SALEM, Ore. -- Conner Mertens was watching TV and hanging with his soon-to-be fraternity brothers on Sunday night when his phone buzzed with a text message. "Get your popcorn ready," it read. "And turn to ESPN."
Mertens, a kicker at Division III Willamette University in Salem, requested a channel change. About 10 minutes later, he sat stunned and happy as Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and an NFL draft hopeful, said these landmark words: "I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am. I'm Michael Sam. I'm a college graduate. I'm African-American, and I'm gay."
"I was like, 'YES!'" recalled Mertens, reenacting an emphatic fist pump. "I was really stoked for him. Hopefully this makes it easier for everyone else."
Mertens, a freshman at Willamette, can identify with the media attention now swirling around Sam.
WERTHEIM: Michael Sam, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, says he is gay
In late January, Mertens announced to the world that he is bisexual, writing in a letter to his community, "Throughout my life I have been told who I can and cannot be. A few months ago I realized that I am only limited as a person but the limitations I have placed on myself. That being said, it's important to me to tell you all that I, Conner Mertens, am bisexual. If that makes you uncomfortable, I refuse to apologize for being who I am. I am the same person today that I was yesterday. My nature and my values have not changed, only my willingness to express those things openly." The week before, Mertens came out to his teammates and coaches. They met the news with a collective, "Aaaaand?"
"Conner's just a good dude," said Willamette coach Glen Fowles. "Afterward, I had some people ask me if we were going to change anything we do here. Absolutely not. People have this perception of football that racial slurs, homophobia, all that stuff runs rampant [in every locker room]. My question is, if we did that here, do you think he would have felt comfortable telling the team?
"Some people think that football is a bunch of big, dumb Neanderthals. Older generations would be surprised at the evolution of athletes. Sports have been a breaking ground for so many different things -- whatever it is, it's going to be accepted in sport first."
Since announcing the news, Mertens and Willamette have been bombarded with media requests. He sheepishly admits that when he decided to share his story with OutSports.com, "I thought it was a little blog, and maybe a few hundred people would read it."
Try again. As of Friday morning, the OutSports.com story had been tweeted 1,342 times, and shared on Facebook 25,913 times. In the last three weeks, he has held a press conference, been followed by Fox Sports 1 cameras for two days for an in-depth look at his life on campus and done a few radio interviews that earned him fans and haters. He has received some backlash, including four death threats and six notes saying he should commit suicide, but he has also received hundreds of emails from strangers applauding his decision to share. Current athletes have reached out to ask for help coming out to their families and teammates.
On top of all this, Mertens is planning an exciting, romantic Valentine's Day celebration -- "I'm sorta known for taking people on epic dates," Mertens said -- for his boyfriend, Chandler Whitney, a baseball player at Walla Walla Community College who came out shortly after Mertens.
"It's been a little overwhelming," said Mertens, who didn't play a snap in the 2013 season as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered during his senior year of high school. "I was tired of hiding who I was. I mean, this is an amazing team and these are my brothers."
They deserved to know the truth.
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Mertens grew up in Kennewick, Wash., an area in eastern Washington not exactly known for being progressive. He hung with a variety of different groups in high school, and says passersby would have labeled him "the all-American boy"; he had close-cropped hair and a big smile and a number of athletic accomplishments and leadership positions on his résumé. "Homecoming King runner-up three years in a row," he said, shaking his head in disappointment.
But early on, he knew something was different, and worried others might catch on. In the fifth grade, Mertens returned to school from a drama competition and got sick when classmates started teasing him after seeing him in full costume and makeup. "They're gonna figure it out," he thought. He shucked his drama gear and threw himself into athletics instead. But he came to grips with his core through hours of prayer and self-reflection and the belief that he would be accepted by his peers in Young Life, a nationwide church group. He has no problem reconciling his faith with an identity that many religions reject. He found hope and support through You Can Play, an ally organization dedicated to making locker rooms and sports venues free of homophobia.
"I haven't lost any friends in this," Mertens said. In fact, he's had inquiries to go on double dates. (It's partially because it puts people at ease, and partially because people want to see him in action, he jokes.)
"In all my leadership activities, I used to tell people, 'Just be real, be who YOU are,'" he said. "One day I was driving home, and realized, 'Wow, I'm the biggest hypocrite.'" Initially, he figured he'd keep his sexual orientation a secret "to the grave." Instead, he decided to share who he was. He hasn't regretted it.
Mertens didn't set out to be an advocate. He wasn't planning on being the poster child for openly gay athletes. (Though he identifies as bisexual, Mertens often refers to himself as gay because it's easier, and because "it's a happy word.") He's not on a political or religious crusade, but he takes issue with people who brush aside his and Sam's announcements and accuse them of trying to get attention.
"People who say it's 'no big deal,' who don't want to talk about it, that bugs me," Mertens said, shaking his head. "It kills me on the inside. Did you know there are three LGBT kids a day that kill themselves? (According to Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids, it has been conservatively estimated that 1,500 gay and lesbian youths commit suicide every year.) Can the people who say it's 'no big deal' and tell us to stop talking about it, can they say that to those kids? Or those parents? We're not there yet. As long as [homosexuality] is kept in the shadows, degraded and belittled, it will always be news."
Still, with Mertens' announcement, and with the news that Sam's teammates at Missouri not only accepted him, but also respected his privacy and allowed him to come out on his own terms, Mertens thinks that someday soon it won't be news. Fowles agrees, and believes that awareness is spreading among athletic departments. "I guarantee you every football staff in the country has talked about this," Fowles said. "And if they hadn't before, they are now."
Mertens predicts that the next few months "are going to be crazy," with more current athletes coming out. He says he has spoken to athletes at every collegiate level who are trying to figure out how to share their story. He loves that big, athletic players like Sam are shattering the stereotype of gay men being feminine, and says the next time someone makes a snide comment about gay men being soft, he plans to pull up highlights of Sam terrorizing the SEC. Mertens hasn't talked to Sam yet, but he said, "I just want to give him a hug."
"He's one of the strongest people I know, and I haven't even met him," Mertens said. "I can't wait to see what he does for our generation."
After a pause, Mertens smiled. "You know, maybe I don't want to hug him -- he's a terrifying man and I'm just a little kicker. He might crush me."
WERTHEIM: Q&A with former Missouri star and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam