Conner Mertens reflects on life since coming out to his Willamette teammates

Conner Mertens says 'coming out' allowed him to be the best version of himself, on and off the field.

Frank Miller/Willamette Universi

Conner Mertens is the placekicker for Willamette University in Oregon. Earlier this year, he came out as bisexual to his team.

Growing up, we have many hopes and aspirations for ourselves. Unfortunately, many of those dreams are abandoned or unreached for a multitude of reasons. And while I may never get to walk on the moon, I am fortunate enough to have realized one of my childhood dreams as I played in my first collegiate football game. As we reach these milestones in our lives, it is commonplace to pause, take a look back and admire the journey it took to reach the place you are standing.

The coming out process has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, on and off the field. I never thought that a letter written to my hometown would cause such a big stir. Throughout this process, I wanted to make it a point to be there for anyone who needed it, and to be that outlet that I didn’t have when I was figuring out who I was.

In nearly every other demographic, one simply needs to turn on a television to find a role model. Want to be an actor? Sure, plenty of those. Want to be a professional baseball player? Of course. Want to be true to yourself and others not having to hide your sexuality? That role model didn’t exist.

Fortunately, around the time I decided to be honest with myself and others, I came across the stories of many those whom I now look up to and am proud to call my friends. Jason Collins, Derek Schell, Abby Wambach, Wade Davis, Helen Carroll … the list goes on and on of people who blazed the trail before me. However, without actively and extensively searching these people out, I would have never known their stories and how much they would impact my life. One of my biggest influences throughout high school told me to "always be the person the 12-year-old version of you needed." I have attempted to live by that standard so one day, a very confused version of my past self can point to me and say, "Well, he did it."

One thing I wanted more than anything while going through this process was to make myself available for anyone and everyone who needed it … to be that person 12-year-old Conner didn’t have. I also felt it was important to send a public email to my hometown of Kennewick, Washington.

Immediately, an influx of hundreds and hundreds of emails came pouring in. They ranged anywhere from retired professional athletes to Little League baseball coaches. The most gut-wrenching thing I had to deal with wasn’t the death threats on me or my family but rather the countless stories of individuals who had to tell me about the untimely and unjust endings to their sports careers.

People take for granted the romantic side of sports. Anyone who has participated in athletics knows there is absolutely nothing like catching a touchdown pass, burying a penalty kick, hitting the perfect ace, throwing up a last-second buzzer beater from the corner … in that instance, nothing else in the entire world matters.

The court, field, course … whatever it is, doesn’t care about your race, economic status, religion, sexuality, absolutely nothing other than your ability to perform. And to have that taken from someone because of something completely out of their control like their sexuality just breaks my heart.

While I am not a social scientist by any means, I do believe this to be sharp criticism of society as a whole that someone, let alone hundreds of someones, do not feel comfortable or safe or cared about in their own personal lives that they would rather divulge their deepest of secrets to a 19-year-old kid they have never met.

The amount of times I read the words, "I have never told anyone this before and doubt I ever will …" is one of the saddest, most unfortunate things I have ever come across. And every single time I read the words "your story helped me ____" it makes every single death threat, plea for me to take my own life, name calling and shaming nonexistent. No amount of hate can ever overshadow the power of love and acceptance.

One of the most amazing things is for the first time in my life I am on a level ground with my teammates and competitors. Despite being what many called a "distraction," coming out immensely helped my game and brought me closer to my teammates than I have ever been before. Removing the layers of disguises and masks allowed me to focus my concentration on kicking rather than my fear of being outted. Kickers are a special breed of football player in that we are all head-cases. Carrying around that massive secret only hindered my ability to perform to my potential. With one humble letter, the walls came down and my performance went up. I had no idea the effect the emotional strain had on my quality of life and my athletic performance. If nothing else at all I hope to help free others of this burden.

There aren’t many things that have the power to create social change quite like sports. Nelson Mandela used the power of sports to unite a nation and end apartheid in South Africa. Jesse Owens "single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy" by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. It is unfortunate that we live in a world where we have to "normalize" a demographic of humans. Nonetheless, we do. The good news is every single time an athlete comes out, it becomes more and more accepted and "normal." To have acceptance and normalcy in sports alone can have immense trickle-down effects throughout society.

There aren’t many things that have the power to create social change quite like sports.

As I stand and look back over this journey, I can’t help but smile. This thing that caused severe depression, anxiety and self-loathing has now become an integral part of my everyday life. No longer in hiding, I am able to live my life openly and unapologetically. I look forward to the day when "coming out" is no longer a step in the life of an LGBT person. The day when our families, churches, sports and social interactions are not latent with efforts to preserve our competency and character by concealing our sexuality. Call me an optimist or call me crazy, but I firmly believe that we will see this in my lifetime … and it will be beautiful.