In February 2014, Michael Sam, an All-American defensive-end from the University of Missouri, publicly announced that he was gay. In a game like football, which has historically been suffocated by the stigma that it is a strictly heterocentric sport, Sam opened a door for LGBT players to proudly step out of the shadows, and was met with wholesale acceptance from his teammates and coaches.
Just over two years later, in May 2016, Kyle Kurdziolek, a linebacker at Illinois’ University of Saint Francis, followed in Sam’s footsteps, announcing to his teammates, and the world, that he too was gay. In doing so, Kurdziolek became just the fifth active college football player to ever openly come out; what Kurdziolek could not have predicted, however, was just how much of an impact that his decision to reveal himself would have.
Following the news that Kurdziolek had come out, four other college football players from across the country also publicly announced that they were gay, creating a moment in college football in which there were as many active LGBT players during that season as there had been in the entire history of the sport. Similarly to Michael Sam, all five players have been met with open arms by their teammates and coaches, and have found solace in the fact that they are not alone.
Prior to his announcement, Kurdziolek once found comfort in the fact that a player of Sam’s standing was able to come out without sacrificing the bond that he had formed with his teammates, and is now excited that his story could have a similar effect on others. “I honestly feel humbled more than anything,” Kurdziolek says in reference to the impact that his story has had. “It surprises me when I have people reach out to me about how my story has impacted them, and I just feel so humbled and blessed.”
Most of all, however, Kurdziolek finds joy in the fact that each LGBT player that came out after him has been met with acceptance and support. “It is honestly an amazing feeling [to see them be accepted],” he says. “Love is love, and it’s uplifting to see that our society is now realizing that.”
Unlike some other sports, football requires a year-round commitment; even for high school players, the time spent with teammates and coaches usually outweighs the time that players spend with their own families. The bonds that are created through this consistent grind are lasting, and the trust that exists on the field usually extends off the field, as well.
Kurdziolek believes that it was easier coming out to his teammates than anyone else, and credits the communal atmosphere, along with a general feeling that his sexual orientation is irrelevant to how well he plays football, as the reason why. “My teammates play a huge part of my life and how I have grown as an individual, but, in the end, my sexuality has no affect on their personal life, so why should it matter? Sure, some of my teammates looked at me differently,” Kurdziolek admits, “but my teammates who I am close with, they are happy for me, and love me for who I am as a person, not because of which sex I like.”
In the end, Kurdziolek, and the other players who came out this year, represent a shift in the stereotypes surrounding the LGBT community, as well as the sport of football; gay men can, and will continue to, not only survive, but thrive in the violent world of college football. However, Kurdziolek’s story should not be limited to a football story, as his outlet for expressing himself just happens to be found on the gridiron.
What is important about Kurdziolek, and other LGBT athletes, is that they represent, to the fullest extent, a confirmation that nothing about self-expression should be based on sexual-identity; instead, Kurdziolek hopes that other people who find a beacon of hope in his story understand what football, a place where no one can judge you, and couldn’t even if they wanted to, means to him. In essence, football is an escape from the trials of the real world.
“Honestly, I feel like [football] is an outlet where all the suppressed feelings and emotions translate to your personal performance. When I play football, it’s just me and the game,” Kurdziolek says. “I play for my personal performance, and the success of my team, and that’s what matters. There is no personal judgement coming from anyone about your personal life. It’s about them, their relationship to the game and their performance.”