Published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:53 am
FOOTBALL
Hansen: Mizzou's Michael Sam, meet Husker football's gay pioneer

The 2005 Athletic Department Formal was in full swing. The University of Nebraska's football players had pulled on their best khakis and taken the elevator up to the decorated lobby inside Memorial Stadium's West Stadium skyboxes. They had mowed through plates of fancy free grub and cast sidelong glances at the women's track team, the athletes every football player wanted to date.

Every football player except Eric Lueshen. As the dinner ended, the sophomore kicker sat at a round table laughing and joking with several of his football buddies, two volleyball players and a man that many of the athletes at this formal had never met. The music kicked on, and as the first slow song played, men and women started pairing off and moving toward the wooden dance floor.

Eric looked across the table at the man, who was looking right back at him. There are novels that could be written about just that look, millennia of repression, violence and paralyzing fear captured inside a single glance. And there is a shorter story bound up inside that look, the story of a college kid from a nowhere Nebraska town who a decade ago entered arguably the most exclusive, the most hallowed and the most testosterone-fueled spot in this entire state — the Husker football locker room — and decided that when they asked, he would look them in the eye and tell them the truth.

But Eric Lueshen didn't have time for stories — not at this moment at least. He had a single, simple question.

“You ready?”

The man smiled and nodded his head. Eric smiled, too. They stood up, and the first openly gay Nebraska football player and his boyfriend walked together toward the dance floor.

* * *

Last Monday night, Eric ­Lueshen sat down at his computer to work on a scientific journal article he's writing. The article's topic: convention-enhanced drug delivery to the brain, a technique used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

Quite understandably, Eric's mind soon wandered, and he clicked open Facebook.

That's when he saw the message from John Gaskins, a Lincoln sports radio talk show host. Gaskins was looking for a local angle on the story of Michael Sam, the Missouri defender who recently announced his homosexuality — a move that will make him the NFL's first openly gay player when he's drafted this spring.

Gaskins had heard that Eric Lueshen, like Sam, had come out to his teammates during his college career. Eric, would you like to come on our show and talk about what that was like?

Eric is 29 now. He is a University of Chicago biomedical engineering graduate student who hasn't kicked a single football since a severe back injury ended his playing career.

That abbreviated career seemed a lifetime away. And yet Eric found himself drawn to the idea of finally telling his Husker story. He had no idea that, once he told it, his story would launch from Lincoln and blast around the Internet, landing on national radio shows and on the ESPN ticker.

But he did have an inkling that maybe this story's pieces — the teammate who repeatedly called him “faggot” and the other teammates who protected him, the assistant coaches who cracked wise about his femininity, the head coach who hugged him — would mean something when you gathered them up and glued them back together.

That maybe his story's arc, an arc that begins with hate and ends with love, could tell us something important about the Nebraska football program, and young men in general, and the future of countless young gay athletes who will follow Michael Sam's path.

Eric thought about all that, and then he typed a response to the talk-radio host.

Sure, he said. Sure, I will do it.

* * *

Hey, Pretty Boy, said Corey McKeon. Sean and I have a question for you.

Eric felt the fear surge into his chest. He knew what was coming.

The three had been tight since the first week of school, when they found themselves on the same dorm floor.

Corey, the loud linebacker, was already wildly popular with teammates and would become wildly popular with Husker fans as a standout middle linebacker.

Sean Hill, a tight end and Corey's high school friend, was a late bloomer who would catch zero passes as a junior and then 18 as a senior.

And Eric, the brainy kicker from tiny Pierce, Neb., was the kid with the male model looks and the big leg.

Together they played video games and insulted one another late into the night, compatriots in that freshman year. But now a single question threatened that friendship and much more.

Eric had already done the heaviest lifting in high school — coming out to his mother and his small-town conservative father — at age 17. By the time he left Pierce, pretty much everyone in town knew the Lueshen boy liked other boys.

And so that put Eric in an odd position when he accepted an offer to join the Nebraska football team. Would he re-enter the closet and slam the door, hide his sexuality, because that's what you do when you are a major-college football player? Or would he continue to live openly and risk losing a Husker career he loved?

Eric decided on a middle ground. He wouldn't announce it, wouldn't paste a rainbow sticker on his car or introduce his boyfriends around the locker room.

But he wouldn't lie, either. He decided he couldn't live with himself if he lied.

Which worked just fine in theory, right up to the moment during this otherwise normal lunch at the Hewitt Center.

“Are you gay?” Corey asked.

Eric looked up from his plate, fixed a smile on his face and looked Corey in the eye.

“Yes,” he said. “Is that a problem?”

Corey looked up from his training table pasta and gave Eric a look he didn't see coming. Corey looked chagrined. He looked a little wounded.

No man, not at all, Corey said. We figured. We were just wondering, that's all.

“And then we just went back to eating,” Eric says now. “And then we went to practice.”

* * *

Eric could feel the lineman's eyes on him every time they passed each other in the locker room.

The lineman would wait until Eric had walked by, wait until the moment when Eric thought that maybe, finally, he had escaped.

That's when he would say it.

“Faggot.”

