CMU grad assistant found acceptance — and relief — after coming out

A hero? No. Heck, no. Heroes rescue people from burning buildings. Heroes put their bodies on the line for justice without giving it a second thought. Heroes try to end famine and abuse and cancer.

Ryan Mizner just tried to get real.

So when another men’s college basketball coach reached out recently, one gay man to another, trying to figure a path out of the wilderness, a road to clarity, Mizner — a graduate assistant at Central Michigan — knew he’d done the right thing.

“Just be yourself,” Mizner told him.

“The thing is, he hasn’t come out to anyone — not his parents, not anyone. And just trying to walk him through (it) and tell him what my experience was like — and my experience is probably different than anyone else’s experience … he wants a solidified job in Division I. And then he’s going to make his move.”

Mizner can keep a secret. After all, he kept one to himself, a big one, for a long time. In hindsight, he’d tell you, perhaps too long.

“It is what it is; I am who I am,” said Mizner, whose Chippewas (17-14) open Mid-American Conference tournament play against Bowling Green in Thursday at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. “I feel a lot more relaxed around the office.

“Last year, I was almost always defensive just in case they might have found out through other sources that I might be gay. I don’t know. I feel more relaxed now. Some people around me might not say that. I’m the same old me. Sometimes, I’m a little fiery and on edge.”

Especially this month. March is do-or-die, the best time of year and the worst in the same breath, where legends are made and dreams are crushed in an instant. It’s business as usual in Mount Pleasant, the tempo and expectations unchanged since last fall, when Mizner came out of the closet to his comrades and to the world in a story posted at Outsports.com.

“Internally, really, nobody really talks about it,” Mizner said, noting that athletic director Dave Heeke, among other administrators, were kept in the loop. “And they were very accepting — open arms, really. As the season had gone on, we don’t really talk about it much. (Someone) will ask how my boyfriend is doing, (how) it sucks he goes to Western Michigan right now, he’s the rival. It’s just like a family. It really is. It really is a complete family.”

Over the last decade, Mizner was the apple that never fell too far from the Chips’ tree. A native of Sturgis, Mich., he’d served as a student manager with the CMU program from 2001-04, during the Chris Kaman Era. He’d moved to Grand Rapids after that to coach under former CMU guard T.J. Meerman at Kenowa Hills High, where he also headed up the Grand Rapids Storm AAU program.

“I knew (if) I was going to come out, CMU was the environment I needed to come out, because of the accepting environment they have here and the accepting team that we have,” Mizner said. “‘Ah, you’re gay. Who cares? Let’s go out and win a championship.’

“We make jokes about it every once in a while, laugh and have a good time, but it’s nothing (big). We haven’t talked one second about it. On the day when the (original) article came out, players were happy for me. And the next day, nothing had changed. It was fine.”

Where he’d expected disgust, he found acceptance. Where he’d expected rejection, he found community. Where he’d expected isolation, he found belonging.

“It’s different,” Mizner said. “Even though their parents may not completely accept it — obviously, their grandparents (are like), ‘No way.’ Parents are like, ‘Look, maybe my son or daughter is gay. I’m going to love them unconditionally.’ The students, they’re like, ‘Hey, I know this person and this person and this person, they’re all good friends of mine.’ Everybody is going to be who they are. It’s like, ‘Nobody cares; pass me a beer.’”

Mizner cares about paying it forward. He cares about helping others to find their own path out of the wilderness, about them finding the same peace of mind he did. Which is why he went public in the first place.

“Someone you can talk to, someone you can lean on,” the graduate assistant explained.

“One comment that really just that (stuck) was like, ‘If that person is against who you actually are, do you want to work for them anyway?’ And I said, ‘(Expletive), no. Probably not. If they can’t accept me as a person, no. Of course not.’”

That question was asked by Derek Schell, a friend and former Hillsdale (Mich.) College basketball player who had come out in 2013.  Mizner happened to be an assistant at nearby Lake Superior State at the time, helping to scout against Schell, and eventually reached out. They were sitting together in New York City late last summer, Mizner professing that he was tired of the covering up, the dodging, the avoidance and the uncertainty.

“When he asked me that, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to be who I am and if Division I coaches can’t accept me for me, no offense, but that’s their problem, that’s not my fault,’” Mizner recalled. “I said, ‘OK, I’m comfortable.’ I said, ‘If this is my last (chance), then let’s make one hell of a run and let’s see what happens.’”

Emboldened, Mizner posted pictures of his summer trip to Fire Island on social media. If dots weren’t being connected among his friends and colleagues before, they certainly were now.

In August, he carved out private windows to start telling fellow staffers. For CMU assistant and Kevin Gamble, it was out on the golf course.

“Just make the putt,” was Gamble’s reply, and that was that.

“He’s a good guy,” Mizner said of the former NBA guard. “He’s a very matter-of-fact guy. Him and I have a very good working relationship.

“(Coach) Keno (Davis) has been great. When I went in, and he knew it was coming because of his assistants … I was nervous, so I’d put it off week after week after week. And I finally said, ‘(Expletive) it, I’ve got to go tell these guys.’”

So he did, baring his soul to Davis for more than 15 minutes.

“He said, ‘Hey, if anything is said, anything in my program that offends you, I don’t want you to handle it yourself,’” Mizner recalled. “’You come to me and I’ll take care of it.’ “

Where he expected rejection, he found brotherhood. Longtime compatriots, such as fellow grad assistant Robbie Harman, seemed relatively unfazed. If Chippewas players were upset, it was because they wondered why he hadn’t confided in them sooner.

“Chris Fowler — and I’ll put it out there, we’re boys,” Mizner said of the Chips’ stellar senior point guard. “He and I are tighter than tight, and nothing like this would ever come between us.”

Mizner got two coaching offers from smaller programs last spring before electing to return to the Chippewas, and the job-shopping starts in earnest again in a few weeks. His old boss at Lake Superior State, Tim Kisner, had extended one of those aforementioned lines to join him at Division II Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University.

“He’s a big Christian guy … and he said, ‘You know, I don’t really accept your choice. I don’t even want to get into it,’” Mizner recalled. “But I think he knew before I was offered the job (that) I was gay, before I really told him. Friends of mine offered me jobs, yes. So I could imagine I could land back at the Division II route with a program.

“I guarantee you that I’m not the only one out there … play the percentages. You’re telling me on Michigan’s football team, that there’s not a single one of the players, coaches or support staff members who are not gay? Come on. Say it’s 10 percent (from) a group of 100. They don’t know? It’s not spoken about because it’s not a big deal.”

Where he expected jeers, he found indifference. And you know what? That’s great.

In fact, it’s perfect.

“The worst thing Robbie and I hear is student sections think we’re stat guys,” Mizner cracked. “They go, ‘STAT GUYYYYS.’ I say, ‘Wow, what has my life come to? I’m not even a coach, I’m a stat guy.’”

He’s more than that. A lot more.

Photos courtesy CMU Athletics

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