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Chicagoan Lueshen was openly gay in college football
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Michael Sam made headlines this spring as the first openly gay football player drafted into the NFL, as the St. Louis Rams selected the former University of Missouri standout in the seventh round. But before Sam, Eric Lueshen was on track for football stardom with one of college football's most storied programs, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—and Lueshen was openly gay on the team. And this was more than 10 years ago. Lueshen's story—as an out Division I college football player—broke the day after Sam's this past February. Now 29 and living in Chicago, Lueshen shared his journey with Windy City Times.

He was bullied for years in school, told he ran funny, mocked for being gay, and even for being smart.

He had battles at home, often feuding with his dad long before he confirmed to his parents that he was gay. He even had physical battles with his dad, and the police were repeatedly called to their small-town Nebraska home.

Eric Lueshen had a rough, troubled time as a teenager. He was a ward of the state for two years, forced to live in a group-home for a few months, and even was twice admitted to a hospital's suicide ward.

"I think what really saved me was music and animals. We had a lot of pets; that helped a lot," said Lueshen, who was a percussionist in the band at Pierce High School, a group that was very open, very accepting. "That was kind of my safe haven."

Sports also played a huge role in Lueshen's life, especially his junior year in high school—when colleges from across the country, including numerous Division I programs, came calling. All wanted the blonde-haired Lueshen to sign with their football team.

Lueshen, you see, was a good kicker—a really, really good kicker. In fact, as a junior in high school, he attended a football kicking camp run by the only kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, who played in the NFL from 1967-1985. Many college kickers also were at the camp as instructors.

Lueshen won every competition at that camp against other high school kickers, and also against all of the starting college kickers. At the end of the camp, Stenerud even took off his Hall of Fame ring and put it on Lueshen's finger and said, "You'll have one of these someday."

Lueshen ultimately landed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a perennial powerhouse.

But, "my story is so much more than just the football story," he said.

Growing up & coming out

Lueshen was raised in conservative Pierce, Nebraska, which had about 1,600 residents at the time, and he now jokes that the city has "boomed" to 1,700. His high school's graduating class in 2003 had, oh, about 85 members.

Lueshen grew up playing numerous sports. He played club soccer and was good enough to play seven years for the state's Olympic Development Program. Lueshen also played basketball, baseball, wrestled, and competed in both cross-country and track & field.

He was a four-year varsity athlete in both football and track & field.

During a family vacation to Disney World as a junior, Lueshen met a guy at Rainforest Café—a part of the tale that his parents didn't know until years later. Lueshen had, instead, told his parents that he met a friend at the pool, and that he was going to hang out with him and some friends for the next few days.

In reality, it was the guy from Rainforest Café, who was gay.

That interaction confirmed to Lueshen that he too was gay.

Lueshen came out to close friends as a high school junior, at age 17.

But it wasn't the perfectly-planned coming-out to his parents.

Lueshen as a junior was working at a nearby McDonald's. He met a guy and they developed a very close relationship. One day, the friend gave Lueshen a handwritten letter and said, "Don't read it until you get home."

Lueshen put it on the passenger seat of his car and forgot about it.

His dad found and read the letter.

Lueshen eventually got home and the doors were locked, which was a rarity.

So he knocked. Kerwin Lueshen, his dad, answered and immediately said that they needed to talk.

Lueshen confirmed to his parents that he was gay. Mom accepted it, yet Dad was admittedly homophobic.

As a senior, Lueshen said he didn't have any problems on the football high school team and many locals were accepting of the gay athlete because he was talented and being recruited by such programs as Fresno State, Arizona State, Kansas State, Iowa, and countless Division II schools.

He ultimately chose to stay in-state, attend the University of Nebraska, as much for the school's academic strength as its football power.

For the first two months on campus, no one asked his sexual-orientation, so he never shared that he was gay. No reason to, though he knew people in the athletic department thought he was gay. "I wasn't hiding it from them; it just never came up. I'm a big believer in someone judging me based off of my character, morals, and values—not my sexual orientation," Lueshen said.

It was confirmed in October, at lunch with two friends from the team: Corey McKeon and Sean Hill, both from suburban Naperville.

They said, "So Pretty Boy, we have a question for you."

And Lueshen knew what the question was going to be.

McKeon asked, "Are you gay?"

Lueshen said he was and asked if that was a problem. Both immediately said it was not; they just wanted to know.

"It was probably one of the easiest coming-out experiences of my life," Lueshen said.

Word spread quickly that Lueshen was gay—to his teammates and coaches, to the athletic department as a whole, around campus, and seemingly everyone in Nebraska and in surrounding states.

That included about five or six football teammates who were "really homophobic," said Lueshen, who now admits he was "legitimately scared for my life at times," fearing what they might do to him.

Lueshen had a physical altercation with one of them—and he quickly learned to steer away from them.

"I kept telling myself that the bullying and homophobic slurs will end, eventually, once they get to know me. I set out to prove to them that I am a great athlete just as they are, and that I am not just some stereotype they conjured up in their heads," Lueshen said.

