Plant a seed, watch the garden grow.
Throw a stone, see rippling waters flow.
Be courageous, step where no man thought he’d go.
Make sense for others of the most fearful unknown.
Jason Collins did it — others to follow.
Last Monday morning, the story in New York — and, nationally — was Tim Tebow’s release. I spoke at length on my “Maxed Out” radio show on ESPN-NY 98.7 FM about how I felt the Jets had grossly mistreated America’s most famous backup quarterback. Then, I went home and headed for bed.
Half-asleep, I toyed with not answering an incoming phone call from my brother, Aron. Good thing I answered it — because my big bro wanted to make sure I’d heard the news — a story which I’d been anticipating for nearly two years. Though I had no insight on Jason Collins, I knew it was coming; it was a matter of when. The garden was too fertile. The safety nets were in place, covered with too many fluffy pillows (on top of even-fluffier pillows) to scare a courageous man from taking a leap which seemed eons from happening, just one decade ago.
For the first time, I was in position to speak openly, publicly about an active openly gay athlete. Years back, when Collins played for New Jersey, I interviewed him several times. But, neither knew the other was hiding what felt like a secret the size of the world. Back then, I cringed and hid from reporting any story that involved a link between a player and doubts of his sexuality — for fear of showing excessive interest, exposing myself. Last week, for the first time, I was able to to respond honestly and authentically as a broadcaster — my personal reward for having revealed my secret two years before – that I am gay.
Thank God that I came out. One young man might be alive today, as a result.
Two summers ago following meetings at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. one of our premier NBA announcers pulled me aside to share an important message that challenged my ability to remain confident: that I would never get to know how many lives I might have impacted by coming out.
Fast forward two years.
April 29, 2013. NBA center Jason Collins breaks the macho sports barrier with a stronger thump than any inside move he ever tried in 12 years in the NBA. Collins becomes the first active male professional athlete in major North American sports to tell the world he is gay. Within minutes, my phone starts to jump with incoming calls and texts. This buzz continues for 24 hours.
After my brother told me the news about Collins coming out, I heard from ESPN — requests to join Colin Cowherd, SportsCenter and Outside the Lines. Mike and Mike the following day. ABC News called me. HuffPostLive. The New York Daily News. WTOP radio in Washington. Fios-TV. Fox-5 Good Day New York. And, Geraldo Rivera.
I treasured each interview, remembering what my ESPN friend told me two years before — that I’d never get to see the fully grown trees I might have assisted in planting and nurturing — but that I, indeed had the ability to greatly improve others’ lives. So, I made myself available to each media outlet seeking an “expert” on this subject. (It’s not like there is a Rolodex of names of out, gay sportscasters.) It meant a great deal to me to be interviewed about this subject by my respected ESPN Audio colleagues and others. But, no conversation I took part in on the air last week carried as much weight for me as what happened on Geraldo Tuesday morning.
Geraldo asked a few questions about Collins’ coming out as well as my own story, announcing that he’d known me for almost two years but did not know I’m gay. Awesome. Love hearing that. But, it is what followed that became the catalyst for writing this piece for Front Row.
Geraldo sought reaction from his national audience about Collins coming out. The phones lit up. First caller: Jack in Bergen County, N.J. — a conversation that brought me back two years to my chat in Bristol with that colleague.
While I’d known that my coming out could have had had a strong impact on some, I had no idea that I might have saved somebody’s life. The thought of this is overwhelming and humbling. Yet, I was left with chills popping through my entire body as Jack from Bergen County spoke.
He opened the conversation saying he’d heard my coming out announcement on the radio in May 2011. He proceeded to speak about his teenage son who’d been hospitalized multiple times for issues related to suicidal tendencies. Jack told us that his son is gay and a sports fan — just like me and countless others. But, unlike me — and most people born before the 1990s — Jack’s son had a positive gay role model in sports — me.
Jack said he told his son about my announcement. He told his son he is not alone. He told his son he can be himself. He told his son there is reason to live and great excitement for hope. Essentially, Jack said that by me coming out, I helped save his son’s life. I was blown away. So was Geraldo, who asked Jack how is son is doing now.
“Much better,” Jack said.
At commercial break, Geraldo’s producer brought me a piece of paper that had Jack’s phone number; he wanted to speak to me to say thank you. I wanted to speak to him to say thank you. The next day, hours after Geraldo told me his show had received a record number of listener phone calls, I called Jack. As happy and surprised as he sounded to receive the call, I was overjoyed to listen to him talk to me about his son. I will speak to Jack again. Hopefully, I will soon have the chance to meet his courageous, strong teen.
Thank you, Jack, for sharing your son’s story. You inspire me. You give me reason to share all that I can, knowing that even when I cannot see the fruits of my labor, I can take comfort knowing somebody else can. As a close friend told me in college while I was struggling to find reasons to live – at the time, I was unaware I could be gay and still work
in sports, “We don’t live for ourselves; we live for others.” My friend Marlyn helped save my life. In turn, she helped me save another.
Imagine what this past week has been like for professional, collegiate and youth athletes who are gay and closeted. Inner conflict must be raging — whether or not to run from society’s and one’s self-imposed shackles — to squeeze through the opening in the closet door, sledgehammered by Jason Collins last Monday. If I was still in the closet, I could only imagine how celebratory yet difficult this past week might have been. I could only imagine what ideas might have been swirling in my head, going forward.
To those who are living in the closet, painfully, asking “To be or not or to be,” consider this: It might be nobler in your mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune remaining closeted. But, if you do like Jason Collins, myself and others who survived the plunge, you can take arms against this sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.
It’s never been a more welcoming time to heed advice imparted on Shakespeare’s most conflicted character: To thine own self be true. Remember, as my friend told me in college, it’s not about you.