An Athlete’s Life in the Closet: One Tar Heel’s Tale
What follows is the personal testimonial of Stephen Bickford, who was 2004 NSCAA/Adidas National High School Player of the Year, United States U-18 player, and University of North Carolina Forward, all while living the life of a young man in the closet. — Chris
In high school, I was fortunate enough to have been a part of one of the greatest youth teams in the country at the time, the ’86 CASL Elite. As a team we won the NCYSA State Championship every single year from U-14 through U-19 and were a force to be reckoned with on the national stage, winning multiple showcase tournaments all over the country.
From my first touch of a ball at 6 years old, I had a rare gift for an American soccer player. I scored goals…lots of goals. Any time I got the ball in the attacking third of the field I was confident that I was going to put the ball in the back of my opponents net, and I did, hundreds and hundreds of times. Scoring goals was my job, and it was also my favorite thing to do on this earth. Fortunately for me, the team I had playing behind me made my job a whole lot easier than it could have been, and I have to give them credit for getting me the ball as much as they did. One would think that my life couldn’t have been happier: playing for a fantastic team, winning trophies and scoring goals at will. What could I possibly be unhappy about? Well, I knew I was gay.
Being gay and playing a team sport can be incredibly frightening. You live in constant fear of having your teammates find out your secret, and in constant terror of what the consequences will be. All I wanted to do in life was play soccer. It had been my dream ever since I was 6 years old. I identified myself as a soccer player well before I knew I was gay. In a team sport, you rely on your teammates in order for you as an individual to be successful. If my teammates knew I was gay, I was sure that I’d be treated differently, and it could possibly jeopardize my success in the game.
And what would my coach think? Would he not play me because I’m gay? Would I be cut from the team? These thoughts were almost unbearable. It’s a weight on an athlete’s shoulders that nobody should have to experience, but it happens every day to thousands of closeted athletes playing team sports all over the world. Through it all, in my mind it came down to this: If I wanted to be able to realize my dream of being a professional soccer player, I was going to have to hide a part of who I am as a person. I believed that living in pain for years and years was necessary in order to be able to do the one thing I loved more than anything else in life.
Nobody should ever have to make this sort of decision, let alone a teenager having to go through all the other challenges that come with being that age. It isn’t fair, but it’s part of life. Society hadn’t evolved to a point where a gay athlete could be out without being shunned for it. Life was just plain scary. Living in fear is no way to live, no matter what it is that you’re afraid of. This fear also limited my social interaction with friends and teammates off the field. I didn’t attend parties and I didn’t hang out with the guys off the field because I simply didn’t fit in. I felt uncomfortable in social situations because I was different, and I didn’t want anybody to find out my secret.
However, this fear also drove me. I needed to become the best. If I was the best, then if I was outed, it wouldn’t matter that I was gay, right? Looking back, I suppose that was just positive thinking, and I’m not sure I quite believed myself. Fortunately, soccer was going well for me, and at the time that’s what mattered most. I could suffer my sexuality as long as soccer was going well, and all through high school, it did. I couldn’t stop scoring goals, and by my high school senior year I was voted the Adidas/NSCAA National Player of the Year. Despite my unhappiness, soccer was going great. I could live with that.
Then came college. I graduated from high school a semester early in order to start college in January at the University of North Carolina and try to get a head start with the college soccer experience. I had a fantastic spring semester, and lead the team in goals for the spring season. When fall came I was very optimistic with the upcoming season and managed to score a goal in the first game of the year. Little did I know, it would be my last of the season.
Nothing at all seemed to be going right. I was putting my heart and soul into training, but I wasn’t getting any playing time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was beginning a slow descent into serious depression.
I just assumed that I was unhappy because I wasn’t playing, but I also started having problems staying healthy. It seemed like I was either injured or sick, and both kept me from playing as well as I thought I could, so it was seriously taking a toll on my mind. Plus, I was incredibly lonely. Most people have a lot of fun dating in college, but trying to date somebody while being in the closet was beyond difficult. I wasn’t at 100% for the majority of the season, my performance was suffering, and I was losing confidence fast. I had gone from the top of the high school world to being a sick, injured bench warmer in an instant. The one thing in my life that I had that made me happy was now making me more and more depressed.
It was a vicious downward spiral, culminating with the coach putting me in at the last minute in the ACC Championship final match. The game went to penalties. I stepped up to the spot, struck the ball, and the keeper saved it. We lost.
