In 2013, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam made headlines when he came out as gay. Sam’s teammates were reportedly supportive, and he even ended up being selected in the NFL draft. But for a player to come out amid the macho trappings of big-time football was a big deal, even if other gay players had certainly taken the field without making their sexuality public.

“The Redshirt,” Corey Sobel’s deceptively breezy debut novel about life at an elite, bucolic Southern college, tells the story of one of those other players, the ones who deem it safest to stay in the closet.

All that Miles Furling ever really wanted to do was play football, to savor the collisions, to learn the playbook and leave his passion on the field. Viewing the sport as a means of cultural acceptance in the mainstream, he doesn’t ever consider doing a Sam and coming out to his team, despite having known his own sexual orientation as an adolescent in small-town Colorado.

Sobel, a former football player at Duke, doesn’t play much of the will-he-or-won’t-he game when it comes to Miles coming out. He’s more concerned with fleshing out Miles’ relationships and interactions with those in his collegiate orbit. They include Reshawn McCoy, a star recruit with dazzling talent and no interest in being a football star; Chase McGerrin, a lewd jock who doth protest too much about many things; and Thao, a sweet, sassy kid who becomes Miles’ first, very secret boyfriend.

Miles’ sexuality is always there, usually as something to keep hidden and separated from the rest of his life. Reshawn, Chase, Thao and everyone else function as reflections of Miles’ desires and frustrations, his uphill battle to create an authentic self.

Like other great football novels — “North Dallas Forty” comes to mind — “The Redshirt” doesn’t flinch from the double-edged sword dangling over the sport’s culture. On the one hand, the King College crew is crude, barbaric, small-minded and clannish. Then there’s the camaraderie, and the game itself: graceful, suspenseful, galvanizing and beautifully brutal. You can’t take one set of qualities without the other; this is the balancing act that Miles not only learns to master, but also learns to love.

“The Redshirt” feels lived in, from the profane locker room rituals to the practice drills Miles dissects and describes like his life depended on them. He applies his gimlet eye to everyday campus life, as well, particularly the demanding literature classes toward which Reshawn gravitates, one more sign of what his teammates see as his aloofness.

Reshawn makes for a compelling secondary character throughout the novel, a star athlete who busts stereotypes of race as deftly as Miles jukes expectations of sexuality.

I wish there were a little more of “The Redshirt,” which ends too soon for my taste. The characters and their conflicts are rich enough to warrant further exploration. But this is still a very strong debut novel that draws jagged, vivid links between sport and society.

 Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications.


The Redshirt

By: Corey Sobel.

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky, 328 pages, $29.95.