Eventually, they changed—but it was a year later, on Lueshen's birthday, no less.

Lueshen was out at a party with McKeon and Hill when the leader of the small pack of homophobes from the team came onto the scene. He was, though, cheery, perhaps drunk.

Still, Lueshen was nervous, fearing it would lead to another physical altercation.

Instead, his teammate handed Lueshen a bottle of Crown Royale to share, and when he learned it was Lueshen's birthday, he said to keep the bottle.

The 300-pound lineman then put his arm around Lueshen and came clean.

"I was a homophobe. I didn't know how I was going to finish out my career at Nebraska with an openly gay teammate," he told Lueshen. "There were times when I thought I was going to beat your ass. In fact, I didn't even know how to be around you. But, through getting to know you, I've learned that you are not the stereotype of what everyone likes to say gay is. You are a really cool guy. You're fun, funny, smart."

Other homophobes from the team then approached too, and more teammates.

The leader then said to Lueshen, "If anyone has any problem with you, ever, even says anything bad about you, let me and the guys know because we'll take care of it."

Lueshen was shocked.

"That was such a monumental point of acceptance in my life. That was huge to me," he said.

Lueshen has forgiven all of them.

"I understand that ignorance is something that's learned and can be broken through education and experiences," he said.

Lueshen also had a major turning-point in his relationship with his dad as a college freshman—when he spent the day with his dad and they talked openly, candidly. The elder Lueshen admitted he was homophobic, based on his upbringing and military background. They talked for hours, bonded and rebuilt their relationship. Their relationship went from "highly, highly dysfunctional to one now where he's one of my biggest supporters," Lueshen said. "I'm so proud of the man my dad has become."

Lueshen joined the Nebraska football team at its bowl game after the 2003 season, though he was not playing.

By the fall of his junior year academically ( sophomore eligibility ), he was finally listed on the team's depth chart as its No. 1 kicker. However, he was injured during a two-a-day practices in the fall, and by the time he returned, he had already been replaced.

Then, on March 8, 2006, Lueshen had career-ending spinal fusion surgery.

"Nothing could prepare me for not being able to walk by myself, and having sports taken away from me in the blink of an eye. It was a very difficult pill to swallow," he said.

Lueshen backed away from all sports—even as a fan—to help his emotional healing.

Instead, he spent his senior year focused on academics—and had a 4.0 GPA in chemical engineering.

"I never was going to live a lie or live in fear; I was going to be myself. I'm proud that I had the tenacity, the guts to do what I did. Nebraska athletics, as well as the minds of countless people throughout the Midwest, were forever changed by me just being myself. Someone had to be the first to open the closet door at Nebraska, and I'm glad I was able to be that person," he said.

Welcome to the Windy City

Lueshen moved to Chicago after graduating and has lived here since, calling the Andersonville neighborhood home. Following his passion for helping people, he decided to pursue his PhD in biomedical engineering at UIC, which he is currently in the final stages of completion.

He has also become a loud advocate for the LGBT community.

When Michael Sam came out in February, Lueshen shared a congratulatory post about Sam on Facebook, and also included a brief mention of his stint as an openly gay football player.

The next day, Lueshen was being interviewed for the first time about being a former openly gay college football player by a radio station based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Lueshen admitted he was nervous for the interview, mostly because, "I didn't want to offend my former teammates, friends, coaches, or the athletic program."

Eventually, Lueshen saw the long-term benefits of sharing his story.

The interview lasted about 45-minutes.

Lueshen has, over the past few months, had numerous LGBT advocacy opportunities, not just the focus on his drug delivery methods to the brain and central nervous system research for his PhD. He has been interviewed by both national and international media outlets, and even co-hosted a sports talk show. He has also helped lobby the Nebraska State Senate on its gay rights bills.

Lueshen recently volunteered at Midsommar Fest for HRC and helped out at the Proud To Run booth. He also spoke at an HRC's Athletes For Equality event, held at Scarlet Bar in Lakeview.

On June 18, Lueshen will be at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, part of a three-person panel headlining a discussion on oppression and torture in the LGBT community after the performance of Death and the Maiden, starring Sandra Oh ( TV's Grey's Anatomy ).

Then, on June 27-28, he will be the youth ambassador for Heartland Youth Pride and the grand marshal for the Heartland Pride Parade and Festival—the same pride events in Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, that Lueshen went to 10-plus years ago during his college football days.

"Being the grand marshal is a huge honor; I get goose bumps just thinking about it," he said. "Just knowing that my story of struggle, love and acceptance has empowered and inspired so many people has made the negative memories and all the hardships into some of the most positive experiences in my life."

"Before my story broke, it wasn't always easy to look back at my college football days and say that the positives out-weighed the negative. Now for sure they do. I know that I forever changed Nebraska athletics, and the mindset of so many people in Nebraska and elsewhere."

And he's continuing to do so in Chicago and beyond.

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