I felt trapped on all fronts. Soccer wasn’t good, and it certainly wasn’t my sanctuary anymore. Although I had started a relationship, it was suffering too. I had to keep it a secret, and having to hide everything all the time was eating away at me non-stop. I was now sucked deep into the cesspool of depression, and I ended up having a panic attack during final exams. Fortunately, our amazing team doctor put me on an anti-depressant that was able to help balance my mood without affecting other parts of my life. The following spring season was spent talking to the sports psychologist, and trying to get my head right for the next fall season. Being able to talk to somebody about being a gay athlete, and the struggles that came with it really helped, and by preseason I was off my meds and raring to go.
It was my second year of college soccer, and I was determined to prove I wasn’t a total flop. During preseason I was playing some of the best soccer of my life. As with the year before, I scored the winning goal in our season opener and I was flying high. I had confidence again, and I had also started dating another closeted gay athlete. Things appeared to be going well on and off the field and I felt on top of the world. Unfortunately, it would all come crashing down.
Although I thought I was doing well on the field, the coach chose to play others ahead of me. I didn’t know why I was being punished for playing well, and my mind began to race. Did the coach know something? Did my teammates know something and tell the coach they didn’t want to play with me? I didn’t understand what was going on, and I was truly afraid. Things just weren’t adding up in my mind, the coach wasn’t offering any insight and I was too scared to ask.
Things grew to a boiling point near the end of the regular season. We were tied 1-1 against VCU and I was subbed into the match. I scored and had an assist to help us run out as 3-1 winners and I was ecstatic — surely if I performed like this then I’d be rewarded with more playing time! However, our next game was against UVA, at home, on national television and I didn’t play a single minute. It didn’t make any sense. Something was wrong. All season I was healthy, playing well (when I played), and posting the same stats in less minutes as other players that played four times as long as I was. What was going on? I felt that I had proved myself on the field, and even my teammates expressed their support for me. It really meant the world that they were on my side, but I was afraid they wouldn’t be if they knew my secret. It was still an issue that caused great inner turmoil for me.
The season ended short once again and after having a great year on paper, I wasn’t happy that I wasn’t playing. I gutted it out in spring training, but my relationship abruptly ended after the two of us were almost discovered. He had been the only person I was able to fully be myself around, and the only person I was fully comfortable with. Losing him was one of the hardest things I’ve had to face in my entire life, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it. Shortly afterwards I became sick with a mono-like illness (which in hindsight was likely exacerbated by severe depression) and wasn’t unable to function, let alone play, for the next 2 months. I met with the coach and he indicated that he was planning to redshirt me the next year. If I wanted to play, I needed to move on. So I transferred. I was excited to start a new life in a new city. A fresh start.
I moved to Denver, which is an awesome place, and I was really excited about the upcoming season, the coaching staff, and the players I’d be working with. I wanted to get my soccer career back on track, and thought this was just what I needed. Unfortunately things couldn’t have gone worse. The first week of I arrived I got horrible altitude sickness and was sidelined for several days. The second week I injured my collarbone after colliding with a teammate during training. The third week, a few of us got food poisoning from a team meal. I tried to stay positive and was determined to play on. Finally, I was deemed fit to play in our next match, a match in which the opposing goalkeeper dislocated my ankle. When it rained, it poured.
The depression rolled over me like a tidal wave worse than ever and I was completely unable to function. I couldn’t get out of bed to go to class, so I withdrew from school. College soccer seemed like nothing but sadness and disappointment. Soccer was definitely no longer my sanctuary, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue playing at all. Injured, depressed, and living a lie having to keep my sexuality a secret, I felt like the world was against me. All I had wanted was to be able to be myself without being judged, and without losing support from my teammates and coaches. I knew that society hadn’t progressed that far — I wouldn’t be able to be myself.
For years I struggled to figure out who I am. For as long as I could remember, I had always thought of myself as a soccer player. I still had soccer dreams and ambitions, but I couldn’t see a way to play and to be true to my sexuality. So I withdrew from the sport for a while. It would be years before I was finally able to be comfortable with my sexuality without worrying what others thought about it. Even now, I’m still a little bit afraid of what the consequences of coming out might be. Our society is a little more tolerant, but still not fully accepting, of homosexuality, and sport lags well behind.
I write this now in hopes that it can inspire change within the game, even if it’s only the slightest bit. We need to practice tolerance while striving for acceptance to rid the game of hatred. Homophobia, racism and other forms of hate have no place in sport. It’s time that we take a stand for the rights of all people, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race or any other thing that makes them different than what’s “normal” or most widely accepted. When it comes down to it, we’re all human beings and we should all be treated the same. It’s not fair for anybody to have to live their lives in fear of being persecuted for who they are, over something they cannot control. It’s time that we banish hatred from sport and let someone’s skill speak for them, and nothing else.
You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @sbickford10. He will continue to be a contributor to gay4soccer.com.