Willamette kicker becomes the first college player to publicly come out

by University Communications,

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Scene magazine, which is published three times a year as a service to Willamette alumni and friends.

This has been a big year for LGBT athletes.

Reigning Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam announced that he is gay in a Feb. 9 interview with ESPN’s Chris Connelly and was picked in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams on May 10.

After coming out last spring, Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in a NBA game on Feb. 23. University of Massachusetts sophomore guard Derrick Gordon came out as the first openly gay Division I men’s basketball player on April 9.

There was another announcement that preceded all these historic moments: In late January, Willamette kicker Conner Mertens ’17 came out as bisexual to his football teammates and to the world. He was the first college football player in the United States at any level to come out while still playing.

The Scene caught up with Mertens at the Bistro in April.

Now that some time has passed, tell us some moments that stand out.

Any time people tell me my story impacted them in some way. It’s a nice reminder of why I came out.

There have been some negatives. The Westboro Baptist Church told me they’re going to picket Willamette and that I’m going to hell. I reminded them God is love and I was sorry they felt that way.

But throughout this process, I’ve met some very cool people, like Matt Kaplon, a baseball player for Drew University who is now out. He got in touch after he saw the Outsports story about me. The out LGBT athlete community is small, so we tend to all know each other.

I had a chance to meet and talk with Jason Collins on Feb. 20 at the launch party for Freedom Oregon [a Republican organization that supports gay-marriage rights]. I’ve talked with Michael Sam, and Anderson Cooper reached out to me on Twitter.

Several high-profile athletes have come out in a relatively short period of time. How do you feel knowing that more and more athletes are ready to be out during their playing careers?

That’s what this whole thing has always been about. My dad didn’t understand why I needed to come out publicly. After seeing all these stories, now he gets it. I couldn’t have done this without Jason Collins and all the others who paved the way for people like me.

At first, I spent time reading the online comments on articles about gay athletes. I’ve tried to stop doing that. There were the predictable responses like, “Oh, I’m straight, why don’t they write an article about me?” They don’t understand what it’s like to be a marginalized group.

Other people say, “Who cares?” I care. The LGBT kids who end up killing themselves, the ones who don’t have anyone to talk with or support them — they definitely cared. Don’t tell their families that coming out stories don’t matter.

You grew up in a conservative community. When you decided to come out, you wrote a letter to your hometown (see sidebar). What kind of feedback have you received?

The messages I shared in that letter are what I want the focus of this story to be. It’s not about me. I don’t want to be famous. I want the message of acceptance and love to be what any reader takes away.

Many of the responses I’ve received by email or through social media have started with, “I read your letter and ….” It meant something to a lot of people.

What was the toughest moment before, during or after your announcement?

I had to leave Young Life, which was hard. [Young Life is a national organization that introduces adolescents to Christianity.] It was a really important part of my life, but I knew LGBT people wouldn’t be allowed to serve in leadership or volunteer roles.

And although I’m good at dealing with people who say negative things about me, I get really worked up when people say something about those who mean the most to me. Things like, “We’ll get your fag-loving friends and teammates, too.”

I did start to keep track of certain negative statements. So far, I’ve had six people tell me to kill myself and four death threats.

Do those messages scare you?

No. They’re just cowards hiding behind a screen.

During spring break, you went home for the first time since the announcement. How was that experience?

Nothing was really different, and seeing old friends and parents and coaches was very much like before coming out. There were a few people who seemed to be walking on eggshells, but they warmed up when they realized I was still the same Conner.

There was only one incident that shook me a little bit.

I was at Home Depot when a guy walked into my aisle. I was wearing a Willamette sweatshirt, and he commented that I go to that school “with that faggot-boy kicker I’ve been seeing in the news.” When I informed him that I was that “faggot-boy,” he laughed and walked out. It was a little bit of a shock and caught me off guard. It really showed me exactly why I came out in the first place — to defeat that sort of ignorance in the place I call home.

What is your hope for the future for LGBT athletes?

I want to see openly LGBT people win championships in all the major sports. I’d like to see Michael Sam win a Super Bowl. I would love to see an openly gay man lift the Stanley Cup.

I’ve read so many stories of people who used to play sports but had to stop because of the homophobia. I don’t know what I would do if I had to give up football or soccer.

I hope we get to the point that we’re judged by what’s in our hearts and not our sexuality.