May 5, 2013

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

(Continued from page 2)

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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

Sports Illustrated didn't pick up James Nutter's story as it did with Collins. Nutter was far off mass media's radar. Nutter wasn't an active pro in a major sport. He wasn't a major college player. has a much smaller audience. Nutter was at ease talking with Zeigler. But seeing a once-secret part of his life in pixels on a computer screen was something else.

"I didn't know how people would react," said Nutter when we met at a downtown Kennebunk coffee shop a month after his story first appeared. "I felt like a man blindfolded, jumping off a cliff."

He was free. Later in December, he went back to Kennebunk High to tell dozens of faculty members that the well-liked student and star athlete they once knew was gay. Copies of the story had been distributed to the staff but not everyone had read it.

Use me as a resource, as an ally, Nutter told them. He could support other gay students who didn't know how to raise their hand and ask for help. Kennebunk High encourages its students to pledge to help others. The idea of a gay-straight alliance is more than words at this high school. After Nutter spoke briefly, the line formed to embrace him. It was emotional.

Nutter hasn't become an activist in the typical sense. He doesn't preach. He simply tells his story, knowing he might save a life or, at the least, save someone many days of hurt.

"James is effective. He's honest," said Patrick Burke, one of the founders of the You Can Play Project. "He's taken an active part on our panel discussions. He has something to say and people listen."

Burke is the son of Brian Burke, a former NHL player who rose to become general manager of several NHL teams, including the Anaheim Ducks. Patrick Burke is a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, a law student in Boston and active in You Can Play. He is a straight man; his younger brother was not. Brendan Burke was killed in a car crash in 2010. He was 21, had been the manager of his college's hockey team and suffered much as Nutter did in that locker room culture.

You Can Play's mission is clear: Casual homophobia will not be tolerated in locker rooms. The NHL has thrown its support behind the project. A month ago, You Can Play was linked to rumors that it would support several gay athletes currently on major professional sports teams who were about to come out.

"It's going to happen. We just don't know when," said Burke during a brief conversation. A week later, the Jason Collins story broke.

"That came as a complete surprise," said Nutter. "I'm glad it did. Finally, we have a crack (in the dam of homophobia). The water is trickling out. Pretty soon that crack is going to be bigger. It's all happening pretty quickly." 

While so many were transfixed by the death and capture of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects -- Nutter was at a fundraiser for You Can Play elsewhere on Boylston Street when the bombs went off -- he spoke the Friday after Patriots Day to about 500 students at Montclair Kimberly Academy in New Jersey, not far from Newark. It was Nutter's first talk to an audience that large.

"He hit it out of the park," said Dominique Gerard, the private school's dean of student life. "He was completely awesome. Kids can spot insincerity right from the start. James spoke from the heart. None of it was rehearsed and the kids picked up on that."

(Continued on page 4)

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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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