Mike Pucillo

Pucillo leans on friendship to ease difficult decision

Ohio State’s Mike Pucillo was a three-time All-American and 2008 NCAA Division I Champion at Ohio State.

By Jason Bryant, Mat Talk Online
Special for TheOpenMat

Mike Pucillo nervously held his phone 15 months ago as he sat in his apartment trying to find the right words.

For months, the NCAA wrestling champion from Ohio State had tried time and again to share his biggest secret, but he couldn’t bring himself to verbalize two words.

Finally, on a December morning, Pucillo reached for his phone and tapped out a lengthy text message to his best friend and college teammate, Reece Humphrey.

The gist of the message was this: I’m gay.

“I think telling him was an unbelievable weight off my shoulders (and) I didn’t think I would feel that good just telling him,” said Pucillo, the first openly gay Division-I national champion wrestler. “Reece has always been someone with a very open mind and I thought maybe he would understand.”

Pucillo and Humphrey had been teammates for four years. They lived together as seniors. When Humphrey got married, he picked Pucillo as a groomsman.

Humphrey thought he knew Pucillo well, but this was a bombshell.

“Holy shit, buddy!,” Humphrey wrote in his response text message that December morning. “I’m honestly so happy for you! I had no clue, but all I can say is I love you so much! I won’t tell anyone ever. It’ll always be your decision and I’m freaking crying that you chose to tell me first. You’re my best friend and I am so pumped that you got the first step off your back.

“As big of a deal as I’m sure it seems, it’s really not. You are a badass and you are a tough-ass wrestler, but literally no one would ever care about your sexuality.”’

Later that day, Humphrey stopped by Pucillo’s apartment. The two talked for hours. Humphrey offered support and asked questions. He wondered how difficult it had been for Pucillo to live with such a secret bottled up.

“It was a complete mind blow for me coming from knowing who Mike is,” Humphrey said. “He’s the manliest guy I’ve ever met, the toughest guy. If you need something fixed around the house, he’s your guy – the manliest of men.”

Pucillo’s decision to come out now – days after Ohio State’s first national title – isn’t calculated. He contemplated it weeks ago but with the Big Ten Championships in Columbus, Pucillo didn’t want storylines to veer away from the Buckeyes’ bid to win a conference title.

“I wish it wasn’t now,” said Pucillo. “I wish I was able to be myself seven years ago while still competing in college, but it isn’t until now that I am comfortable with myself to tell my story. I want people to know that you aren’t alone. If I can just help one person get through, then I will be happy.”

The three-time All-American and 2008 NCAA champion said he struggled with his sexuality for years. He said he spent time in high school hoping he wasn’t gay.

“I’ve always known, I guess,” said Pucillo, who came out to his parents and a close circle of friends a little more than a year ago. “You try to not think that’s what it really is, so I just tried to say it was nothing. Then you start to realize it’s not really nothing.”

Pucillo was one of the nation’s top recruits in the Class of 2005. He capped his senior season at Walsh Jesuit by winning an Ohio state high school title. He signed with coach Tom Ryan at Hofstra.

When Ryan left for Ohio State, Pucillo followed. But there was one part of the transition that gave Pucillo pause. Rumors swirled that another Ohio native on the Buckeye roster was gay.

“I started circling that he might be gay and then it came out that he definitely was, and probably the biggest thing that scared me the most while I was in school was the stuff I heard people say about him,” Pucillo said. “It was bad. This is what I was hearing a few times a week. To me, I was scared to death.”

It was a stark contrast from Pucillo’s world on the mat. Inside the circle, he was wrestler whose fearless mentality led to three NCAA All-America finishes and 107 victories with the Buckeyes.

But much like he had with Humphrey, Pucillo found it difficult to share the deepest details of his life away from wrestling. He feared what his parents might think. He struggled with how to tell his father.

A little more than a year ago, Pucillo broke down and sent a text message.

“They took it fine, surprisingly,” Pucillo said. “I couldn’t get myself to actually say it, so I found the easiest way to do it – and this may sound like a coward way to do it. … I wanted him to read it, (the) entire thing before he reacted. He just responded back: ‘I love YOU.’ And that was really it. My mom said: ‘No problem if you’re happy.’

“If (my dad was) really going to have an issue with it, that’s not my issue, that’s his issue. I couldn’t have asked for a better response, to be honest.”

Part of Pucillo’s struggle stemmed from his upbringing. He attended Ohio wrestling powerhouse Walsh Jesuit, a private Catholic college preparatory school in Cuyahoga Falls. He’d attended private school since the first grade.

“You’ve been told that (homosexuality) is a bad thing your entire life,” he said. “You hear it from your teachers, you hear it from your friends, you hear it from your coaches, you hear it from your parents.”

Pucillo felt wrestling – a physical contact sport – created additional pressure.

“Wrestling is one of the toughest mentally, physically and manly sports there is,” he said. “It’s two dudes rolling around on a mat. People who don’t know wrestling call them leotards. It’s a joke, but it creates a built-in mechanism to say: ‘I’m not gay. I’m too manly to be gay. I’m too tough to be gay.’

“That adds into it. Add in the aspect of doing well, to me, (that) was another aspect that scared me. Not only am I a wrestler, but I’m pretty (freaking) good.”

Pucillo tried to avoid the social spotlight. He didn’t seek advice from other gay athletes until his senior season at Ohio State. Even then, nobody close to him knew about his sexuality.

