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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Branden Blaettner thinks Michael Sam puts a masculine face on homosexuality.

Gay football player challenges notions

As NFL draft nears, some wonder if Sam will bust stereotypes

Kara Fultz is in favor of Sam breaking gay stereotypes.

– John Wiesel sat casually at a small, round table and swirled the ice in his drink as he talked football.

Six-foot-1 and thick-shouldered, with close-cropped hair, he says he used to play competitively; even tried out for the Denver Broncos before the hair started to gray around the edges.

But because he wasn’t big enough or fast enough, the Broncos told him thanks, but no, and his dream of playing in the National Football League had to be permanently put on the shelf. Now he’s a 9-to-5er in the corporate world.

He still loves football, though, and religiously follows the Broncos, which is now Peyton Manning’s team after Manning enjoyed more than a decade of success with the Indianapolis Colts.

As Wiesel fidgets with his drink, three other men sit at the long, dark bar and nurse their beers. The flat-screen television is on behind the bar, but no one is watching. The place’s lights are low. Outside the front door, a few people smoke cigarettes.

The bar is a popular spot for people who are gay.

Despite Wiesel’s personal affinity for the game, football has rarely been the topic of conversation with many of his friends in the bar. But for even non-fans – those who couldn’t recognize a corner blitz from a cover-two defense – the talk is picking up.

It was three months ago when Michael Sam, a 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive end from the University of Missouri, told the rest of the world what his teammates knew already: He is gay.

Since the Feb. 9 announcement, the story has popped in and out of the nation’s spotlight. When the NFL scouting combine was held in Indianapolis from Feb. 22 to 25, Sam conducted a lengthy news conference on the first day. Addressing the media from a podium, he said, “I just wish you guys would see me as a football player, not Michael Sam, a gay football player.”

But for now, just a few days away from the NFL player draft beginning Thursday, Sam’s plea may go unheeded, particularly when he has influenced so many within the LGBT community.

Fort Wayne included.

“I think it’s going to affect the sports people of the world,” Wiesel says. “You’ve got to think; this guy’s coming out as being a gay man. Are you kidding me? That’s cool. I’m happy for him. When you come out – even to your own family – that’s hard enough; coming out to the whole world, that’s a different story.”

And so the story of Michael Sam has made the rounds, even to those who rarely watched football.

Although he has the size of a football player, 6-foot-5 Branden Blaettner never played, never cared for the sport. And yet he dwarfs the small table where Wiesel sits.

“Fort Wayne, in general, doesn’t care what side of the bread you put your butter on,” Blaettner says. “So I think this will bring a lot more people (in) who aren’t as enlightened. It’ll bring more to the forefront of these are real people. It’ll put more of a face on it.

“Living in the Midwest, (when) you think ‘gay,’ you think drag queens; you think very effeminate men; you think swishes in the step and light in the loafers and the terms that are very Midwestern. But this puts a very masculine, definite face for the city of Fort Wayne.”

There was a time when high school basketball was the preferred sport in Fort Wayne, but football has made inroads.

Some say we’re a football town now, where young men thrive under the Friday night lights.

Kurt Tippmann has served as the head coach at Snider High School for the past five seasons and was an assistant for 13 years before that. That means a lot of young men have worn the black and gold. Some, Tippmann agrees, might have been gay athletes.

“I would not doubt for a minute that there have been students who fall into that category, but not anyone on the football team that professed it,” Tippmann says. “I will say this about our school: One of the reasons I enjoy working at this school is it is so diverse. Across any section that you think about – racially, financially, culturally, you name it – this school has it.”

The NFL offers no guarantees. Thirty teams will draft for their particular needs. Where Sam goes depends on who is looking for a defensive end. But the consensus of NFL draft experts is that he’ll go somewhere.

And when he does, he will be the first openly gay athlete who is active in the NFL.

“I think it’ll be interesting to see him going into his rookie season and how he’s treated,” says Kara Fultz, a local LGBT activist who plays football with the Indianapolis team of the Women’s Football League. “I think that will affect how a lot of people will take it – if he’s welcomed with open arms in the NFL. I think that will shed some light on how far the NFL has come.

“It’s good for people to see there’s not the stereotypes about gay men, and what they’re like – them being more effeminate and not athletic. That’s good for breaking down stereotype barriers and stereotypes that exist about gay men – that they can be strong and athletic.”

Adds Wiesel: “You watch people stereotype others, and it ain’t fair; it ain’t right. I used to be a football player, and I’d knock the (expletive) out of people. I’m not scared to hit somebody.”