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Luke McAvoy, ex-Minnesota football player, comes out in powerful essay

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Luke McAvoy is gay. This fact alone is not extraordinary, and it isn't something McAvoy was ever particularly ashamed of. But he kept it hidden for years, because McAvoy was a football player. A good one. And football wasn't ready for a gay guy in the locker room.

That's what McAvoy thought, anyway. The former University of Minnesota player told the deeply personal story of his years in hiding with a powerful personal essay on Outsports.com Wednesday, writing that he spent three years in the closet while a member of the Gophers. The Illinois native says that on the advice of his mother, he decided to keep his sexual identity a secret.

"Hide it," McAvoy's mother said, when he came out to her as a high school senior. "Whatever you do, hide it." 

At the time, it was the obvious choice. There was no Michael Sam story then, and McAvoy had no idea what to expect if his Minnesota teammates caught on to his orientation. McAvoy suffered through several seasons, enjoying the practices — he rarely made it onto the field — while bonding with teammates and friends who he couldn't let in on a central truth of his life.

In early 2014, on the day Sam, then a star defensive player at the University of Missouri, came out publicly, McAvoy made his move. He contacted a pair of fellow players and told them he needed to talk. McAvoy parked his car by the river flats near the U of M campus, but still struggled to get out the words he wanted to say.

He writes:

Luke McAvoy, right, with teammate Peter Mortell, says his only regret was spending his first three years at the U of M in the closet.

Luke McAvoy, right, with teammate Peter Mortell, says his only regret was spending his first three years at the U of M in the closet.

My mouth simply would not form the words. "I'm ... I'm gay," came my whisper. I was ready for them to go off, to demand to go home. I expected them to disown me. None of that happened. Instead, I heard, "that takes balls, man" and "I am proud of you."

By telling two guys on the team, McAvoy knew he was telling almost everyone. He still wasn't sure he'd be accepted until a few days later when, in line at Starbucks, he ordered a hot chocolate. "Wow, you really are gay, huh?" joked a teammate. The quip was a good sign: If you could joke about it, it was OK. 

Without going into detail, McAvoy hints that some players weren't as open-minded as his close friends. "Some people did not take it well," he writes, explaining that most who disapproved at least did him the courtesy of ignoring him. "However, the support, acceptance, and love I felt outweighed all the negativity."

His only regret? Not having come out sooner. "I did not once expect it to go OK. In reality, it went great. I was surrounded by people who cared and supported me."

McAvoy's lengthy piece was his own idea, according to Outsports editor Cyd Zeigler. McAvoy, 23, now a middle school teacher in Milwaukee, contacted the website in late January, saying he was ready to share his story. Zeigler has received similar messages in the past, and said not all athletes are up to the task of writing their own story so eloquently. 

"It's incredibly powerful," Zeigler says. "When we work with athletes, we never know what they’re going to deliver us. Sometimes it needs a lot of heavy lifting, and sometimes write [the story] ourselves because they're just not capable of doing it. Of course, we're happy with what [McAvoy] wrote. It's really good."

By coincidence, McAvoy's coming out story was published two years to the day after Sam went public. Sam was later drafted but cut by the St. Louis Rams. At the moment, there's still only one openly gay male athlete in a major American sport — soccer player Robbie Rogers — who's actually playing. Zeigler is "disappointed and surprised" at that fact, and blames it on the sports leagues themselves. 

"They are not doing what they need to do to truly change culture in their sports," he says. "I don’t even think they understand."

Personal stories like McAvoy's help, and there's cause for hope in changing the sports culture if more athletes start coming forward. Esera Tuaolo, the former Minnesota Vikings player who came out in 2002, nine years after his playing days ended, had just finished reading the Outsports essay when City Pages contacted him Wednesday. He says McAvoy's story, and the reaction he details from teammates, tells him that times are changing.

Not long ago, it would've been impossible to imagine any male athlete, let alone a Division I football player — "a masculine, gladiator-like life," Tuaolo says —  feeling comfortable coming out to his teammates. 

"I'm glad he took this step, to come out," Tualo says. "Now he can live the life that God intended for us: happy."