“I was mentally exhausted from (it),” he said. “I hate to say (I wasn’t) happy because I was happy, but there was just an aspect of my life that was missing.”

Would Pucillo have come out if he wasn’t a top college wrestler? He’s not sure. But he knew he wanted to coach and that brought another element into play.

“I felt like I couldn’t be myself and coach wrestling,” he said. “Really, it’s one of the biggest reasons I stopped coaching wrestling.”

Ohio State coach Tom Ryan is candid about his Christian faith. He found out about Pucillo’s sexuality a couple years after his Pucillo’s career with the Buckeyes had ended.

“Watching him compete, meeting his family, talking to Mike, nothing would have changed for me recruiting Mike,” Ryan said. “He was a tireless competitor. He’s a first-class person. He’s caring, he’s hard working, he’s honest, so there’s nothing about knowing – had I known before – that would have changed Mike coming to Hofstra or wrestling for me at Ohio State.

“He’s just a wrestler. Whether he’s gay or straight, to me, it doesn’t matter. He’s just a wrestler. He’s a human being. I’d coach him on my team like I would anyone else. He’s a friend, he’s a teammate – no more or no less than anybody else.”

Part of Pucillo’s struggle dealt with his own acceptance that being gay was who he was. To him, it wasn’t a choice.

“Why would someone choose a life that is completely ridiculed their entire life? To me, people can’t wrap their head around that, there’s no point in me trying to talk to them. I’m not going to change the way their mind thinks,” said Pucillo.

Pucillo isn’t the first openly gay wrestler. Stephany Lee, a 2012 Olympic Trials champion, married longtime partner Brigg McDonald after winning the Trials in Iowa City.

Akil Patterson came out in 2010 when he was an active Greco-Roman competitor at the Senior level. He currently works with advocacy group Athlete Ally, an organization founded by three-time University of Maryland All-American Hudson Taylor. The group is aimed at providing public awareness campaigns and resources to foster inclusive sports communities. Patterson is still active in wrestling as a mat official.

Pucillo, on the other hand, didn’t feel he could come out as a competitor or coach at Ohio State. He feared it would hurt the program.

“I didn’t need to make anyone feel uncomfortable in the locker room,” he said. “Do I think it would’ve made the sport look bad? No. I, obviously, have a different mindset on it than most people. There was a thought in my mind (that) people outside wrestling call it a gay sport and look at me, I’m the gay guy, they were right. Maybe there was that part of it.”

Pucillo spent just one year as an assistant coach with the Buckeyes before stepping away from that role in 2011. He worried about the possible fallout that would come if he announced he was gay while still coaching at Ohio State.

“I was more worried about if we were going to recruit a kid … and they know,” he said. “Are their parents going to want their son to be at a school where one of the coaches is gay? I’ve heard parents and I’ve heard kids say, ‘I don’t want to be on (that) team. I’ve heard coaches say, ‘If I ever had a gay kid on the team, it’s not like we could kick him off the team, but we would do whatever we could to basically (run them off).

“Maybe they wouldn’t have said that if it was the returning national champ.”

Would Pucillo’s sexual orientation matter to his opponents? One of his biggest college rivals said it wouldn’t have mattered to him.

“I don’t really care one way or the other,” said Jake Herbert, who beat Pucillo in the 2009 NCAA finals. “I’m just glad I’m one of the guys who could beat him. I don’t think it should change your mindset whatsoever. I don’t think it matters.”

It doesn’t matter to his coach either.

“I guess the number one belief I have is to treat others like you’d like to be treated,” said Ryan. “That’s a simple message, if you believe in God. It’s a simple message, so love others the way you’d like to be treated. I coach all types of people. There’s no conflict for me as a coach. My coaching side, if you’re on my team, I’ll give you my all as your coach. My job is to coach the team, and that’s my commitment.”

Pucillo’s announcement comes nearly a year after Missouri’s Michael Sam made headlines by becoming the first openly gay NFL draft pick. Pucillo noticed both the criticism and support that followed Sam’s story, but the Sam announcement wasn’t the catalyst for publicly coming out.

He also noticed several others who came out: Dartmouth lacrosse All-American Andrew Goldstein, professional soccer player Robbie Rogers and retired major league baseball player Billy Bean. Goldstein and Rogers came out during their playing careers.

Pucillo drew courage from their stories. They helped him shed the weight he once carried around. He hopes he can do the same for others.

“It may have taken me 26 years to realize that maybe I can play a bigger role in somebody else’s life and help somebody else’s life like Robbie Rogers or (Goldstein did),” Pucillo said. “If I can do that for one person, it’s worth it for everybody out there to know my story. … I know there’s going to be people that don’t like it. To those people, I would say, ‘I’ve spent 26 years being uncomfortable. It’s not my problem anymore.

“The only reason why I feel it’s important to tell my story is I know there are a lot of other people out there that are like me who are in high school or about to go into college, whether it’s wrestling or football or baseball or basketball or not in any sport, who are struggling with it,” he said. “The more stories they hear about it, the easier it is for them.”

 Jason Bryant is a longtime wrestling journalist and broadcaster and is the founder and owner of the Mat Talk Podcast Network. Contact him at jason@bryantwrestling.com or on Twitter @jasonmbryant

Special thanks to Andy Hamilton for his lengthy contributions to the editing process.

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