Thanks to Theodore Lisoski for contributing this story to our Project: Speak series on athletes’ experiences with mental health in their coming out stories.
(Trigger Warning: Mention of suicide attempt with drug overdose)
My name is Theodore Lisoski and I play Semi-Pro American Football in Portland, Oregon. My overall story is a bit different than many openly gay athletes because I came out publicly as gay over a decade before I started playing Football. Mental health has been an issue for me throughout my life because I also have been diagnosed with the subset of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome.
While I was coming out in the early 2000s and late 90s, I was terribly confused emotionally because I would have feelings for guys but everyone was creeped out by it. My friends made fun of one guy and called him “gay” and they praised another guy who was also “gay.”
I didn’t know if it was a bad thing or a good thing. It turns out I had a wrong definition the entire time. This confusion lead to an attempt on my own life in June of 2000. I thought for years it was very petty for my reasons but after so much time I have realized it was because of my internal struggle with being gay and, at the time, undiagnosed autism.
When it finally became public that I had made the attempt, many of my friends distanced themselves from me. Whether they were protecting themselves or not, it had me feeling very alone. The people that stuck around tried to make light of the event and while it sort of helped, it didn’t get to the root of the problem. It took until 2013 for me to realize that a lot of my emotional struggle was because I was, in a way, living a lie, much like people who come out later in life. Except this time it was about Football.
I was addled for years every time I would see high school students celebrating a win or banding together after a loss, watching college teams on TV, asking myself how could I want to actually play this sport but be so attracted to guys. I declined the chance to play football in junior high for a number of reasons. One of them was because being around so many other guys made me feel funny and I didn’t want to be the weird one.
I was 14-15 years old when I was asked to join the football team and it took me until I was 32 to finally overcome the fear of “feeling funny” around other guys. When I started going to practice with the Monarchs, now the Pit Bulls, I was still worried. This was football, not for the faint of heart and not for the weak. I didn’t perceive myself as either, in fact over the years I realized I was very resilient, emotionally and physically.
While I was at practice in 2014 I was training to be a wide receiver. I was still hiding my sexuality from them, which caused me to not verbally interact much because I don’t “talk straight.” I’d ask questions about routes and practice specific questions. When it came to talking about my social life and relationship, I kept it simple and vague.
When I didn’t make the roster in 2014, I was torn inside. Was it because I was new, or because I was gay and they all knew and it was subtle exclusionary tactics? I had been pushed away from so many groups in my life for silly and petty reasons. This wasn’t out of my realm of reason, between my autism and being gay.
I continued with the team on their all games as staff, being water boy or money taker. Every game my partner came along but it wasn’t spoken about. Since my article on Outsports and the subsequent sharing of it around our League here in the Pacific Northwest, I was worried that other teams would have issues, but not so worried about my own team. I proved to the team that I was there to be a part of the team and not to push some agenda.
A few guys were more willing to talk to me afterwards because they probably suspected, but didn’t want to assume. Yet, in the end, the article caused many to realize that the league is open. Only a few members of other teams in the league have said something to me personally in support.
I realized that while I was keeping to myself before in 2014, it was hindering my ability to learn the sport because I was afraid to show weakness and let my voice slip out. I was practicing with them, but I was so far out of my element I still felt alone. Realizing my long-term desire to play football actually helped solidify the memories from earlier in my life. I was afraid that being labeled as gay was going to cause me to be excluded from things I wanted to do.
In retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have been as welcome as I’d like to remember. What if I did actually play football in high school and come out at the same time in college in 2000? It would have been rough. Even here in the Pacific Northwest it would have been difficult. Being honest with my team now is helping me get better in the sport because they aren’t too shy to talk to me and I don’t care to limit my social contact anymore.
I honestly think now if I had overcome my fear back in junior high and started playing football, I wouldn’t have made the suicide attempt shortly after high school. My social clique wasn’t really the supportive kind they said they were. They didn’t have the group mentality or bond that sports teams have. I was a mess emotionally because of the doubt I had and because I wasn’t comfortable with my life. Combining both being out and playing the sport I wanted to for so long has freed up so many other things in my life.
People have said I am not the same person I was 3 years ago and I am glad for that. Some people have left my social circle because of it. It worries me still that many people had a vision of who I was and were happy with it, but I wasn’t actually fulfilled. I was too busy trying to live other peoples’ expectations of my life.
I almost ended my own life because my dreams and basic desires weren’t being realized. June 2000 was a dark time, and the darkness that followed when my friends distanced themselves was not helping. Before football, I was getting to a dark place again. In 2000 it was because I liked guys and was getting rejected and mocked for it. Some people even thought it was funny to threaten calling the cops on me for being a sexual predator.
In November 2013, I had reached a dark place again, I filmed a video blog inside a closet because that’s where my life was. Sure, I was living in my own apartment with my partner of 6 years at the time, but something still wasn’t right. I thought I’d never get to play football. I had a breakdown on camera. I never wanted to come back out of that closet, I felt I deserved to be in there because I am autistic, gay, and over 30. Playing football was a dream that I thought was dying. I wasn’t physically dying, but I was freaking out because I was spiritually dying and I didn’t want to.
Much like when my mom came to check on me while I was digesting all the pills in 2000, I broke down to her and told her everything because I didn’t want to go. I was too afraid of leaving. On my YouTube channel, I snapped. I didn’t want to keep living a lie.
This is the 2nd time I have felt “reborn.” The first was sitting in the underage gay club when I was 19 and felt so comfortable, even with the loud music and like 100 people I didn’t know. The same happened this year after I was out to my team. I didn’t want stop feeling this free. I am a football player and I am gay, and that’s that. I have nothing left in my past to haunt me and drag me to dark places anymore, I’ve checked.