The fuss over who will be the first openly gay male U.S. professional athlete may take an unexpected turn this year as a little-known standout college team kicker from Florida, who happens to be gay, is eying his shot at the majors.
Alan Gendreau made a name for himself as Middle Tennessee State's kicker, finishing a record-breaking career in 2012 as the all-time leading scorer in Sun Belt Conference history with 295 points. Now Gendreau's quest to take his football career to the next level as an NFL kicker is becoming part of the larger picture of the acceptance of gay men in American sports.
"The whole culture has shifted. Sports are way behind," Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, told ABCNews.com. "But the NFL is about winning. It's not about whether you're gay or straight."
Zeigler, who featured Gendreau in an exclusive article and video released on his site Tuesday, originally spoke with the star athlete during his freshman year at MTSU, when he anonymously discussed being a lone out gay member on a college team. The then-teenage kicker was worried at the time about how his sexuality could hurt his chances of getting into the NFL. Zeigler said there was a risk that coming out publicly would be chancy. But that was then.
"Now, today, I can say yes, this is not going to hurt his chances," Zeigler said. "If some person doesn't like it that much, another person will like him because of it."
Many thought for years that the first out pro player would be a familiar name. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken supporter of gay rights, even said earlier this month that "there are up to four players being talked to right now and they're trying to be organized so they can come out on the same day together."
Gendreau grew up in Apopka, Fla. and came out as gay to his friends and family at 16. A devout Christian who says he keeps a Bible by his bed, he told Outsports.com that he was sent to church-based counseling by his parents, but that it only lasted four sessions. He knew who he was. He says he still regularly attends church on Sunday. The 23-year-old is about a month away from being in peak shape for a tryout.
"Right now, looking back when I'm 40, I can't say I gave it my best shot," Gendreau told Outsports.com. "I can't say I really tried to make it into the NFL. Last year I did it half-assed. If I don't give it everything I have now, I'll regret it for the rest of my life."
Now, as he trains vigorously for his shot at the majors, Gendreau, whose rough senior season only saw a 60 percent connection on field goal attempts, and left him undrafted, is focusing on his opportunity to launch a career. Being a role model may have to follow that.
"He has a real opportunity to break through, and he's going to do that by being a huge success on the field," his representative Howard Bragman told ABCNews.com.
Bragman said Gendreau's sexuality is not what defines him.
"Alan would love nothing more than to play in the NFL, and he would tell you that his sexuality is something he's proud of, as much as anyone is proud of their sexuality," Bragman said. "He defines himself as a good man, a Christian, an athlete. He has a lot of ways he defines himself. He's a well-rounded guy who happens to be gay."
Not that Gendreau is naïve about the attention he is receiving, and the role he would play as the first openly gay player, according to Bragman. But his focus is on getting there.
"His eyes are on the prize, and the prize is getting into the NFL," he said.
That prize could mean major money for whichever team takes him on. As the first openly gay player in the NFL, Gendreau's brand could create a splash for a big-league team.
"There are a lot of people in our country, that are young or old, that are looking for someone like Alan to smile about and be proud of," Zeigler said. "There is money to be made off Alan -- or any gay athlete.
"Whatever team signs him, they'll gain millions. Every poll shows you where this country sits on this issue. Jersey sales, ticket sales, people are going to spend their money. People say, 'whatever team you end up on, I'll be the first to buy your jersey,'" he said.
It was only a few years ago that the general feeling around the NFL was that a gay player would be shunned.
"Now we're talking something entirely different -- that if someone were to come out, they'd make millions," Bragman said. "They always said if someone came out, it would be disruptive. A week before the Super Bowl, the story was that homophobia was what was being disruptive."
Bragman refers to the controversial comment by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver on a radio show in January. During a Super Bowl media day interview, Culliver said: ''Ain't got no gay people on the team. They've got to get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff ... Can't be ... in the locker room, nah,'' he said. ''You've got to come out 10 years later after that.''
Culiver later apologized for the remarks.
Pablo Torre, a senior writer at ESPN, told ABCNews.com said that in some regions of the U.S. a gay player would be widely accepted, but in others, he might still cause commotion.
"It's not a non-factor," he said. "There are still some areas, vestibules of suspicion, cultural beliefs, that makes sports the fortress against being out and gay at this time. I don't think we're there all the way, we've made strides, and with every passing year get closer."
Gendreau's chances as the first openly gay man in the NFL may be buoyed by his position as kicker, which as Zeigler says "plays to a stereotype," as the kicker is rarely subjected to brute contact on the field. Bragman agrees.
"It's probably the most protected position on the team, in terms of getting the tar beat out of you," he said. "If it were a running back, people could take cheap shots, people say. I think as a kicker it's probably a little better, in some ways. "
Until his number comes up, Gendreau will be spending his off season on his presentation, working out, and getting into the best shape of his life. He will need to be ready for the next steps: team workouts, training camp, and organized team activities. All of this must come before any potential role as a pioneer.
"To me this is a football story now," Zeigler said. "He's openly gay. Alan has to bust his butt, and get noticed for his football skills. Everything about the locker room is secondary … All the coach cares about is winning football."
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