The Biggest Play of His Life

May 07, 2000

One of the captains of the high school football team had
something big he wanted to tell the other players. "I was so
anxious," remembers middle linebacker Corey Johnson, a senior at
Masconomet High in Topsfield, Mass., "I thought I was going to
vomit."

He took a hard gulp. "I want to let all of you guys know
something about me." He tried not to let his voice quake. "I'm
coming out as an openly gay student here."

His teammates' eyes and mouths went wide as soup plates. "I hope
this won't change anything," Corey quickly went on. "I didn't
come on to you last year in the locker room, and I won't this
year. I didn't touch you last year in the locker room, and I
won't this year."

Awkward silence.

"Besides, who says you guys are good enough anyway?"

And you know what happened? They laughed! But that's not the best
part. The best part is what happened next. Nothing.

Corey's teammates had no problem with his sexual orientation. His
coach had no problem with it. His mom and dad and his sister had
no problem with it. His teachers, his counselor--nobody--had a
problem with it.

O.K., somebody scrawled FOOTBALL FAG on a door at school. True,
one cementhead parent asked coach Jim Pugh to have the team take
a new vote on the captaincy, but Pugh told him to stuff it. And,
yeah, one week the opposing team's captain kept hollering, "Get
the fag!" but his coach finally benched him (and Masconomet
fricasseed that team 25-0).

No opponent refused to play against Corey. No opposing coach
said, "Boys, the Lord wants you to go out and crush that
heathen!" Nobody held up a sign at a Masconomet game that read
WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON, COREY? Nope. Corey Johnson,
guard-linebacker, wrestler, lacrosse player, just went out and
played his senior football season, same as ever. Masconomet did
well (7-4 for the season, 25-8 with Corey, a two-way starter for
three years). Now Corey is getting on with his life, hopeful as
ever. He'll graduate with his class next month, think about
playing small-college football and become a gay activist, a
journey that began on Sunday at the Millennium March on
Washington for Equality.

Can't wait for Corey to be on a gay parade float when some
beer-bellied yahoo hollers, "Hey, girls! Shoe sale next corner!"
The football captain might turn the poor schmo into a smudge
mark.

Corey can take the hits now, but hiding the truth about himself
was so depressing in his sophomore and junior years that he let
his grades drop, skipped practice and even skipped school. When
an adult friend started ripping homosexuals at a Super Bowl
party in January 1998, Corey couldn't decide whether to punch
him or cry. He knew he had to do something.

First, he told a guidance counselor he was gay and then a few
teachers. They all supported him. A year later he told his
parents. Fine. Then his best friend, Sean. Uh-oh. Big problem.
Sean started crying. Corey asked him what was wrong. "I'm sorry
you couldn't share this with me before," Sean said. They're
still best friends.

Since coming out, Corey says, he has heard from "hundreds" on
the Internet, including athletes who wish they had the guts to
come out too. "But," says Corey, "they always say, 'At my
school? No way. It'd be impossible.'"

At Masconomet, a public school with an enrollment of 1,300,
Corey is the football captain who had even more moral courage
than physical. He's admired by his teammates. In fact, nothing
much changed between them, except on bus rides home after wins,
when the whole team sang YMCA together. Well, it isn't Hunker
Down, You Hairy Bulldogs, but it works.

Maybe we're actually getting somewhere in the U.S. A young man
who leads young men comes out as gay, and it makes such a ruckus
you can still hear the crickets chirp. In fact, last month the
Boston Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network handed its
Visionary Award not just to Corey, but also to his teammates.
Can you imagine that? A high school football team getting an
award for tolerance?

When I was growing up, my best friend was a hilarious kid I'll
call Danny. Along about high school, he stopped coming around.
Then, in college, he showed up in the Gay Club photo in the
yearbook. After that, Danny didn't take my calls.

It's a lousy feeling. I guess I'm not the kind of person he
could've shared that with.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

The football captain gulped hard and said to his teammates, "I'm
coming out as an openly gay student."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)