Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman kicker at D-III Willamette University in Oregon, did something on Monday night that no college football player on any level had ever done before.
He came out, while still an active player. First to his coach, then to his team, and now Conner Mertens is coming out publicly.
“I'm bisexual,” Mertens told head coach Glen Fowles via Outsports.com, who informed his young kicker prior to his message that all the coach cared about was his kicker's accuracy. His off the field actions wouldn't affect his playing time, Fowles told Mertens. In fact, when Mertens asked for the meeting, Fowles and Willamette's special teams coordinator had thought he was transferring.
“I like dudes. I have a boyfriend. And next week,” Mertens told his coach last Monday, “I'm going to tell the world.”
And on Monday, he did.
Mertens, who didn't see the field last year thanks to an injury, risked burying himself on the depth chart by opening up to his teammates and his coaches. He risked alienating his teammates and jeopardizing his social status.
“For me, growing up, I always felt that the biggest thing that caused my depression was the feeling of being alone,” Mertens said. “I hate the stereotypes that go along with liking the same sex. You don't have to follow the stereotype to be this way. I made the decision that if I could help anyone else avoid feeling the way I felt, I would.”
Mertens said that had someone from his mostly conservative town of Kennewick, Wash., come out before him, it would've made his decision much easier. Mertens penned a letter to his hometown, explaining his decision. That can be read here.
“I had a smile on my face all the time, but I was dying on the inside. In my hometown, you have to fit in or you'll be exiled. If somebody had come out that I looked up to in the town, I would've been a lot happier,” he said.
Mertens said that coming out to his football family was his biggest fear.
“I've been around athletes all my life. I've heard the stuff we say. I say ‘we' because I'm not going to lie, I contributed to it when I was younger. I made fun of guys by calling them ‘gay' or ‘homo' or ‘queer.' So I've always assumed that because everyone wants me to be masculine, and because they see being gay as a weakness, they'd label me that and not give me a fair shot on the field.”
Mertens was taken aback by the unanimously positive response of his teammates. Before coming out to the entire team, a leadership council – which had been informed of Mertens's impending announcement by Fowles – reached out to the kicker.
As one linebacker said, “As long as you're willing to get on the field and in the weight room and in the film room and give 100 percent, it doesn't matter to us who are you. Conner's a Bearcat. Whether he's gay, bisexual or straight, he's one of us.”
Mertens received dozens of messages bearing the same sentiment. His sexual preferences were irrelevant, his team profoundly stated.
On Tuesday afternoon, he tweeted this:
Absolutely humbled and speechless right now. If you know me, you know how crazy that second part is. I can't say thank you enough.— Merts (@ConnerMertens) January 28, 2014
This upcoming season Mertens will battle to win the starting kicker job, and for the first time, he can rest assured that the only thing his teammates and coaches care about will be his leg.