“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Three

I usually work my way up to the hard, personal, gut-wrenching questions during sensitive interviews such as this one, but I’m not going to take that route today.

Interviewing people often calls for finesse when it comes to posing the kinds of questions that may not be popular but that need to be asked in order to get the whole story, especially if they’re reticent about sharing the most private parts of themselves they normally only reveal to those closest to them.

But, here and now with Scott Ericsson and Wayne Thomas, I’m going to follow my gut instinct to take the direct approach to address the elephant in the room right off the bat instead of pussyfooting around it until I can figure out how to work my way up to it.

And no, the aforementioned elephant isn’t code for gay. Not that there’s anything wrong whatsoever with being lighthearted and carefree, which is the TRUE meaning of the word.

I still don’t get how people say ignorant things like “that’s so gay” when they think something is silly, trivial or dumb. It boggles my mind to no end that they don’t grasp the true definition of the word, bless their hearts, but just because people are born with brains doesn’t mean they actually use them.

What can I say? I call ’em as I see ’em.

Anyhow, the elephant in question is consequence, and you can take that to mean anything you wish. But consequences, as we all know, can be good or bad.

I just hope they aren’t taken aback by my unflinching straightforwardness, although I’m sure they can deal with whatever questions I toss their way. Of course, I’ll have to don the kid gloves with Scott’s moms when I talk to them later this afternoon because, well, Scott’s their baby and upsetting two mama bears is just plain suicidal if you ask me. But in this moment, I can take them off because I know from an objective standpoint that Scott can handle himself just fine. Besides, being so candid about his sexuality takes the kind of courage most people don’t have and can’t even begin to comprehend, myself included.

I also know Coach Thomas is present not simply in his capacity as Scott’s coach and mentor on the football field, but as someone who genuinely cares about him as a human being. Which is why I think he’s perfect for Mandy Jo. But that isn’t why I’m here this morning, although I will begin planting a seed or two in his mind a little later.

“I’m not going to pull my punches or be politically correct, so please, please, PLEASE try not to get too defensive about my line of questioning,” I look them both in the eyes as I warn them. “These are valid, objective, fair enough questions that people more than likely are going to be asking you in the coming days, weeks, months and, yes, maybe even years. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything, but I WILL do right by you, Scott. This is YOUR story to tell, YOUR life you’re sharing. Some of my questions probably will make you uncomfortable or even angry, and if I’m out of line, you can tell me where to go in no uncertain terms. I won’t take offense, OK?”

They glance at each other and then back at me, nodding their mutual agreement.

“Fair enough,” Coach Thomas says.

“Shoot,” Scott prods me, past ready to get on with it.

“This is a question for both of you: Do you think Scott coming out publicly is a distraction to his teammates on the football field, one that might — and probably will — result in mixed reactions from players on opposing teams that, again, might — and probably will — result in someone or several someones getting hurt during a game?”

Sometimes, it’s best to get the toughest questions out of the way first.

“Wow,” Coach Thomas finally manages to blurt following what seems like a lifetime of stunned silence that in fact only has been a minute at best. “You really don’t mess around, do you, Piccolo?”

It’s a rhetorical question, so I stifle my trademark impatience and wait for the enormity of what I’m asking to marinate between the two of them a bit longer before tacking on the last part of it.

“Are you prepared for the criticism, the backlash, the snubs, the intolerance, the outright hatred that likely will come — for lack of better phrasing — by putting yourself, the most personal aspects of your life, out there for everyone to see, and, as much as I detest admitting the probability of so many ugly truths already, judge? Is it still worth the risk, in the end, knowing that people will be dissecting your life frontward and backward, putting you and your family under the kind of microscope from which you might never emerge unscathed, questioning your motives for using a public medium to show the world who you really are when they might think private acceptance from the people you care most about matters far, far, FAR more than what any stranger might feel or believe?”

Coach Thomas gives the younger man’s shoulder a compassionate squeeze before opening his mouth to speak, but Scott is quicker.

“Life is all about choices and consequences — both good and bad — but I didn’t choose to be gay,” he begins. “I was born gay, but I hid who I really was from everyone except my parents. Until I got tired of it, so damn tired of being someone I wasn’t for everyone else because I was afraid I would lose all of my friends — everything — if they ever found out the truth about me.

“When you start telling lies — and man, do they ever stockpile when you can’t even begin to remember how many you’ve told — you lose sight of what’s real in the illusions you create, in all the stories you make up. It got to be too much for me trying to keep up with the illusions and fabrications of the fictitious character I concocted, so I decided once and for all to stop hiding the real me, the real Scott Ericsson. I was so unhappy, Miss Granger. You have no idea how unhappy. I hated myself for being such a coward beneath the facade. Every single day was a struggle for me to get through, a struggle for me to … to survive. I just … I just couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t live with the lies anymore, couldn’t live a lie anymore.

I have to be me. I have to be true to myself. I can’t be someone I’m not anymore, not for anyone. I have to do what’s right for me, and this … this feels right. I have never felt more … more right in my life, more at peace with myself than I do now. It’s such a wonderful feeling to have that weight lifted off of my shoulders, to not feel like a coward anymore.”

I instantaneously thump my busy pen down on the desk, reach for his hands, give them a reassuring squeeze, release them.

