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Kevin Grayson comes out, dreams of a spot in the NFL
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Kevin Grayson wants just one shot, one team to give him a chance—and every minute of every daily, rigorous, sweat-filled workout is motivated by that wish, that dream.

Grayson was a high school and college football standout, and last July was named the MVP after leading the Parma Panthers to a 61-43 win and the team's third consecutive Italian Football League championship. That game was played Varese and it was the Panthers over a team known as the Catania Elephants.

Now back on U.S. soil, Grayson dreams of similar glory in the National Football League (NFL), hoping for just one pass thrown his direction from any of the 33 teams, or even just a chance to try out for a club.

He dreams big, motivated by his past sporting glory, and encouraged by thousands, literally, of supporters worldwide—from Africa to England, from Ireland to his native Virginia, anchored by the Internet and his coming-out interview that aired regionally on TV and has since gone viral.

Grayson is one of the most decorated football players ever in central Virginia, where he was named all-district and all-region while playing both offense and defense at L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield. He then helped the University of Richmond win the Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2008.

Grayson first told his story to longtime friend Lane Casadonte, the sports director at WTVR, the CBS affiliate in Richmond—and the seven-minute segment aired May 7.

He has since done one other radio interview. This is Grayson's first interview and story for a newspaper, magazine or website.

"It's been amazing, crazy, absolutely crazy," since coming out, Grayson said. "I thought it would [be reported] locally, perhaps [also] along the East Coast. But social media has carried it worldwide."

He's gotten emails, text messages, phone calls and more—from fellow athletes to coaches, from fans to countless unknowns, all encouraged by Grayson's inspirational, motivational story. He's been asked how he built his support group, what mental issues he's had to deal with, how he's handling various situations, and so much more."

Grayson has almost instantly become an off-the-field star, just as he was on high school Friday nights and Saturday afternoons in college.

Grayson's coming-out started when Casadonte emailed him, requesting to be interviewed about being gay—and before Grayson read the email, he was messaged by Casadonte on Facebook to look for the email. But Grayson wasn't told what the email was about.

"My mind was going in many directions [about what the email concerned,] but [coming out] was not one of them," Grayson said. "Initially, I was not going to do [the coming-out interview on TV], to come out on national TV. But, as I continued to read [the email], I learned what he truly wanted to do with the story."

That is, to help others, to support others—through the face and story of a known local, a star area athlete.

Still, Grayson took two weeks to decide to do the interview.

"As I kept thinking about it, about how many people this story would touch, affect and inspire, I decided to do it," he said.

Grayson had been closeted in high school and college, despite rumors in both that he was gay.

A former Richmond teammate, who is straight, encouraged Grayson to come out—because he supported Grayson when he was closeted and would continue to support him if and when he came out, as would others.

Grayson said he is "very glad" he came out.

"As I look back now, I think I shouldn't have even second-guessed [the TV interview,]" Grayson said. "Coming out is a scary time and it really was putting myself out there, but on the flipside, as much support and awareness this issue has gained, that has made worth it.

"I didn't think this story would touch as many people as it has, in so many ways, and not just gay people. It's men, women, high school students, college students, old, young … everyone. It's touched more people than I thought it would. I'm very happy with how it's gone.

I'm very happy and excited about the response."

Make that "responses"—plural. Grayson's inbox has been flooded with heartwarming, emotional messages—such as the female student-athlete who reached out to him.

She told Grayson about a teammate of hers who is gay, and got outed. Many were bashing the outed athlete, and this writer didn't respond.

"When she saw [my] interview she cried and all she could think about was that she didn't help her teammate; she felt like she let that teammate down," Grayson told of the email.

The next day, the student-athlete came out herself to her team, and played Grayson's coming-out interview for her team. She told Grayson that it "completely changed the ideology that her team had of gay athletes."

She told Grayson that the majority of her team apologized to her and to the other female as well. She also told Grayson that her team is now closer than it's ever been.

"That story touched me," Grayson said.

So did the conversation he recently had with a fellow former college football player, who is straight, simply curious about gay athletes. He admitted to Grayson that he couldn't fathom the idea of playing with a gay teammate. He asked if Grayson thought he played with a gay teammate. "I said, it's almost guaranteed you played with a teammate who was/is gay, though maybe hiding [his orientation,]" Grayson said.

"In my mind, there's at least one [gay player] on every team across the nation. That's just my thought, based on my sports background and experiences."

Grayson and the fellow footballer also discussed the locker room setting, and the potential distractions a gay teammate may cause.

"I told him, I could only speak for myself, but, when I'm doing football, I'm only doing football. There are no other thoughts, no other stuff, no attraction to guys. Nothing but football," Grayson said. "As I told him, we are just like you on the field; we just choose to go different directions in our personal lives."

The fellow footballer ultimately thanked Grayson for talking to him.