Keep in mind this was 2003. This was a mere five years after two men had kidnapped a 21-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard in nearby Wyoming, tied him to a fence post and bludgeoned him with such violence that the passing bicyclist who found the fatally beaten young gay man there at first mistook him for a scarecrow.

And this was the locker room, of all places. Where we wash off the blood and sweat after we crush Kansas State and Texas Tech, and where we talk about girls, and where we call a gay man what he really is. Right?

“When I went anywhere near him, he had this dark energy, this anger that I could just feel,” Eric says now. “And I was scared, constantly scared. I thought he would beat me up, or worse.”

The lineman was the worst, but he wasn't alone.

Eric says that several assistant coaches — he won't name names — started making comments about masculinity and femininity in his presence after they learned he was gay. That they gave him sidelong glances, brushed past him in the hall like a stranger, employed their own brand of under-the-radar animosity.

But Eric wants to point out that longtime assistant Ron Brown, a man who later vocally opposed Omaha's ordinance banning workplace discrimination against homosexuals, was not one of those coaches. Eric joined the post-practice and postgame huddles and bowed his head as Brown prayed.

Bill Callahan, the Huskers' new head coach in 2004, told him on several occasions that he “respected me as a person,” and teared up in 2005 when Eric told him about the back injury that would end the kicker's career. “He made me feel loved,” Eric says of Callahan.

In the months after Eric came out to Corey and Sean — and, by proxy, the entire football program — the freshman kicker tried to win every wind sprint, often beating players much faster than him. He lifted weights with the team and then lifted again on his own, trying to prove he could outwork everyone, too. He was trying to prove something, but he needn't have worried.

Eric's honesty, his comfort in his own skin, his popular, supportive friends Corey and Sean, his well-meaning head coach — they were working far better than a second set of deadlifts.

Some of the changes came easy. Players who had whispered behind his back in September were crowding around him in October, asking him questions they had always wanted to ask.

How did you know you were gay? How did you tell your parents? And what's a drag show, anyway?

And some were hard-earned.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

A year after he became Nebraska's first openly gay football player, Eric attended a party with Corey and Sean. They walked in and there was that lineman, drunk, holding a bottle of Crown Royal. Uh-oh, Eric thought.

And then the lineman came over, threw his arm around Eric and offered him a drink.

Thanks, Eric said. It is my birthday.

“Happy birthday!” yelled the lineman, and then he leaned in close.

Listen, he slurred, there were times when I hated you. But now I know you are a cool dude. If anyone ever has a problem with you, let me know. I will take care of it.

Eric rarely drank, but now he took the bottle from the lineman.

He took a swig of Crown Royal.

“Thanks,” he told the giant man who had long tormented him. “I really appreciate that.”

* * *

Eric Lueshen sometimes thinks about how close he came to winning the starting kicker job for the Huskers. He sometimes wonders what would have happened if he hadn't pulled his hamstring during a preseason practice in 2005 — a point at which he was possibly the favorite to be named the starter — and then watched as Jordan Congdon took the job, kicked with dead-eye accuracy all season and was named a freshman All-American.

He sometimes wonders if all that lifting — all that trying to prove his manliness to his teammates — isn't what jarred his spine, left him in so much pain that after the 2005 season ended he did a simple ab workout and then limped like an old man for a week.

The first doctor told him he needed surgery. So did the second, and the third. And they all told him the same thing: His Husker career was over.

He had his spine fused, a surgery so serious that he couldn't bend at the waist or lift a bag of groceries for six months.

He concentrated on his UNL chemical engineering studies and got a 4.0.

He's set to graduate in August from the University of Chicago. Maybe he will go into research and development. Maybe he will study a mash-up of Eastern and Western medicine, noninvasive techniques that he thinks may be the future of how we best treat patients.

What he will never do is kick a game-winning field goal.

But here is what Eric thinks of when he starts to wish he had earned Memorial Stadium cheers, three points at a time.

I did something else, Eric thinks, something the TV cameras never caught, something that will endure after the sports pages have yellowed and turned to dust.

He thinks of that night in 2005 when he looked at his boyfriend, whom he would date for two years. His boyfriend looked at him. “You ready?”

Together they walked toward the music.

Part of what Eric cherishes are the looks on his teammates' faces as they neared the dance floor.

Nebraska football players slapped him on the back as he passed. They offered his boyfriend high-fives. They cheered like he had just hit a 52-yarder. They cheered like friends.

And part of what Eric cherishes is that, in the end, what happened next felt so simple.

It's why Eric is certain Michael Sam will be fine in the NFL, as long as he's strong and finds a couple of friends. And it's why Eric is certain that then there will be another Michael Sam, and another, until an openly gay football player gets headlines only when he throws for 400 yards or picks off a game-saving pass.

The simplest thing, Eric thinks, is what happens when you ignore the distracting outside voices and slowly strip away what's ugly inside a college football locker room or any other place we call home. The simplest thing is what happens when you look around, see the smiling faces, and you realize what's left is something good.

So Nebraska's first openly gay football player and his boyfriend did what you do when you are wearing your fanciest clothes and the first slow song starts playing.

They stepped onto the floor. They put their arms around each other. And then they danced.

* * *

Video: Michael Sam opens up about his sexuality

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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