Shane Wickes was an all-state football player in high school and also captain of the varsity team his junior and senior years.
He went on to become one of the few football players in the history of McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada, to play for a top-tier college football program then he returned to McQueen as the youngest line coach in the history of the school.
That’s when Wickes tried to kill himself.
‘I was ready to kill myself because I thought even though this program was like a second family to me, I feared they would shun me. It was a crushing weight that I was carrying with me all of the time,’ he said last week during a TED talk at the University of Nevada-Reno.
It was during this talk that Wickes came out to the world and said he wants to make football a more welcoming place for gay players.
‘Football teaches so many great life lessons to those who play or coach: perseverance, toughness, respect, self-esteem,’ he says. ‘But the one negative thing that it does teach is that being gay is not okay. To be frank, the word faggot is used almost as much as the word football.’
His battle did not end after he graduated from high school and came out to select family and friends. As a closeted coach, he was gripped with fear and anxiety.
‘In the beginning I told myself: “You are gay and you will take it to the grave.” I’ve come a long way since … but the process almost cost me my life.’
Life in the closet
Wickes began coming out to family and friends starting in August 2014. But he was not out to everyone and that was stressful.
‘Only being part way out of the closet meant that I had to be two different people and always be very aware of where I was and whom I was with. It caused a constant state of panic and anxiety.’
He describes his partial closet as having ‘no space, no comfort, no freedom. It’s a suffocating lifestyle with measurable effects. It wore me down.’
Wickes began to drink too much and abusing prescription medication to keep his anxiety in check.
‘It was a a horrible time in my life,’ he says. ‘When you are put in the situation of having to live a double life it strips you of dignity and normal coping mechanisms.’
After months and months of sleep deprivation, severe anxiety, depression and a lack of the will to live began to catch up with him. He was desperate for a way out.
‘One night I reached for a bottle of vodka and a couple of pills. I didn’t see a way out and I just wanted it to be over. If I couldn’t be me and live my life, what was the point?’
His mom found him passed out on the bathroom floor and when he woke up the next morning he knew he really wasn’t ready to give up.
Wickes hopes that by telling his story he can help football evolve.
‘One day, being gay in football will be normal. But in order for that to happen, those of us who are gay need to stand up and own it.
‘When it comes to football, the social norm that we’ve created leaves many without hope … a healthy person cannot live life in the dark. If you’re out there, stand up and own it.’