“Scott, in the few years I’ve been around you, I’ve observed you to be many things — so incredibly intelligent, wise and well-spoken beyond your 17 years, not to mention brave, kind, helpful, sympathetic, empathetic — for starters,” I point out. “But there’s one thing you most definitely are NOT, and that’s a coward. Being who you are — being the young man you really are inside and out — is WWWAAAYYY harder than being someone you aren’t. Trust me on that.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie to you by telling you that I understand the emotional and mental toll this journey has taken — and continues to take — on you, but I applaud you for, well, being YOU. I empathize with you because I know it couldn’t have been easy for you to tell your teammates, classmates, coaches and teachers. In fact, I imagine it was one of the hardest — if not THE hardest — things you’ve ever done, felt you HAD to do. You’re the furthest thing from a coward, Scott, so please don’t beat yourself up for being human.”

I grab my pen again as Scott composes himself and gives me a small, grateful smile before continuing.

“I wanted to get the why of it out of the way first,” Scott needlessly explains. “As for my teammates, I would NEVER, EVER do anything to hurt them. We’re family — brothers — on and off the field. A lot of them could tell something was eating away at me, but every time they asked me what was wrong, I’d lie and say it was nothing. But it was something, and they knew it. So my teammates cornered me in the locker room one day not long after practice started this summer and told me that whatever was bothering me, whatever was eating away at me, we’d get through it together.”

Scott breaks down then, his entire body convulsing as tears spill from eyes as bright as a cloudless sky like miniature waterfalls. Coach Thomas and I instinctively clutch his hands simultaneously to give him the strength to go on as much to offer compassion.

It does the trick.

“I cried like a baby when they told me that,” Scott confesses, holding onto our intertwining hands as if they’re a lifeline. “So I just came out and told them. I guess blurted it out would be a more apt description. And then I waited for them to tell me to get out, tell me I wasn’t wanted on the team anymore because I was — I am — gay. But you know what they did? You know what they told me? ‘You’re our brother, and we love you. Being gay will never change that. We’re a family, and families stick together no matter what.’ Simple as that, they made something I’ve been struggling with for so long seem like no big deal. Several of them told me afterward that they had suspected for some time, but didn’t know how to bring it up without making me feel alienated when they only wanted to help their brother.

“I’ve always been careful not to give anyone the wrong idea that I was looking at them in the locker room or anything like that because I didn’t want to be accused of any kind of inappropriate behavior. You probably understand where I’m coming from better than most people, Miss Granger, being a female sports writer. But I never — not in a million years — expected their unconditional acceptance. No questions asked, no judgments made. I can’t even begin to tell you how blessed I am to call them teammates, friends, brothers. Not just the football team, but the soccer team, too. All of that worrying was for nothing. They’re awesome. To have that kind of support from all of them is amazing.

“It’s humbling. They humble me.

OK, I’ll willingly fess up right now. I’m crying my damn eyes out right alongside Scott, but I’ll just chalk up this sobfest — the second of this morning already — to hormones since I AM pregnant.

Coach Thomas, on the other hand, manages to maintain his composure. But only just.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys than these,” the older man starts off with an irritatingly oft-used coachism — y’know, the usual boring crap coaches blab to reporters that makes us want to rip our ears, eyes and hair out, but not always necessarily in the same order — as he commences to tackle my multifaceted questions. “My coaching staff and I want to see these young men succeed in every aspect of their lives, but the cohesiveness they continue to demonstrate is second to none. It is literally one for all, all for one. They’re family — brothers, as Scott told you — and no one is ever going to break those family ties.

“They work together, play together, win together, and yes, sometimes even lose together. But it’s so much more than that with the most incredible, refreshing group of young men I’ve ever coached, even dating back to the days when I was an assistant. They’ve developed the close relationships they have now because they have to trust each other in order to be successful as a team  — always — whether it be to execute a play exactly as we’ve drawn it up on the chalkboard by practicing it over and over again every single day or to turn a busted play into a positive on little more than blind faith, sheer determination and a little bit of luck during a game in which there are no do-overs … with lots of people watching, no less. But there’s no finger-pointing either way; it’s just on to the next play with no mention of shoulda, coulda, wouldas.

“So when Scott told them, none of them went running for the hills screaming at the top of their lungs like he was some kind of pariah. They just all pulled together around him — like they’ve always done with each other — and accepted him for the man he is, the brother he is and always will be to them with no ifs, ands or buts. In all of my years, I’ve never seen anything like it. I couldn’t be more proud, more blessed, more humbled by their unconditional love for one another. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

I hope everyone embraces him as his teammates have, but assholes always have a way of showing their, well, y’know.

Asses.

Hence the name.

“As for Scott’s coming out possibly posing a distraction to the team, you already know the answer to that: No,” Coach Thomas adds. “A definitive NO. Nor do I believe any opposing players, coaches and fans will do or say anything to harm anyone because I know — and they know — that they are above that kind of behavior. Sure, we expect that there will be people who don’t approve or aren’t as tolerant or whatever the case, but they’re entitled to their own opinions — just like everybody else. But I don’t anticipate any problems on or off the field because I know EVERYBODY will conduct themselves accordingly out of respect for each other, our strict school policies and, of course, the law, itself.”

Tou-fucking-ché.

Taking the high road instead of stooping down to the low level of assholery that unfortunately inhabits every continent of our world.

I like that.

So will Mandy Jo, once I tell her every detail of our interview while sneaking in tidbits about Coach Thomas here and there.

It’s a good plan.

Who am I kidding?! It’s a fucking GREAT plan!

“Anything you want to add to that, Scott?” I inquire.

“Nope,” he responds. “I think Coach Thomas about covered it.”

So do I.

I incline my head at them.

Whew.

It’s a relief to get the elephant out of the room.

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