When Esera Tuaolo, the former NFL defensive tackle who came out as gay after his 2002 retirement, first heard Monday's news that current NFL player Carl Nassib had come out, he couldn’t quite believe it.
"Honestly, I thought it was a joke, until I started getting a bunch of notifications on my phone and lots of people leaving messages," Tuaolo tells Yahoo Life. "It's incredible, what Carl did," he adds. "And the first thing I thought about is how it’s going to help our younger generation in the LGBTQ community … It brings them the understanding of 'Oh, I can do this. I can pursue that dream.'"
Tuaolo wasn’t the only one with LGBTQ youth on his mind: When Nassib came out in his Instagram post, telling viewers, "Just wanted to take a quick moment to tell you that I’m gay," the smiling Las Vegas Raiders defensive end also announced that he was donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention support organization for LGBTQ youth.
"Young LGBTQ kids are over 5x more likely than their straight friend to consider suicide," he wrote in his Instagram post. "I feel an immense responsibility to help in any way I can — and you can, too. Studies have shown that all it takes is one accepting adult to decrease the risk of an LGBTQ kid attempting suicide by 40%. Whether you’re a friend, a parent, a coach, or a teammate — you can be that person."
His announcement sparked a 50 percent increase in daily online donations, many referencing Nassib, and a 350 percent increase in website traffic, according to the Trevor Project, whose CEO and executive director Amit Paley noted in a statement, "[We are] grateful to Carl Nassib for living his truth and supporting LGBTQ youth. This generous donation will help us scale our life-saving crisis services to reach the more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth who seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. Coming out is an intensely personal decision, and it can be an incredibly scary and difficult one to make. We hope that Carl’s historic representation in the NFL will inspire young LGBTQ athletes across the country to live their truth and pursue their dreams."
It’s already having a huge effect, according to some of the young athletes who spoke with Yahoo Life in the aftermath of Nassib's announcement.
"I was ecstatic when I saw the notification come up," Alex Cruz, a 20-year-old University of Virginia wrestler affiliated with his campus chapter of Athlete Ally, an organization working for LGBTQ equality in sports, tells Yahoo Life. Cruz, who started wrestling at the age of 4, came out during his senior year of high school after much angst.
"Being in a very physical contact sport, it was kind of hard for me to come out and accept myself… there was toxic masculinity everywhere," he says, though remaining in the closet, he adds, "took a toll on me, trying to be two different people, being scared of criticism and watching people in the LGBTQ community being treated poorly… I wanted to be who I was but I was scared to face that reality." In the end, his coming out "went amazing," which he realizes is not the case for everyone in his position. And that’s something Nassib’s announcement can only serve to help, he believes.
"To see him accepting himself and being so comfortable, I think that was awesome, and it raises awareness and helps others come out," Cruz says. "For me, there weren’t really people I could look up to in my sport… So, for people trying to figure it out, I think it’s huge."
Similarly, Marc Small, a 17-year-old football player, runner and choir member in Colorado Springs, Colo., tells Yahoo Life about Nassib’s coming-out, "Scrolling through Instagram, I first straight up didn't believe it. I just never thought that it would happen." This week, Small's first-person story about coming to terms with his bisexuality and allowing himself to pursue athletics in spite of it ran in Outsports, the LGBTQ sports publication.
Nassib's post, Small says, "definitely has opened the door for the greater conversation of LGBTQ athletes. The NFL is like the biggest sports thing in America, so if the NFL can do this, then anyone can." Small, who started questioning his sexuality in middle school, thinks of how lucky LGBTQ kids that age will be now if anyone tells them, "'Oh, guys like you don’t get to be in the NFL.' Well, they do."
That message, Small's father Lyle Small tells Yahoo Life, is "fantastic." He explains that Marc, a "child of color" whom he and a now-ex-wife, both Caucasian, adopted, has “struggled with his identity his entire life," something compounded in the lead-up to coming out. "The ability to be part of a team that supports him and wants to help him get better has been really fantastic for his mental health," Lyle shares. "He has been transformed through sports. That's the power of sports."
Nassib's announcement, he adds, was invaluable.
"Bruce Lee said, 'We come to know ourselves through the eyes of others'… so having a role model for kids that are not heterosexually-traditional kids? Nothing is more important than that… Everyone needs a role model, but kids like Marc especially need a role model that normalizes who they are — it’s not just that your accepted or tolerated, but to see there are people out there who have figured out how to make their way in the world."
Cyd Ziegler, founder and editor of Outsports, tells Yahoo Life that, upon seeing Nassib’s video, "I got very emotional... seeing this young man step out into the world as his true self as an inspiration for youth — youth who really struggle with who they are, particularly in and around football, and men's and boys' sports… I get emotional thinking about those kids and what they must've thought watching that video, and him talking about this with such ease and such joy, and talking about how being gay is a wonderful part of his life. That was a huge part of that message."
Ziegler was particularly pleased to see Nassib stress the importance of role models, and of showing support to LGBTQ teammates — most of whom, in his experience, find coming out more difficult than being out, because of the fear of rejection, which so often winds up being unfounded.
"Some people call football the 'final closet,' and not sure I agree, but football in America is a powerful, masculine, cultural institution, and to see a gay man out in one of the most powerful leagues in America is big," he says. "It's amazing."
Someone who understands that profoundly is Conner Mertens, 26, the first active college football player to come out, in 2014. When he announced he was bisexual, in a long, intense letter to his small "Friday Night Lights sort of town" in Washington, which was tweeted and picked up nationally, Mertens was a 19-year-old freshman at Willamette University and kicker for the football team, landing there after a tortured double life fueled by "self-hatred."
"I really had mastered making everything look like it was good on the outside… but now, looking back, I realize I was miserable to be around when I was home because I was always switched 'on' when I was out," Mertens tells Yahoo Life. "I didn’t realize how exhausted I was."
In addition to the emotional effort it took to stay closeted, he recalls searching desperately for role models but not finding any. "When you don’t see a reflection of yourself in your future, it’s hard to see a future for yourself," he says. "I could find queer activists. I could find athletes. But I couldn’t find any combination of the two. It’s not an exaggeration to say I thought I was the only person who was an athlete who liked guys. I’d think, 'This is so wrong of me'… If I had a bad game I would say, 'You were extra gay this week, that’s what your problem was.'" It all led to Mertens battling depression and anxiety and coming close to attempting suicide when, he says, he couldn’t see life "past 18."
It’s just one of the reasons Nassib’s announcement so resonated with Mertens — as he, in one of his darkest, closeted moments, picked up the phone and called the Trevor Project helpline. "I called it and someone picked up and I hung up immediately and just cried," he recalls, getting choked up by the memory. "But just the idea that somebody was there — that’s all I needed."
When Nassib came out earlier this week, Mertens says, "It was a really good day."
Now, as the reality sinks in, he says, "all I can think of is what that would’ve meant for me at 13 — how I would've given anything to see what Carl's done today. My heart breaks for that 13-year-old kid who was sitting in his bedroom after a rough game and blaming it on the fact that he had a crush on a boy."
But, he adds, now that Nassib is such a potent example of what’s possible for young LGBTQ athletes (as is Mertens himself), "I get chills thinking about the kid in my hometown [seeing that] right now."
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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