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.
"It's still not perceived to be a safe space for an athlete to come out," said Hudson Taylor, a three-time All-American wrestler at Maryland and friend of Patterson's who is now an assistant coach at Columbia. "You're literally grappling with another person, so your sexual orientation could make some people uncomfortable. Maryland was able to overcome those obstacles because of the culture of the team and because of [Coach Kerry] McCoy."
Taylor, Maryland's all-time winningest wrestler, has also been featured by Outsports.com, but for different reasons. During some Maryland wrestling practices, he would wear a blue-and-yellow "equality" sticker on his red headgear representing the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. He didn't display the sticker in competition because Maryland's program deemed it inappropriate. "I was certainly ready to," said Taylor, who graduated in 2010. "I got in a lot of debates about it."
"Straight allies are few and far between," Outsports wrote admiringly of Taylor.
McCoy, a former Olympian and Penn State wrestler who has been Maryland's coach for three seasons, said Patterson's public disclosure was not a significant event.
"For us specifically as a staff, it didn't change anything," McCoy said. "It wasn't something where he stood up and gave a speech to the team. It's just like we wouldn't sit down with our guys and say, 'Stand up and explain your relationship status.'"
"He's just a great guy to be around," said Spencer Myers, Maryland's first true freshman All-American, who has been coached by Patterson. "[Patterson's sexual orientation] doesn't change who he is."
Asked about Patterson's wrestling future, McCoy replied: "He's got a ton of potential. He's anywhere from 5 to 15 right now [in the nation]. He can beat the top guys. He can lose to a top guy."
Patterson never quite felt comfortable playing football at Maryland, where he said he was discouraged by the program from taking a course in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender studies.
Friedgen declined requests for comment. Randy Edsall, who replaced Friedgen as Maryland football coach in January, was an assistant with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars at the time defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo was on the team. Tuaolo came out after his career was over in 2002, and Edsall said he didn't know Tuaolo was gay.
"Everybody is entitled to their own ways of doing things, as long it doesn't affect your team," Edsall said. "A lot of people are probably going to keep it quiet. I don't think when you're at the [NFL scouting] combine, that one of the questions is, 'Are you gay?' "
Patterson said the arc of his life changed after he decided to no longer be a victim of circumstances. He began telling California University teammates he was gay in 2006.
Today, he posts YouTube videos in which he talks casually about his experiences.
In one video, he describes the stomach-churning dread of revealing his sexual orientation to fellow athletes. His eyes widen as he tells the story, and his body seems to recoil in panic.
"Let me just say it was scary," Patterson says to the camera. "No other word."
He said he has heard from a number of athletes, including one at California University, struggling with issues related to sexual identity.
"They just need to know it's OK to be whatever they want to be," Patterson said.
twitter.com/sunjeffbarkerCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun