Derek Schell's cell-phone battery died three times that day.
The former Catholic Memorial standout basketball player and current hoopster for Hillsdale College in Michigan was suddenly a national story, and it had nothing — and yet, plenty — to do with the game he loved. Schell penned a column that ran Oct. 7 on Outsports.com, revealing to the world that he was gay. In the process, he became the first openly gay Division II basketball player, according to the site.
"The initial reaction was overwhelming but amazing," Schell said. "I received hundreds of emails, texts and various messages and calls. The outpouring of support came from random strangers, people I haven't spoken with in awhile, and of course, my loved ones.
"I actually didn't realize (I was the first D2 basketball player) until Sunday night, the night before the article came out. I thought about it and finally asked the editors if this was the case, and it turns out I was the first. It added to the excitement because I knew I was doing something pretty big."
Schell, who was the point guard for one of the state's finest prep basketball teams in the past decade when CMH stormed to the 2010 state championship, said his love for basketball has been rekindled.
"I didn't like basketball for awhile in college," he said. "It was part of my 'act.' I finally realized when I came out that this game has helped build the person I am today in immeasurable ways."
Finding his voice
In the column, the New Berlin native Schell, 22, articulates his personal struggle with finding his identity as a high-school student.
"I became part of a group of people from whom certain things were expected, including being honor roll students and varsity athletes," Schell wrote. "My friends, my parents, my sister, my teachers — everyone expected me to be an all-star, to help lead the basketball team to a state championship and to date a pretty girl. I wanted people to accept me and to embrace me, so I let those expectations take control. I hid who I was so that I wouldn't let other people down. It was much later that I realized that the problem was not that I didn't fit into my world the way that I wanted to. The problem was that my world didn't fit who I was. It fit the guy I was trying to be, but it didn't fit Derek."
Schell said he didn't pattern his published revelation after other athletes who have come out in recent years, with NBA basketball player Jason Collins among the most high profile.
"I obviously thought about how I wanted to write the article in terms of the central message, but writing it was easy in terms of letting my life flow onto the page," Schell said. "I find writing pretty therapeutic, so after getting my initial thoughts and messages down, editing it and organizing it was secondary. I didn't look to emulate anyone else's story because I wanted it to be my own and have people connect to me specifically. I had some help from my best friend and the editors at OutSports to touch it up near the end."
Schell talks about his struggle as it relates to his faith, his family and his teammates.
"Three years ago, I vowed to never tell my secret," he wrote. "But since then, I have learned that I don't have a secret. I eventually told my family, the three absolute rocks in my life. Although it was difficult at first, the process of acceptance and maturation in their understanding of my new-found happiness has proved me right in thinking I have the best support system that anyone could ask for."
Schell said his teammates, to whom he spoke in a one-on-one setting, universally offered respect and empathy.
To the point
Schell played in all 27 games last year for Hillsdale, averaging 1.9 points per game and dishing out 36 assists. He led Catholic Memorial with 21 points in a 60-48 win over Southwestern in the 2010 Division 2 state championship game, earning All-Tournament honors after a season that included a first-team All Conference selection.
Schell's lasting recollections from that run include leading the conference in scoring, earning All-State accolades and beating eventual Division 1 champion Arrowhead to lock up the league title.
"I remember a specific practice where we got so competitive and heated; that passion for winning became a drive to win everything," Schell said. "We wanted to win every drill, every game. It turned into a group of senior-led guys letting nothing stop them from being champions.
"And obviously, jumping up and down when that final buzzer went off ... I dreamed of that moment since I was five years old and it was so much better than I ever imagined."
Schell knows his decision to make his sexuality public will provide encouragement for other athletes putting up the same facade.
"I draw so much inspiration from that," he said. "In doing this, part of me hopes that this sort of thing doesn't have to be a news story in the future. If younger athletes could come out at an earlier age, and homophobia in sport could diminish, the sports themselves would prosper even more. Elements of acceptance, pride, and unity could be even stronger and encourage involvement in sports, which I think are essential in development in teens. I have received many messages of people who see me as a role model and now may finally be open with their families or teammates. If I can even make one person's life easier by doing this, I consider it worth it."
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