Grayson, now 25, lives in Charlottesville, Va., is dating Austin Gilbert, and works at a clothing specialty store.

Grayson did not want to discuss his current relationship, nor his past marriage to a woman, although he did confirm he was previously married.

"In high school, I told a friend that if I ever came out [as gay], it would be after I was an established NFL player, or probably when I was retired," Grayson said. "I feel that I should not be judged on my personal life, and my personal life should not affect my teammates because that's not fair to them, to have my personal life thrown upon them.

"It's not that I didn't want to come out because I was scared; it's more that I was going to take away from my sport, from my teammates—and that could lead to negative thoughts about me because now they're being burdened with my personal life."

Grayson wants that one shot at NFL glory, to show he can play at the game's top level, on the biggest stage in the world. He wants to show he has the ability, skill, knowledge and talent.

"The NFL is that one thing hanging over my head, which I have not achieved yet," he said. "Making it into the NFL, that's one thing I want to accomplish.

"I know, if I hadn't gotten hurt [while in college], I would have at least had a shot at [making it in] the NFL.

"I want to prove that I can do it.

"I want to make the NFL and prove to myself that I can do it. And when you're also carrying a community behind you, it gives you a power that people can't imagine."

Grayson said his chances for breaking into the NFL rely on himself, on his mentality, his drive, his dedication. "As hard as I work for it, the better the chances," he said. "If I push myself as hard as I've ever pushed myself, I know I can get a chance, I know I can."

But will coming out impact a team signing him?

"I thought about that," Grayson admits. "There's a saying that I believe: If you can play, you can play.

"I think, if I was invited to a tryout or went to a workout [for an NFL team], and performed, they would give me a shot; they wouldn't hold my sexuality against me.

"My talent will shine over anything else."

Grayson knows his coming-out will have an impact well beyond the football field; he knows it will affect teens of all interests—and he's proud to help.

"I have shown, just because you are gay, that does not mean you cannot achieve lifelong goals, absolutely anything that you want to accomplish," he said. "This burden can actually give you a drive that is stronger than what most normal people have. But, it also can affect you [negatively] if you don't have a support network.

"No one's dreams should be crushed because of a personal choice, their sexuality."

Grayson played at Richmond from 2007-2010, catching a combined 196 passes in his four-year career, with 13 touchdowns, including seven as a rookie.

Grayson confirmed he heard anti-gay comments in high school and college. In high school, it often was along the lines of "That's so gay." In college, he was in football meetings when coaches at times said things like, "Stop being a princess," or "stop being a faggot," Grayson said.

No anti-gay comments were ever said directly to, or about, Grayson, he confirmed.

"In high school, I kept my [sexuality] covered up as much as I could," said Grayson, a popular three-sport prep star (track & field, basketball and football). "Once the rumor got out [about my orientation] during my junior year in high school, it spread like wildfire. I suppressed [the rumor] as best as could, and I had a lot of [other] athletes support me because they were under the impression that [the rumor] wasn't true. Senior year, I kind of stopped caring because I was about to go to college.

In college, Grayson told a friend that he was never going to let his orientation get out, that he would cover it up so well that it never would even be brought up."

But it did, again during his junior year.

He silenced the rumors as best he could.

He didn't, though, silence the anti-gay comments that he heard.

"Those comments didn't bother me because I was doing football; I wasn't thinking about what they were saying [or taking the comments] personally," Grayson said.

Since coming out, Grayson said he has been contacted by several past coaches to apologize for things they said. "I told them, I didn't take [the comments] personally," Grayson said. "Could I have said something at the time? Yes, but that would have outed myself in the process, likely."

Grayson's 2012 season in Italy, featured a team with two other Americans; the rest of his teammates were Italian. He came out to one American and one Italian, and neither had an issue with a gay teammate.

"I had numerous discussions with the American [teammate who I came out to] about the topic because he didn't care, but wanted to be educated on how it is as a gay athlete," Grayson said. "He wanted to know how I kept it a secret, how I remained focused on sports, and more. Sure, it is challenging and you have to be mentally strong to do it. There were times I was severely depressed, and it eats at you like a cancer."

Grayson confirmed that his Italian team now knows, like the rest of the world, that he is gay, "and their response was overwhelmingly supportive," including the team's coaching staff, he said. "A lot of the Italian players said I should have told them sooner.

"It's great to have gotten that reaction."

Also while overseas, he told his parents that he is gay, and his family has been very supportive, he said.

"Life is great," Grayson said. "I'm happy and able to be myself. My friends know that I'm still the same person, that I'm not going to change since coming out. I'm still the same person, same friend, same athlete. My life isn't going to change, just people's awareness of my life; that's all that's going to change. I'm the same person—I love sports; I love football; I love my hobbies.

"So many people have contacted me to say that I inspired them [by coming out], but, after hearing their stories, they inspired me."

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