This is a feel-good story, so I’m not going to go for any done-to-death homoerotic jokes about jocks and locker rooms and sweaty, grunting men. But I might make a crack about Tom Brady’s Justin Bieber-hair. Just once.
Seth Greenleaf, 38, has been playing football his entire life. As a boy, he played in the Pee-Wee leagues. He played multiple sports in high school. He played two Division One sports in college. And now, he plays for the New York Gay Football League in the dual roles of captain and coach. He and his teams took home back-to-back championships over the past two seasons. He even plays for New York’s national gay team: the Warriors. He is a Gay Super Bowl veteran. Oh, one more thing: Seth Greenleaf is straight.
This, of course, is due in part to the league’s stringent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Calm down, people. I’m kidding.
Greenleaf, who actually is straight, came upon “gay football” by accident as he watched the Warriors practice in the park. “I’m a football freak, and I tortured them until they let me play,” he laughs.
He was good, so they asked if he’d be comfortable playing in a gay league. “I work in musical theater,” Greenleaf says. “No one believes I’m straight, anyway, so, it was no problem for me.”
Greenleaf (pictured right) is a straight jock who wasn’t intimidated by homosexuality, but what about gay kids who are intimidated by jocks? All too often, say many league members, the beauty, family and life lessons that team sports embody are something they come of age having never experienced.
“In high school,” says Edmund Shockey, 45, “I concentrated on track and cross country despite being recruited to play football in 8th grade. My comfort level with other jocks was shaky. The individual sports were less distracting and safer as I wasn’t likely to get teased.”
Shockey hid in plain sight behind his performance. “In fact, my whole high school career was a camouflage in that earning the Colt Award (a scholarship based on leadership and athleticism) was a way to validate myself while warding off suspicion of being gay.”
The successful chiropractor has evolved into a league champion since joining in 2006—an MVP, in fact. He, too, plays at the national level, and make no mistake: This may be flag football, but this ain’t no disco. Injuries are common, even at the local stratum. There’s almost always a hospital run during the season. Torn ACLs are common, and punches occasionally are thrown.
Shockey, who sports the scar of a particularly bad gash over his left eye, has surprised a few patients by showing up for adjustments with a shiner. “It’s given me street cred,” he jokes. That said, most agree that a gay league makes for a kinder, gentler league in other ways.
“Gay men,” says Shockey, “are generally kinder than their straight counterparts. More sensitive. Many have been shunned from team sports in the past because they’re not conventionally tough. When focused, however, those hardened feelings of neglect and abuse can be transformed into a sort of personal vindication. I can do this. Straight guys don’t have a monopoly on toughness.”
Neither does the male gender as a whole. In fact, a woman has been the league’s commissioner—an elected post—for four years running. Molly Lenore, 46, runs her own technology design company, Moey Inc., participates in a myriad of other sports teams, and played an integral role in creating NYGFL’s relatively new Women’s Division (75 women, four teams; Lenore believes there will be six very soon).
That said, she plays with the men. She’s the only woman in the league who does.
Lenore (pictured below, with dreadlocks) is transgendered, and like Greenleaf, has been playing organized sports all her life. Football is her favorite. “I changed my sex,” she says, “but the bonds I have with the men haven’t changed. I love sports. It’s a big part of my life.” She, too, is a Super Bowl veteran.
Lenore, though thoughtful and soft-spoken, is a stalwart advocate of the game, the league and the positive things sports do for people. While proud of her national play, she stresses the value of the locals. “It’s really nice to see people in their thirties joining a team for the first time, making a touchdown for the first time,” she says. “It goes way beyond [finding one’s] inner-jock. It goes way beyond sports. Sports are low on the list. It’s about being human. Being able to express yourself. Being able to push yourself and do things and be part of something that you never were.”
(Shigeo) James Iwamiya, 36, is not a national-level player. He’s a comparative noob. Originally from Tokyo, Iwamiya moved to the states in 1994, and grew up in an altogether different atmosphere than his American teammates.
“American schools have things like dances and homecoming and hanging out at Taco Bell,” he says. “In Japan, it’s study, study and more study.” The sports programs are far different, as well. More insular and far less celebrated. He readily admits his contact-sport comfort zone was near non-existent. “I almost went home before the tryouts even started,” he says. “I was really embarrassed. I didn’t know a thing about football.”
Iwamiya, Director of Residence Life at Rutgers University (pictured above), had never played football. He only signed up to meet new people. “I’ve never been outgoing when it comes to being social or making friends in a bar setting,” he says, but he’d played on softball and volleyball teams and considered himself a decent player. “I figured I wouldn’t be a superstar, but I’d make new friends.”
At tryouts (a misnomer, really. Everyone who signs up is placed on a team; tryouts allow coaches and captains to assess players’ abilities and place them on teams accordingly), Iwamiya found the drills daunting. “I thought, What did I get myself into?!” But seeing the faces of some of his softball teammates made it a little less frightening. He stuck it out.
His first season, he says, not much changed. “I may have felt worse about myself!” he says. “I wasn’t able to get my mind around everything and with the season being only eight games, before I knew it, the playoffs were starting … every game [my attitude was] I better not screw up.”
Third and Long
But alas, he did. And after an incident where the quarterback exiled him from the field, he was close to tears. He thought about not coming back, but pushed through it—and something magical happened.
“My confidence grew tremendously and it transferred to my social life.” He describes the following season as life changing.
“I had an amazing team and quarterback (Greenleaf) who taught me how to do things and most importantly why a lot of things happened … week after week I gravitated toward playing my best … Seth began trusting me more and giving me bigger plays.”
Once that happened, he believes, the league began to see him as a significant part of the team. In the post-season, Iwamiya walked away from Awards Night with the title of Most Improved. “I credit my mentors and leaders in the NYGFL for giving me the opportunity to shine.”
Iwamiya calls the league a place where he belongs and can be himself, a place where people can grow and learn how to get more comfortable in their own skin. He calls it one of his proudest accomplishments. “It has certainly been a place for me to fall in love with sports and football …. It gives me an opportunity to help people who don’t feel comfortable playing sports find their way and to break down stereotypes by playing one of the most butch sports and showing that gay people can be masculine and competitive and physical.”
Coming Up In Part Two: The country may be deep in the throes of Super Bowl induced gridiron fever, but for some players and fans, scoring a deeper love of the game lies beyond all the hype.