From 2003 to 2006, Eric Lueshen played for the University of Nebraska under head coach Bill Callahan, now the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator
Eric Lueshen walked into his Chicago apartment a few days ago, and his roommate asked him, “Did you see that thing about Michael Sam?”
Lueshen didn’t know what his roommate was talking about, so he logged onto Facebook and read the news that was captivating the country. Sam, a University of Missouri defensive lineman, first-team All-American, Missouri’s most valuable player and a likely NFL draft choice, had come out.
“I saw that HRC had posted an ad about it, so I read that and did a little Google search,” Lueshen said. “I shared that HRC status on my Facebook page, congratulating Michael and how cool I thought it was that he came out.”
“This is great news and I am very happy for him,” Lueshen wrote. “I was an openly gay football player from 2003-2006 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, although my career wasn’t as glamorous due to reasons such as a back surgery.”
More than a decade before Sam came out, after his college football career was over, Lueshen had been out — while playing football for another powerhouse university. But the media didn’t swing its spotlights on Lueshen and make him a household name, as they have Sam.
“Maybe the culture wasn’t ready at that time,” Lueshen said about the absence of media coverage of an out college football player. “Maybe we weren’t ready at that time to have a story about being out and playing football.”
There was talk about him, although the broadcast and print journalists never mentioned his name as a gay football player at Nebraska.
“I do know that when I was a freshman or sophomore, I can’t remember which,” Lueshen said, “my dad called me and said, ‘You’ll never guess what I heard. In Lincoln, they’re talking about whether Nebraska is ready for an openly gay football player. Your name was never mentioned, though.’”
And to this day, it hasn’t been.
Lueshen grew up in Pierce, a town of about 1,700 in Northeast Nebraska, and when he was 17 he did something most young people in a rural conservative town wouldn’t have the courage to do — he came out.
“My mom was amazing,” he said. “She accepted me and said she had always known. My dad was very homophobic at the time, and we had a rocky relationship, but he has completely changed and is very supportive now. There’s not even an ounce of homophobia in him now.”
In high school, Lueshen excelled in football and track, but there had been rough years before that. He had been picked on for being gay, years before he had even begun to deal with the issue. Fortitude, a trait he says he inherited from his mother and grandmother, not only got him through those difficulties, it shored up a backbone that was already strong.
“I never thought I wished I wasn’t gay,” he said. “I was happy with who I was and comfortable in my skin. I know it’s cliché, but it is true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The hardships only made me stronger.”
Lueshen needed that strength at the University of Nebraska. He had an academic scholarship, not an athletic one. The coaches who had recruited him were forced into retirement, and the scholarship talks went with them. Lueshen entered Nebraska’s football program as a walk-on, shouldering not only the burden of proving himself as a kicker but doing it as an out gay man.
“I wasn’t going to jump in the closet in college,” he said. “I’m not the type of person to parade around with rainbow flags, but if someone asks me if I’m gay, I’m going to say yes.”
And he was asked.
“I’d see the guys talk and whisper, and I assumed they were talking about me. Then one day I was eating with a couple of my teammates, and they didn’t have a filter. They said, ‘So, pretty boy. Are you gay?’ I looked up and smiled at them and said, ‘Yeah. Is there a problem?’
They said, ‘No. Just wanted to check.’ They were two of the most popular guys, and the word got out through them. But because they accepted me, pretty much everyone else did, too.”
Those who accepted him included head coach Bill Callahan who today is the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.
“He was really nice to me,” Lueshen said. “When my college football career was over because of back surgery, and I had to tell him, I was choking up, and so was he. He was very supportive of me.” Callahan didn’t respond to requests for an interview by press time.
Some of the coaches, though, didn’t share Callahan’s open mind, and a few of them made it difficult for Lueshen on the field.
“That only made me more motivated to work my ass off,” Lueshen said. “I was in the position not only to prove myself as a walk-on but being openly gay. I set out to prove those coaches wrong. I’d work my butt off in the weight room. I would show them I deserved a chance to play.”
For two seasons, Lueshen did work his “ass off,” and he was noticed. In 2005, he was one of the favorites for a starting position.
“But then during the spring, I was accidently roughed by a teammate during a field goal. I was out for about 14 practices with a damaged hamstring. They wrote me off and replaced me. Right after that season I had a spinal fusion.”
Because of those injuries, Lueshen didn’t get to show the scoffing coaches, or the world, how much he had honed his athletic abilities. But he did something more powerful. He changed the mental landscape at the University of Nebraska.
“I opened up so many minds and saw so many people change,” he said. “I admit that sometimes it is hard to watch the NFL and see some of my teammates playing and thinking that could be me, but my life took another path, and that’s OK. There were a lot of positive outcomes from being openly gay and changing people’s lives.”
But the memories of those days linger, one of them still intense after 13 years. While in high school, Lueshen attended a kicking camp where kickers from the Division I schools were assisting. Among those who were coaching the hopefuls was Jan Stenerud, the only placekicker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Jan came over to me” Lueshen said, “put his Hall of Fame ring on my finger and said, ‘You will have one of these one day.’ I still get chocked up when I remember that.”
When asked about the comments from NFL players who said they would feel uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate, Lueshen said those statements “are ignorant.”
“I had the same question asked when I was at Nebraska,” he said. “I would say, ‘I’m here to get clean. There’s nothing sexual about this.
We’re a family. You’re going through hell in the trenches of the workouts. You become so close as a family, why would you want to jeopardize that by doing something stupid in the locker room?”
Today, Lueshen is completing his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and he hopes his story and Sam’s story will instill courage in other people.
“I’m sure there are others who have similar stories of being an openly gay college football player,” he wrote on Facebook, “however their stories (like mine) were never publicized … which really doesn’t bother me at all. I was just being me.
“Hopefully more gay college football players (and other collegiate athletes) will take this example and have enough pride and courage to come out themselves.”
To the people who are fearful of coming out, Lueshen says, “Life is so much happier on the other side of fear. Never be ashamed of who you are. Live life as 100 percent of your authentic self. There will be hardships no matter if you’re gay or straight. Don’t let that push you down the wrong path.”
Listen to Lueshen’s two interviews with Nebraska radio station KNTK through these links:
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 14, 2014.