Former Maryland football player Akil Patterson, an openly… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
COLLEGE PARK — — For years, Akil Patterson wouldn't tell the world who he really was: a gay man playing Division I college football.
His secret weighed on him, frightened him, confused him, taking on a life all its own.
In lonely periods, the former University of Maryland player would go online and type in "gay," "athlete" and other keywords. And Patterson, an offensive and defensive lineman on former coach Ralph Friedgen's teams of 2001-03, would wonder: how many other Division I athletes are gay — and black — and feeling as isolated as he was?
"It's not like it's a terrible, deep, dark secret, but you think about the ramifications," said Patterson, now a highly ranked Greco-Roman wrestler and unpaid Maryland wrestling coach. "They're talking behind your back, and everywhere you turn there's this culture that says you're not supposed to be like this."
Patterson, who said he was a binge drinker during his Maryland football years, is one of a half-dozen or so football players to have publicly declared after college or NFL careers that they are gay.
Patterson's decision to come out by name — first in January to Outsports.com, which covers gays and lesbians in sports — required careful consideration because he competes in national wrestling competitions and works with wrestlers on Maryland's Atlantic Coast Conference champion team. He aspires to make the Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling and said he hopes his disclosure won't cost him sponsors that help pay travel and other costs for matches and training.
In a 70-minute interview, Patterson, 28, sounded like a man emerging from a dream he can't entirely recall. He said memory lapses about some nights are caused by drinking during his football years and the fact that his old behavior is unrecognizable to him today. "I was a wild mess," he said.
He said he hit on a male cheerleader while at Maryland but denied to teammates that he was gay even as rumors spread about his sexual orientation and erratic behavior. He recalls that his heavy drinking included the night before a big game at Florida State in September 2003.
He was suspended indefinitely by Maryland later that season and left school amid charges related to an off-campus fight. He said the case was not pursued by law enforcement authorities and was expunged from his record. There is no record of it in courthouse files or online databases.
A string of offenses came later. None required jail sentences, although Patterson said he did brief community service on a disorderly conduct charge in 2008. "I've done 1,000 things wrong but I've learned from my mistakes," he said.
After leaving College Park, Patterson played two football seasons and earned a degree from Division II California University of Pennsylvania, where he said assistant coaches once pulled him out of a party and told him to "clean up or go home." He later played for the United Indoor Football League's Billings (Mont.) Outlaws. He said he was required to pass a background check performed by TC logiQ, a Colorado-based screening company, before he could coach wrestling.
Now an advocate for troubled high school youths, Patterson said he came out to help younger gay athletes, and because he no longer wanted "to run and hide" from who he was.
"I remember there wasn't anybody for me to reach out to. I had no outlets," he said.
Interviewed in Comcast Center's red-themed wrestling locker room, the 6-foot-3, 284-pound Patterson was animated as he told his story, occasionally smiling to reveal a gap between his front teeth that he said causes people to mistake him for former NFL player Michael Strahan.
He joked that he doesn't fit the gay stereotype because "you're supposed to be a queen with a dress. I have no fashion sense whatsoever." He wore grey sweatpants with "Frederick" on them — he was a state wrestling champion at Frederick High School — and a grey T-shirt. The backs of his hands remain scarred from football-cleat marks.
Patterson betrayed a hint of nervousness only when reflecting for a moment on exactly what he was doing — telling his deeply personal story to a Maryland newspaper. "This is my backyard," Patterson said.
Patterson hopes the culture regarding gays in sports is changing. In May, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 by the NBA for an anti-gay slur at a fan. Earlier, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers was fined $100,000 for a similar slur at an official. Phoenix Suns CEO Rick Welts publicly came out in May.
"I think it's progress," Patterson said of Welts' announcement. "It's just going to take some time to get to the contact sports."
Like football, Patterson's current sport — wrestling — has a limited history of openly gay participants.