There has been a steady flow of college athletes coming out of the closet over the last 10 years who have shared their life experiences. Their journeys have been widely documented and their stories will always remain as an inspiration for LGBT youth who are looking for role models.
A surprisingly small number of those same athletes have become athletes that advocate for social change. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of work and sometimes it takes a spark to realize the impact that a story could have on creating awareness.
Eight years after a career-ending spinal fusion knocked Eric Lueshen out of his sports career, he was close to wrapping up his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Because his sports story was a “what could have been” story, Lueshen faded from the sports scene and avoided athletes and sports news for years.
In 2014, another athlete’s coming out story lit a spark that prompted Lueshen to share his own experiences. Earning his Ph.D. was postponed and a new journey began – one that came from the heart.
Eric Lueshen was an openly gay, NCAA Division I place kicker at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 2003-2006. His life up until that point had been defined by sports.
Born in Pierce, Neb., sports were always his solace. Gifted at football, baseball, basketball, soccer, track and wrestling, he was well known throughout the small farm communities in his area. He spent seven years on an Olympic development team for soccer and there wasn’t anywhere to hide in an area where everyone knows everyone – Lueshen came out in his junior year of high school.
“The bullying I received wasn’t in sports and I felt safe playing. I had the talent and ability to shut it down,” says Lueshen. “When I was recruited by Nebraska, I didn’t know of any other gay athletes. I put my body through a lot because I couldn’t show weakness to anyone.”
He felt the flickering of what it felt like to “give back” during his sports years at Nebraska through his interactions as a gay athlete – touching the hearts and minds of people who had never interacted with a member of the LGBT community.
“After I could no longer play sports, I started visiting hospitals and afterschool programs,” Lueshen says. “That filled a place in my heart where I didn’t even know there was a void.”
After his story went viral in 2014, Lueshen made the decision to put his education on hold and begun advocating for the LGBT sports community. His decision was reinforced by a visit to Heartland Pride where he was approached by youth that had been touched by his story. His father was there that day and after witnessing the exchanges said, “you need to do this.”
“I really felt like I needed to pursue what the universe was telling me to do,” says Lueshen. “I realized that my purpose on this planet is to serve and help others and that I am supposed to be doing this.”
Lueshen began motivational speaking and diversity consulting on multiple topics such as LGBTQ inclusion, sports, authentic living, anti-bullying and masculinity. He completed his Ph.D. in 2015 and the following year he co-founded LGBT SportSafe with Nevin Caple.
LGBT SportSafe creates an infrastructure for athletic administrators, coaches, recreational sports leaders and professional sports leagues and teams to support LGBTQ inclusion. The program uses a new benchmarking algorithm, the 3-Peat Model, to help athletic leadership address the importance of inclusive programming, policies and public awareness initiatives while offering incentives to institutions and professional sports leagues and teams that reach inclusion goals.
They launched with three universities on board – Nebraska, Northwestern and Oregon. They now have more than 30 full members in the program.
“We are examining what the needs are around LGBT inclusion in sports,” Lueshen says, “and trying to find out what’s missing in the current programming. It’s important to translate the fears of the older generation into acceptance.”
Lueshen’s return to the sports community raises the question of what has become of his own competitive urges. After suffering from chronic back pain for years, he found ways to stay physically active with help from a low inflammation diet and controlling his stress levels.
“I am a competitive athlete and I want to compete,” says Lueshen. “It took me a while to realize I can do these things. I just have to do them differently.”
He started with a 5K run and has since added both indoor and outdoor volleyball at a high level. He has hopes of competing at the Gay Games in Paris in 2018.
As for LGBT SportSafe, an upcoming goal is for expansion beyond collegiate, professional and recreational sports to include high school and municipal sports.
“The future is bright and it all starts with a conversation,” Lueshen says. “I hope to be driven out of a job at some point.”