By Dan Woog
As a high school student, Shane Wickes' life was good.
The Reno, Nevada native was an all-state football player (offensive guard) and a state champion discus thrower.
Life got even better the next year: He walked on, and won a spot on Boise State University's storied football team.
But halfway through his freshman season, Wickes blew out his knee. He moved back home. He was hired at McQueen High School – his alma mater – as a junior varsity line coach. Last year he was offered a varsity spot, coaching the offensive line. Just 22 years old, he was fulfilling a lifetime passion.
He was also gay.
Throughout high school, Wickes says, he suppressed any homosexual feelings. "I really wanted to play college football," he says. "Doing that and being gay seemed unfathomable." He dated girls, and denied that part of himself.
Moving back from Boise, though, Wickes finally realized who he was. He told one close friend. He experimented sexually for the first time with a guy – and scurried back in the closet.
Gradually, he became comfortable with his sexuality. In August 2014 he told his family. They offered plenty of support.
But Wickes knew no football coach at any level who was gay. He thought it would be impossible to have a coaching career in the sport he loved. Yet he was also dating men. Balancing both parts of his life was excruciating. He was self-conscious and nervous. He drank heavily.
Last summer, the curator of the TEDX University of Nevada series – who knew Wickes' story – asked him to tell it publicly. His first reaction was "hell no!" But the more he drank – and the more he grappled with whether he could really be an out gay coach – the more Wickes realized he could not live a double life.
Before his first season as a varsity coach – and before his TED Talk, scheduled for this past January – Wickes came out to his head coach. The coach was surprised, but reacted fairly well. Still, Wickes stayed largely in the closet.
Before his public talk, Wickes googled "gay football." He learned of an out head coach in California. He discovered Outsports, the online LGBT site. Still, he lacked a real network of support.
Wickes' TED Talk – filmed at the Pioneer Center in downtown Reno – was "a huge relief." The audience gave him a standing ovation. But the word was not completely out in the small world of Nevada football. It took a few weeks of editing before the video appeared – and before a story about the gay high school football coach appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal and USA Today.
In between, Ernie Howren got wind of Wickes' tale. Howren is a legendary Reno coach. His Edward C. Reed High School teams, in nearby Sparks, have won numerous championships. They're McQueen's big rival.
Howren asked Wickes to speak to his players. Then he offered him a job, as varsity offensive line coach.
"That's one of the reasons he's such a great football coach," Wickes says. "Plenty of guys know strategy, Xs and Os. But to build a great program, year after year, you need a coach with character who instills values in his players." There have been a couple of complaints to the Washoe County School District about hiring a gay coach, Wickes says. But he's unconcerned. Howren is handling them.
Wickes' first season at Reed is a couple of months away. But he's already worked with the players. He senses a different attitude than at McQueen.
"My first year as a varsity coach, 'faggot' was used so much," he says. "I never said anything. I didn't feel comfortable. I was afraid of outing myself."
Now that Wickes is out, he says, the language is different. One player who called something "so gay" stopped, caught himself, and apologized.
Of course, Wickes knows, the football environment can be tough. "It's pretty stereotypical, usually," he says. "It's not really a friendly place."
A college coach told him, "Football locker rooms are offensive to everyone." Wickes replied, "There's a difference between offensive and hateful."
Terms like "faggot" are "so ingrained," he adds. "They just get passed over or ignored. Unless you're the closeted kid, who doesn't feel safe."
Now, he looks forward to "putting a face to sexuality. This is a chance to really change the game."
Recently, Wickes spoke to the Santa Clara High School football team in California. Parents were invited but did not know his topic. Afterward, a mother said that her son had come out a few days earlier.
The timing was perfect. Just as it has been for Shane Wickes – blown-out knee, TEDX Talk and all.