I've always considered myself a solid C+ athlete...maybe B- in my prime.
My prime was definitely in high school when I played basketball and football. I played baseball when I was younger, but I swore off all sports with sticks sometime in my teens. Baseball, golf, tennis—I've never been good at swatting things.
I graduated with 26 kids so our school in Florence, Alabama, was very small. I started playing football in tenth grade. I don't think we had a tryout...the tryout was you being a male and having a pulse. At our school we played 8-man football in a small private school league, and we had 12 guys on the team that year. I had never played football before, but it seemed fun. Plus, this was small-town Alabama, and football was a very very big deal. So I went for it.
Our school couldn't afford a football field, so we practiced on a little plot of rented land about a mile down Cloverdale Road.
The lot was filled with weeds that came eye-level, and it sat next to a creek. The snakes and mosquitoes had been there for the last thousand years so they didn't give it up easily. About once a week, Coach Trimble had to go clear the land with a bush-hog.
After school, all 12 of us would jump into the back of his old grey rusted-out Chevy, and he'd drive us to practice. We called it "the grass-patch," and, to this day, I get nostalgic thinking about it. That's where I learned how to tackle and catch and throw a perfect spiral. I could throw it pretty far for a kid with twig-arms. I felt like I became a man on that little grass-patch.
Our head coach was this guy named Tandy Gerelds, and he was what you'd expect—short & stocky, big thick glasses, visor, knee-high socks. His skin was dark and leathery from being outside his whole life.
Coach was a legend in the state of Alabama, because he'd won a couple of state championships. In 2015, Hollywood made a movie about him called Woodlawn.
Coach Gerelds had come out of retirement to coach us. Previously, he'd worked with elite athletes at gigantic public schools with multi-million dollar stadiums. His players had gone on to play at places like Alabama and Auburn. His retirement must have sucked to make him want to come coach a dozen little white lumps. We were the type of kids more accustomed to having an NES controller in our hands than a pigskin.
But now, the legendary Coach Gerelds had the "dirty dozen." That's what they called us. I think one of our moms gave us that nickname because she thought it was cute.
But coach didn't mind being at a little school like ours. The expectations and pressure were much lower. He said he wanted to get back into coaching so he could, "Impact young men for Jesus." He reminded us of that often.
Coach Gerelds was a very good man, and I know he impacted number 81.
I was tall and skinny, so I played tight end and defensive end.
Our first two years, we were pretty bad, but my senior year we went 7-2. I had four TD's and four interceptions. My dad was very proud of me and was at every game. The disease started taking his voice around '98 so he couldn't cheer for me, but I knew he would if he could.
I was a better basketball player than football player, and we actually had a very good basketball team.
I was the starting center and was just a demon on the boards...had 18 rebounds in my best game.
Like football, dad was in the stands for every game. He was a very good basketball player in high school, so I think he was reliving the good 'ol days through me.
Of course, like all 6 foot-ish tall white males in high school, I was obsessed with one thing: dunking.
Back then, I would have given a kidney, two pinkies, and a 20 point reduction in my IQ if it meant I could dunk a basketball. I even bought a pair of Strength Shoes from the Eastbay catalog. The magazine ads for these $100 shoes promised everything short of actual flight. I'd put them on and sprint down the streets of our neighborhood, convinced that, over time, I'd develop trampoline legs. Those Strength Shoes guys probably made a billion dollars off gullible, desperate kids like me. Shockingly, they didn't work.
My best friend Tom, however, was a different story. He was our Lebron, and he had actual trampolines for legs.
Tom's problem was that he was way too humble and didn't want to be a showoff. This annoyed me badly. However, during our senior year, he let himself go.
In one of our final games of our final tournaments, I picked off an inbound pass and dished it to Tom who took a drop step and slammed it home. He got a technical foul for hanging on the rim, but no one cared—this was the first dunk in the history of our school, and the crowd absolutely lost their minds in joy.
Here's a grainy video of the incident. I'm #10, Tom's #12...
In the south, playing sports is one of the easiest ways to prove your manly worth.
Well...that, and not being in the band. Eating lots of barbecue and hunting are bonus points, but the band and sports thing is usually enough to earn you a shiny southern MAN BADGE that lets everyone know, "I'M GOOD. I'm a bro. I'm one of you."
I worked hard for my badge.
The badge exempted you from potential ridicule and was a surefire way to not be viewed as "gay."
Back then, we called anything undesirable "gay."
I probably heard "That's so gay!" a million times growing up. I said it as well. Gay was our catchall term for anything we didn't like, anything outside of what was "normal"...
Weird shoes? Gay.
Sappy songs? Gay.
Graphic tees? Gay.
Nose rings? Gay.
Weird hairstyles? Gay.
Democrats? Liberals? Bill Clinton Supporters? Gay. Gay. Gay.
Southern teen males often use the word gay as a proxy for the word "bad." It was a 3-letter representation of the ultimate bad thing: gay people. Everyone knew that gay = bad.
Part of me wonders if I was running back then, running from the very faint idea that just maybe this badness was inside of me, like a crocodile—waiting—nestled deep in cold mud at the bottom of a lake.
Maybe sports was my attempt at misdirection—a front, a mask, a smokescreen. I don't know, really. I know I genuinely liked sports, and they were fun for me. I always felt very manly in high school, at least in the Southern traditional sense of the word. I didn't mind sweating or getting dirty. I've always liked being a man.
I also did a lot of leadership stuff in high school—student council, Honor Society, yearbook class.
People always called me a leader. And if people call you that long enough, you believe it. And once you believe it, you start doing it. So I led a lot of things.
In our culture, being a leader is another validation of manhood, so maybe that was also part of the running. Either way, I felt like a man back then. Still do, but for different reasons.
By high school, I had definitely begun to notice guys more.
I was aware of this but thought it was just a desire to be accepted. I swept the thoughts aside and redirected them towards some church, some Jesus, some sports, and some leadership stuff. Simple fix.
After all, the gays I'd seen on TV weren't manly men. They were all glittery, and that wasn't me. I was a dude—a bro—therefore, I wasn't gay. See Brett? Simple.
I graduated high school in May of 2000. Dad was pretty sick by then.
Because he was one of the founders of the school, he got to sit on stage. I gave a speech. I remember him being very proud. We took this picture...
The summer after graduating, I had the opportunity to go work at a big youth camp down at the beach. This was my first time to be gone from home for an extended period of time...a couple months.
The crocodile would get restless that summer, and it was when I first remember thinking, "Brett, something is wrong here. Something is very, very wrong..." 👊
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All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.