More than twenty years ago, popular Boy Scout troop leader Chuck Merino came out as gay. What did an average teenage boy learn from this exceptional coach?
All of this kerfuffle about whether or not the Boy Scouts should allow homosexuals into their group has me thinking of an old friend.
I’m not sure I should really call him a friend as I haven’t spoken to him in more than twenty years, but that’s how I think of him. I guess he was more of a mentor or a teacher, considering how much I learned from him. Today I think of him as someone who helped me to grow into the person that I am. But back then I just thought of him as Coach.
I played football in high school. Not very well, mind you, but I played. I played with the awareness and understanding of an average teen age boy, which is to say I didn’t really get it. I did play well enough, though, to be expected to be one of the leaders of the team.
One of our assistant coaches was a man named Chuck Merino, a local police officer and prominent Boy Scout leader in the area. Coach Merino was popular with the players, but not because he was easy on us. He was popular because he treated us with respect, so we respected him. He treated us like the men we thought ourselves to be. He pushed us and demanded from us more than we knew we had.
My clearest memory of Coach was from my senior season. At the end of every practice we ran “gassers,” a seemingly endless number of ten-yard sprints, each set off by a whistle blast just seconds after the last one had finished. I would hear his voice behind me, yelling that I should be finishing first every time. Don’t run with the pack. If you want to lead then you have to lead from the front. Don’t be content to just finish, finish strong. Work harder than everyone else.
It was the kind of growl from coaches you become accustomed to in football. It’s part of the culture and a sound that permeates every practice field. His growl seemed to carry extra weight with me, though.
One day, his voice ringing inside my helmet after finishing one repetition, I looked up at him with what must have been surrender in my eyes. He came in close and quietly said, “You have more to give than you know.” I lined up for another sprint and felt his hand grab the tail of my jersey. I turned to see why he had grabbed me and he just pointed down the field. He wanted me to drag him.
For the rest of the season, I dragged Coach Merino up and down the field during our end-of-the-day conditioning. We didn’t ever really talk about it, but I knew what he was trying to teach me. If you want to be great, you have to be willing to sacrifice more of yourself than you think you can. In life, hard work will get you everywhere.
To this day, I feel his hand on my jersey all the time. I’ve been dragging him around for years now.
More than a year after my senior season, Coach Merino was all over the news. He had been kicked out of Scouts for publicly saying he was gay. He sued and initially won, though that ruling was overturned. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before his case was ultimately dismissed.
I was still very much a naïve kid when all of this happened. Coach was the first gay person I had known, or at least the first one I had known was gay, even though none of us ever knew about his sexual orientation when we played for him. I was probably guilty of making homophobic comments back then, but I don’t remember ever really having strong feelings that way. I followed the crowd, the way so many compliant young boys do. To me, gays were weird and different because they were not part of the world in which I lived. Since the only thing I knew about gay people was what I was told, those negative stereotypes became my reality. I didn’t know any better and had yet to gain the capacity to decide for myself.
I couldn’t fully contemplate the gravity of an organization such as the Boy Scouts indoctrinating discrimination into millions of young minds or grasp the absurdity of classifying someone as dangerous because of the kind of genitalia they found attractive. I had not realized how ridiculous the idea was that gay people will inherently impose gayness onto any impressionable young minds with which they come into contact. I had not come to know yet that gay people were exactly like me except for one tiny, biological difference.
I didn’t understand that someone could be gay and still teach me how to be a better, more successful human being, as if those two things are even remotely related. I didn’t, that is, until I learned that Coach Merino was gay.
I’m a grown man now and I have learned all of these things. Coach Merino was the beginning and a huge part of that education, but it has been sustained by many years and many more amazing people. I am embarrassed for the leaders of the Boy Scouts, but I don’t begrudge them their right to make up any asinine or archaic rules they see fit. After all, they are a private group and this is a free country.
Though, it’s good to see the Boy Scouts’ ignorance on full display. My hope is that their leaders will see the ludicrousness of their position and choose to change it. If not, I hope the parents of the boys involved with this group will stand up for what they know is right and withdraw their participation. The Boy Scouts certainly do teach some valuable things, but hatred, fear and discrimination are not among them.
I also hope that Coach Merino, wherever he is, is proud of how he stood up for what he knew was right. It’s precisely that kind of courage and character that the Boy Scouts claim to value. And that is exactly what I learned, both on the field and off, from this man that they claimed was not worthy of representing their organization.
I am forever grateful to Chuck Merino for what he taught me. And I am proud to have called him Coach.
Image credit: SD Dirk/Flickr