Mitch Eby wasn't trying to make history or make a point when he got up to speak to his football teammates at Chapman University two weeks ago. He just was trying to make a difference.
But with one simple sentence — "I am ready to share with you all that I am gay" — he may have accomplished all three.
"It was to put my story out there to kind of help other people in the same situation," the junior defensive lineman from Santa Monica said. "It was reading a lot of stories like this, watching YouTube videos, stuff like that that helped me. And I wanted to be able to provide my story and my own experiences to maybe help other people in the future."
FOR THE RECORD:
Mitch Eby: An article in the April 1 Sports section about Chapman University football player Mitch Eby's announcement that he is gay referred to Chapman as "a small private Christian college in Orange County." Chapman was founded by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but since 1991 it has been an independent university that imposes no religious requirements. It has about 7,500 undergraduate and graduate students, making it among the 10 largest private universities in the state. —
The last three months have been a transformative time for gay athletes, with nearly two dozen world-class or college competitors, from swimmers and volleyball players to distance runners and baseball players, coming out publicly as gay according to Cyd Zeigler, co-founder and editor of the website Outsports.
But, Zeigler says, Eby is the first active gay college football player to come out publicly.
"It's another brick on the path to the end of homophobia in sports," Zeigler says. "It's something that we've been working for for many years. We are not there yet because we still get kids like Mitch, who are afraid to come out to their teams.
"But with every one of these athletes coming out, another athlete feels better about himself. The more people who stand up and are counted, the more other kids feel OK with who they are, the less we hear of kids attempting suicide, the less we hear of kids being depressed. That's the importance here."
Eby says he has known he is gay for years but was reluctant to share that with family, friends or teammates because he wasn't sure how they would react. But earlier this year he began an email friendship with Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman kicker at Oregon's Willamette University who announced in January that he was bisexual.
Mertens' experience convinced Eby that by coming out, he could help others just as Mertens had helped him.
"I came out to my parents, my family, my friends. I did that for me," Eby says. "And then this other stuff was just to kind of reciprocate because I received a lot of support from other people, other athletes who have been through something similar to me."
He started by telling his roommates, then his coach at Chapman, a small private Christian college in Orange County. They were supportive and urged him to speak to the rest of the team at its final meeting of spring practice last month.
Eby wrote out his moving 295-word speech ahead of time and rehearsed part of it. And when he finished addressing his teammates, they applauded, which gave Eby the courage to contact Zeigler and share his story with a wider audience.
"I didn't expect it would be on this level. But everything's been really, really positive," says Eby, who has received dozens of texts and emails from family and friends. "I definitely feel more comfortable now. I can actually go around and be around who I want, do what I want to do without having to worry about someone's reaction or someone judging me."