“Well, this is one giant step for Nebraska Athletics. Are you ready?"
It has been 11 years since Eric Lueshen asked his boyfriend this question at Nebraska's student-athlete formal. At the time, there were no publicized gay athletes in major college football.
This was still the case until February 9, 2014 when Michael Sam came out to the New York Times. Sam will be credited as football's first openly gay athlete; however, that is not the whole truth.
Lueshen has been openly gay for the last 12 years. As a football player for the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2003-06), his teammates knew his sexual orientation and generally accepted him for it.
Yet it never became news.
“I’m sure the media knew,” Lueshen said. “I just don’t think they ever made it known to other people. I don’t know if they felt the culture wasn’t ready for it at that time nationally, let alone locally in the very conservative state of Nebraska, but I know they knew. They very well could have been trying to protect me."
Lueshen decided to finally tell his story after being approached by 93.7 The Ticket in Lincoln, Neb. for an interview (part one and part two). The radio station took notice after he posted an article on Facebook crediting Sam as the first openly gay college football player.
“I thought, ’The first openly gay college football player? That’s a little odd. I did this 11 years ago,’” Lueshen said. “I kind of chuckled and laughed. I understand he’s a very high-profile football player and I never got to that level, but he wasn’t the first.”
Until he suffered a career-ending back injury during his redshirt sophomore season, his sexuality was common knowledge to his team. Beyond that, he says it didn't feel like something that was news.
It is worth noting here that Sam was an All-Conference defensive end, while Lueshen was the backup kicker.
“If someone has approached me to tell my story at that time, I might have,” Lueshen said.
No one did approach him, though. That is part of the reason Lueshen was so proud to hear Sam share his sexual orientation so openly.
“When I initially heard Michael Sam’s story, I knew who he was,” Lueshen said. “I thought, ‘This is great. This is the step the LGBT community needs.’"
For Lueshen, coming out to his teammates was not a big deal. He had been openly gay since he was 17, so when two of his good friends on the team, Sean Hill and Corey McKeon, asked if he was gay in the fall of 2003, he simply said yes.
"I asked them if that was a problem," Lueshen said. "Corey and Sean said, 'No. That's cool. We thought so. Just wanted to check.' Then conversation shifted into something not even worth remembering. We just breezed right through it. It was one of the easiest 'coming out' moments of my life."
Lueshen wasn’t shy to say that he knew of other gay athletes during his playing career, some who were more open about it than others.
“During my time at Nebraska, there were closeted gay athletes. I always felt like their teams knew, especially the females, but it was always hush-hush,” he said.
Lueshen noted one male athlete in particular. While he was not open with his sexuality at the time, he had shared the information with some of the other athletes.
“I know some of the athletes back then felt uncomfortable being around him because they knew he was hiding something and not being himself,” Lueshen said. “I think he was giving off an uneasy and not-so-positive energy so they didn’t know how to respond to being around him.”
Lueshen believes there are other athletes out there right now that may be hiding their sexuality out of fear of what coaches and teammates might think.
In his case, there were a few assistant coaches who were not as accepting of his sexuality. From body language to passing looks, Lueshen knew they weren't as open to him as his teammates.
He sees stories like his and Sam's as encouragement for closeted players to come forward.
“At all levels, there are some players hearing Michael Sam’s story, and maybe they’re hearing mine now, and becoming inspired and gaining more courage to be themselves," Lueshen said. “I always say that life is much better on the other side of fear.
"Any NFL team would be lucky to have [Sam] just for his ability. I mean, he could help any defense. After his athleticism, look at his personality and character. Look at the type of man he is.”
The generally positive reaction to Sam's announcement doesn’t stop Lueshen from wondering what the story would have looked liked 11 years ago.
“I think it might have been a little bit more difficult for him at that time,” Lueshen said. “Eleven years ago, there wasn’t as big of a gay rights movement as there is now. It’s hard to fathom how it would have played out on a national scale.”
Another key difference between Lueshen's and Sam's experiences is that Lueshen was openly gay his entire career while Sam did not come out to his teammates until his senior season when he was already an established member of the team.
Lueshen says that had Sam come out sooner, it probably would have affected him more.
“Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten the same opportunities,” Lueshen said. “Maybe he would have gotten more negative feedback if he had come out when he was a freshman rather than when he was the starting defensive end. I never had the opportunity to get to that level, so it very well could have affected my playing time.”
Lueshen says that wariness of the stereotypes that follow gay athletes caused him to work even harder to prove himself to his coaches and teammates.
“I did have to go through proving myself and proving my self-worth,” he said. “I was working out extra hard. I was never the fastest or most agile person but I would be damned if I lost a sprint. I wanted to prove to my teammates that first and foremost, I was a great athlete.”
In his short time on the Nebraska football team, he felt he was accepted for who he was. While some teammates and coaches took some time to adjust their attitudes toward the gay community, Lueshen felt the majority of the team respected him.
He hopes Sam's considerable talent can help begin to make NFL locker rooms places where gay players are accepted.
“This is a great step for gay rights in sports,” Lueshen said. “Especially with Michael Sam because he’s going to get drafted. There are going to be policy changes in the NFL, and there will be team meetings about how to interact with a gay person. It will be awkward at first, but it’s necessary.”
These changes likely won't be as drastic as some players are imagining. Whether they know it or not, Lueshen says most athletes have already played with a gay teammate in their lifetime.
"They most definitely have," Lueshen said. "It's as simple as that."
Erin Sorensen is the lead Nebraska football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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