May 5, 2013

Steve Solloway: Gay athlete in Maine finds he's not alone after all

James Nutter's cellphone got a workout early Monday afternoon with incoming calls and text messages asking the same question: Had he heard the news? An active NBA player named Jason Collins revealed he was gay.

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James Nutter, a former University of Southern Maine baseball player, revisits the USM baseball field in Gorham on Wednesday. He is now in demand as a speaker about the gay experience in team sports.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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In high school action at Hadlock Field in 2007, James Nutter dives for second as short stop Matt Powers catches a pickoff throw.

2007 Telegram file photo/Gordon Chibroski

Additional Photos Below

Nutter stopped what he was doing. If only Collins had gone public two years earlier when a 22-year-old college baseball player wrestled with his own sexual identity and was defeated. Nutter, the popular three-sport athlete from Kennebunk, was gay. Whom could he tell?

In the fall of 2011, Nutter planned his death. He had the pills to stop his heart, the whiskey to bolster his courage and the words to write the final note to his family, explaining why.

"Wow," said Nutter, watching and listening to everyone from President Obama to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant voice their support of Collins. "Wow. A great day. It's pretty exciting. We have a face on a gay athlete. This is huge."

Maybe people will no longer need to keep secret who they really are.

For three college baseball seasons, Nutter hid his sexual identity at the University of Southern Maine. No one knew he was pushing himself into a very dark place from which he saw no escape. He was a young gay man leading the double life of a straight teammate in the locker room. He had relationships with women but discovered he was more attracted to men. The deception was crushing him. If he came out, he feared the rejection of teammates who were like brothers. He feared being shunned.

Unlike Jason Collins, who had a productive career at Stanford University and became a respected role player in the NBA, Nutter could no longer find success at any level.

He left the baseball team and withdrew from USM. His family had learned he was gay and their love was unconditional. But Nutter was fighting bigger demons. He couldn't finish the letter. He left his bedroom, went downstairs and cried to his parents for help.

What no one in the Nutter household could realize that night was how quickly the world outside was changing. Maine voters were about to approve gay marriage. Spurred by Nutter's generation and the generation just ahead, gay lifestyles were becoming more acceptable. Even the military was coming to terms with the issue.

Martina Navratilova created a media and social storm when she revealed she was gay in 1981. She was one of the top tennis players in the world. More than 20 years later, the attention was muted when Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in women's basketball, announced she was gay. She was in the middle of her career with the Houston Comets of the WNBA.

None of that helped James Nutter. While gay female athletes could step forward, gay male athletes didn't feel that freedom. The locker room that might have been Nutter's sanctuary had become his private hell.

When Ed Flaherty, the long-time and successful USM coach, checked the pulse of his team during Nutter's career, he detected nothing amiss. Nutter was the son of one of Flaherty's boyhood friends. He was one of the guys.

In fact, Nutter never felt more alone. He tried harder to be the straight man everyone thought he was. His grades plunged in 2011. Used as a relief pitcher, he was no longer effective in ball games. His confidence left and his self-esteem followed. 

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Additional Photos

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James Nutter, at left, poses in May 2007, when he was Kennebunk's baseball pitcher.

2007 Telegram file photo/Jack Milton

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James Nutter sports his USM team uniform. Once fearful of revealing his gay identity, he is now a role model and mentor for others.

Courtesy of University of Southern Maine

Greg Monroe, Jason Collins
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Last week, the NBA’s Jason Collins, left, became the first active player in one of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues to reveal he’s gay. For Kennebunk’s James Nutter, it was “a great day.”

2013 file photo/The Associated Press

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