Prizm News / November 2, 2017 / By Alison Lukan
Wyatt Pertuset has been openly gay since his high school days in Richwood, Ohio. Now his goal is to leave a mark on college football.
By Alison Lukan
Wyatt Pertuset has a dream. The sophomore wide receiver for the Capital University football team wants to score a touchdown while playing in an NCAA football game. It’s a dream a lot of collegiate athletes have, but for Pertuset, it means a little bit more.
If he can achieve his goal, he will be the first openly gay athlete to accomplish such a feat.
“I feel like if I hit that mark, it will open a lot of doors,” Pertuset says. He pauses, searching for the right words and fighting off emotion. “I really feel like (if I score), the bottom line is that we can stop being underestimated. People will realize just because (someone is) gay doesn’t mean they can’t play.”
Pertuset has loved football since he was in the second grade. It was his outlet to deal with the stress of day-to-day life. If something was bothering him, football helped clear his head.
“I had a group of friends before I came to Capital and I told them I wasn’t going to say anything. They said, ‘That’s cool, but don’t hide yourself.’”
– Wyatt Pertuset
And it was around that time that he came to understand his sexuality. He knew who he was, of course, but as he started to hear and comprehend the word gay, it gave name to his identity.
“I started to figure out what gay meant,” Pertuset says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually categorized as that.’ From there it kept reassuring me that is what I was.”
But with the comfort of understanding, there also came ripples of uneasiness.
His hometown of Richwood, Ohio, is a village of about 2,300 in Union County, 50 miles northwest of Columbus and 15 miles southwest of Marion. It’s a place that, like many small Ohio towns, hasn’t had a lot of exposure to the LGBTQ community. As Pertuset describes Richwood, it’s a rural town with long-standing roots in traditionally Christian beliefs, where his family works as farmers.
Before he could share who he was with those closest to him, he had to undergo some significant self-examination.
“It put pressure on me,” Pertuset says. “If I (come out), will I be accepted? Will I still be my parents’ son? Will I still be around them? I realized that I had to, one, make sure that I was ready to be on my own if need be and, two, I needed to be around the people that are accepting of it.”
And so, well into his junior year at North Union High School, Pertuset kept his sexual orientation hidden to all but a few people. His best friend knew, as did a trusted confidant and former teacher.
But it was at a dinner at that teacher’s home where Pertuset’s identity was inadvertently shared with another teacher. Eventually, the information spread through the teaching community in Richwood, and it ultimately would reach the student body.
One of the teachers who found out was the mother of Pertuset’s best friend, a lesbian classmate who also hadn’t come out to her family or other friends. Her mom was upset, but only because she had to hear the news from another teacher, Pertuset says.
“I realized I have to tell my mom because she’ll want to hear it from me, not from somebody else. I told my mom and she helped me tell the rest of my family.”
For the most part, the young football player’s family was accepting. A few uncles made jokes, but Pertuset would joke right back; he says that was his way to drive their understanding. Only his father had trouble with the news.
“I’m his only son and he had problems with having had so many expectations for me,” Pertuset says. “With his mindset of how gay people are, he probably thought, ‘Oh shoot, there goes all of what I thought he could be down the drain.’”
But acceptance came in far more places than the then-17-year-old expected.
As word of Pertuset’s sexual orientation spread through his school, he came out first to his coaches and then to his teammates. It was hard—after all, these were the same teammates he had heard telling gay jokes—but their reaction was different when the gay person was someone they knew.
“They didn’t care because they knew I could still play,” Pertuset says. “They knew it didn’t affect my ability on the field.”
And that was the same lesson Pertuset taught others as he put up multiple points against opposing teams. The jokes lessened and respect grew. Pertuset also leveraged his standing as an athlete to challenge people off the playing field who disparaged members of the LGBTQ community.
“Pick on someone your own size” is an easy redirect for a 6-foot-1, 210-pound football player.
Pertuset was named homecoming king, and with that confidence and sense of support, he prepared to head to Capital University in the Columbus suburb of Bexley to begin his college career both as a student and as an athlete. But he wasn’t so sure he wanted to wear the badge of “openly gay football player.” He really just wanted to be Wyatt.
“I had a group of friends before I came to Capital and I told them I wasn’t going to say anything,” Pertuset says. “They said, ‘That’s cool, but don’t hide yourself.’”
And so that was what Pertuset did. People came to know he was gay; he came out to friends individually. He found it easy to share who he is—all of whom he is—besides being a gay man.
By all accounts, who Pertuset is, is a pretty spectacular human.
“I think the more examples (of openly gay athletes) that are out there…the more people realize that this is how life is. … That can stretch and broaden some people’s views on some things.”
– Chad Rogosheske,
Capital University Football Coach
Mike Clark has been his college roommate and football teammate for two years. Ask him to describe someone he considers “one of the best friends I’ve ever had” and he tells you about a guy who drove him three hours each way to get home for spring break. He tells you about someone who’s just “a great kid.”
“He’s one of the most compassionate guys. He goes out of his way to help somebody,” Clark says. “Sports is a very hard thing to be different in. I’m very proud of him for how he’s handled (coming out). Someone with his personality, it works very well because he doesn’t care what other people think. He’s very happy with who he is; I’m very proud of him for that.”
Clark’s attitude mirrors the perspective of other teammates. When Capital Coach Chad Rogosheske came to know Pertuset was gay, he was on the lookout for any negative reaction. As someone who had a gay teammate when he played college football in 1997, Rogosheske says he was proud to see his team react in the right way.
“From my perspective, maybe we’re making progress in what football players are and how they think,” Rogosheske says. “I understand we are flawed in ways, but I do think that (what people may expect in a stereotypical football culture) was not the case with Wyatt. Maybe that’s a positive reflection on where we’re at as male athletes in this day and age.”
Rogosheske can go on and on about Pertuset. Everything a coach wants a player to be, he is. Hard-working, dedicated and open to feedback, Pertuset stepped in as the team’s punter last year. And while a leg injury ended this season early, Pertuset is still at every team meeting and every practice, contributing however he can.
With all the adjectives the coach can use to praise the player, he’s even more proud of what Pertuset’s openness means for people in any sport.
“The gay community has an outstanding role model,” Rogosheske says. “I think the more examples (of openly gay athletes) that are out there, the more instances where it occurs, the more people realize that this is how life is. This is the world, this is what’s going on. That can stretch and broaden some people’s views on some things.”
The charismatic Pertuset isn’t just changing the Capital universe, he’s got his sights set on even bigger goals. While that touchdown will have to wait until he returns from injury, his relationship with his father is mending slowly and when college is done, the sophomore already knows what he wants to do next.
“After Capital, I want to get my master’s in counseling and then I want to get back into sports and get my Ph.D. in sports psychology,” Pertuset says. “I want to try to get into the NFL and help out players who may be coming out.”
“I have multiple examples of people today who said how terrifying it was to be gay in the NFL, so if I can help anyone like that, or anyone with any problems that they are facing in the NFL, that would be amazing for me.”
It will be amazing, indeed.
Alison Lukan is a freelance writer.