Southridge High graduate Conner Mertens on Tuesday became the first active college football player to come out as bisexual.
The redshirt freshman at Willamette University came out last week to the coaching staff at the Salem, Ore., school. The coaching staff then told the team Monday, according to an Outsports.com story posted Tuesday.
“Honestly, about six months ago, I was taking this to my grave,” Mertens told the Herald on Tuesday. “(The decision to come out) kind of started at the beginning of football season, when I started hanging out with the guys and realizing how awesome they are. It sounds corny, but how much of a family we had.”
Mertens, a placekicker, began contemplating who to tell and when to tell them. The first people he told were a few friends from Young Life, a Christian-based organization.
After that he told his friends and family during Christmas break. Then he told defensive backs coach Brandon Lemon after a Bible study one day. They decided to tell head coach Glen Fowles after that.
“It’s been nothing but positive,” Mertens said. “I’ve only had one person that has given me crap in all fields of life. The football team, all the guys, family, all the texts and emails from my team have been insanely supportive.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t be respected or liked or have any friends. Anything other than that would be a surprise.”
Mertens told his former high school soccer coach Chip Elfering by text message in the last 24 hours.
“We’re going to support him in anything that he does,” said Elfering, who coached Mertens his first three years in high school and now is an assistant at Hanford. “As a coaching staff when I was at Southridge, we tried to support student athletes in anything they do and any decisions they make.
“It doesn’t change who he is as far as the way he acts. We like him as a student athlete. He played hard for us and he has those good characteristics.”
Mertens didn’t play for Willamette last year because of a left knee injury. He will compete with two other kickers for starting duties this fall.
“It’s been great to see the way our guys have rallied around,” Willamette coach Glen Fowles told The Associated Press. “For our guys, Conner is just a kicker.”
Willamette issued a statement supporting Mertens’ decision, saying the university “respects his contribution to a more humane and just world.”
His teammates were also supportive Tuesday.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” team captain and junior outside linebacker Jack Nelson told The Associated Press. “We were glad he felt comfortable to tell us.”
Mertens received congratulations from plenty of other athletes Tuesday, including former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Olympian Nick Symmonds.
Mertens is hoping his coming out can have a positive impact on his hometown of Kennewick and the Tri-Cities in general.
“I’ve seen the good sides of it and the bad sides of it,” he said. “Being the way I was, growing up in the sports culture, sports is most teenagers’ lives in the Tri-Cities, I realized how much it sucked and how depressing it was.
“How homophobic we were — and I say we, because I was part of the problem. I’m hoping the Tri-Cities can see that the kid that likes guys isn’t carrying a purse, isn’t shopping around, but is playing football right next to you, playing soccer, but we put people into boxes in the Tri-Cities and I was tired of seeing it.”
Mertens doesn’t know what impact his news will have, but he hopes it is a positive one.
“I want to see a change happen,” Mertens said. “If I’m a part of that, great. If not, fine. But as long as there is something happening.”