Luke McAvoy knew he was gay in 2010, when he committed to the Gophers before his senior year of high school in Bloomington, Ill. The 6-5, 280-pound lineman shared the secret with his mother that fall. She urged him to keep it hidden, lest he give up his dream of playing college football.
McAvoy was devastated, but he heeded this advice for three-plus years. He kept his secret until former Missouri football star Michael Sam came out as gay in February 2014.
McAvoy came out that week to his closest friends on the Gophers team. Wednesday, he shared his story publicly for the first time with Outsports.com, becoming the first known Gophers football player, past or present, to be openly gay.
“Even now, I couldn’t name you more than seven gay athletes,” McAvoy said in a telephone interview. “And to help someone else have that name to tie it to — so they can see they’re not the only ones — that’s kind of what really pushed me to tell my story more publicly.”
McAvoy, 23, was on the Gophers roster from 2011 to 2014 but played only sparingly. These days, he works as a middle school teacher in Milwaukee, where his cellphone was brimming with supportive messages Wednesday.
Former Gophers punter Peter Mortell said he could tell his close friend had something serious on his mind three years ago. When McAvoy told him he was gay, Mortell replied, “I know, Luke. I know.”
“To see the relief on his face, and to see the weight lift off his shoulders, that’ll stick with me for the rest of my life,” Mortell said.
Mortell said several of McAvoy’s former teammates were surprised by Wednesday’s news.
“I worked out at the complex, and four or five guys came up to me and said, ‘Did you hear about Luke?’ ” Mortell said. “They were happy for him. Everybody was very accepting and proud of what he said.”
McAvoy told Outsport that until Sam came out, before the 2014 NFL Draft, “I don’t think I could name a single gay athlete. … I was not ready to come out publicly at the time and I don’t think the game would have accepted it. The fear that we felt consumed my thoughts each day.”
Only a handful of collegiate or professional football players have come out as gay. The list includes former Vikings defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, and former NFL lineman Kwame Harris.
Arizona State lineman Chip Sarafin came out as gay before his senior season in 2014. Princeton lineman Mason Darrow, a current junior, also came out in an article to Outsports last September.
Asked why he didn’t come out publicly while still playing, McAvoy said, “I wasn’t the face of the team. The attention shouldn’t be on me. It should be on the people who are out there performing and truly building the team.”
McAvoy told Outsports, “The relief of just two people knowing was incredible. I felt better than I ever had. … I won’t lie and say it was all perfect; some people did not take it well. However, the support, acceptance and love I felt outweighed all the negativity.
McAvoy added: “I have one regret from my time at Minnesota: I wish I came out sooner. The reality was so much better than I ever imagined. … I was surrounded by people who cared and supported me.”
Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill said he didn’t know McAvoy was gay until he read the article. Kill said what he remembers most about McAvoy’s time at the university was how well he represented the football team.
“Luke did a tremendous amount for our athletic department,” Kill said. “He was a great teammate. He’s a giving kid, and that’s why I think he’ll be a great teacher. I’m very proud of the success he’s having.”
While McAvoy played just six snaps for the Gophers, all against Iowa as a senior in 2014, he was an Academic All-Big Ten selection and was president of the Gophers student athlete advisory council.
“It didn’t surprise me one bit that Luke had the courage and the self-awareness to step out of the shadows and speak up,” said Matt Limegrover, the Gophers former offensive line coach. “He is honestly one of the most caring and giving young men I have ever coached.”
McAvoy said the support he’s received has been “phenomenal,” especially since his article was published.
“If I had one message to leave people, it’s that it does get better,” McAvoy said. “The fear, the angst you have, while you’re hiding it — that goes away. For me, I am so much happier now, at least in that aspect of my life, than I was three years ago.”