Collins) couldn’t have been that old (when it happened), so it must have had a tremendous impact on him, the story behind Matt, for him to want to do that. And then to wear it all this time without telling people why until today, that’s incredible.”

The revelation that Collins wore that number in honor of Shepard floored me. It drove me to tears on Monday and it is well on its way from encouraging the same reaction a day later. As Dennis Shepard points out, for a lot of people around the same age in 1998, Shepard’s last few days and eventual passing was a watershed moment. It was a shock that in the seemingly modern-as-tomorrow year of 1998, someone could be brutally murdered merely for what some saw as the sin of something he was born with. To myself, and clearly Collins, this was something that seemed far removed from the America that I wanted to grow up in.

This is why, as Gardner points out, the Shepard family immediately moved to set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation in their son’s honor in order to draw attention, for lack of a better description, to some of the more awful things that humans tend to do to others as we attempt to extricate ourselves from the Dark Ages.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re anywhere near developing the sort of environment that allows for the LGBT community to live in the same loving atmosphere that most take for granted. All you have to do is take a look at Jason Collins’ “@” replies on Twitter to see the sort of hatred, paranoia, and outright ignorance that he’ll have to work through just to be able to enjoy a spring afternoon on a social media outlet.

And that’s a successful, confident, and proud 34-year old man. Imagine what someone half Collins’ age or younger has to go through, just to be able to “admit” to what they’ve been all along.

This is why the Shepard family supports organizations like The Trevor Project, which provides crisis prevention for gay youth that are struggling to come to terms with a community that may be less than welcoming as these teenagers move toward a day where they can be honest and loved just for being themselves.

From Gardner’s interview:

The goal, of course, for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Trevor Project and other organizations like them, is to get to a point where being gay is no longer viewed as controversial and to have the LGBT community be universally accepted. And though it won’t solve the problem altogether, having someone as visible as Jason Collins join that crusade is vitally important.

“You’re starting to see the general flow, that everybody’s realizing that there’s no difference between the straight community and the gay community,” Dennis Shepard said. “It’s just who they love, and for the rest of it, they’re out there, they have a mortgage to pay, they have kids in school, they want to have an ordinary life, retire and then die of old age with a smile on their face, just like everybody else.

“I just hope (Collins’ essay) furthers the cause, not so much for our foundation, but for the population in general, so we can get off this ride of having to worry about being the first, and these stories about who’s going to come out first. Who cares? The only first I want to know is Abbott and Costello.”

Good calls, Dennis Shepard. And thanks for your part in making it so that thousands of young men and women that were your son’s age in 1998 can feel safe and loved as they round third, and head home.