Until 10 days ago, Jamie Kuntz was an unremarkable linebacker at a North Dakota junior college in a town most famous for "Wahpper," a 40-foot long, 5,000-pound fiberglass replica of the catfish that inhabit the nearby Red River. Before Kuntz could play a down, he suffered a concussion in practice that threatened to keep him home from the team’s first road trip, a 15-hour bus ride to Colorado. But Kuntz was so eager to make the trip that he asked for work at the game. That’s how he wound up in the press box running a video recorder.
It wasn't much of a game. By halftime, the home team, Snow College, of Pueblo, Colo., had built a 49-3 lead over North Dakota State College of Science. Nor was there a media presence. The press box was empty except for Jamie Kuntz and a friend he had invited up. The friend was a man 65 years old who lived in Denver, two hours away. In November of 2011, as a senior in high school, Kuntz met the man online. Five months later, they met in person. On Labor Day weekend, at a bad football game that didn’t much interest Kuntz or his friend, things happened.
Jamie Kuntz’s story of the day’s events may be familiar to anyone who has been 18 years old, young, strong and alive. After some time apart, you’ve finally found a way to be with someone you really like. One minute you’re talking, the next you’re touching, and maybe there’s a look, and it happens. As to what, exactly, happened, Kuntz said, "It wasn’t a full-on makeout." Then he added, "But I wouldn’t say it was a peck."
It’s one thing for an NFL star, Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, to lobby for same-sex marriage. And the tolerant among us cheered when the Vikings’ punter, Chris Kluwe, beat down a homophobic Maryland legislator with an open letter withering for its reason and expletives. But this -- this with Kuntz and the man from Denver -- this was public smooching by a teenage linebacker and his geriatric boyfriend. This tested the limits of tolerance.
Two days later, the otherwise unremarkable Jamie Kuntz became a national figure. He was kicked off the team. Immediately, he said it was "for being gay." School officials denied that. They said he had been a detriment to the team, had not performed his video duties fully, and, most important, had violated college policy by lying to his coach. Athletic director Stu Engen, who described Kuntz’s press-box activities as "multiple, on-going, graphic and explicit in nature," insisted the player’s dismissal had nothing to do with homosexuality. He also said that had the object of Kuntz’s affections been a woman, the school’s decision would have been the same.
This was a perfect storm for the sports media, a mashup of football, sex and controversy. For much of two weeks, Kuntz did the rounds of radio, television, print and websites. SB Nation dispatched a camera crew and reporter Amy K. Nelson from New York to North Dakota. In the website’s 11-minute video, Kuntz said that from his first day at NDSCS he’d heard "gay jokes, all day, every day … queers ... faggots." He told Nelson that his mother, Rita, thought his connection with the 65-year-old man was a search for a father figure to replace his real father, dead of suicide 12 years ago. Kuntz’s sister, Lindsay, uttered the video’s most chilling words. She remembered Matthew Shepard.
Matthew Shepard was gay and was killed for it. It was 1998. He was 21 years old, 5-foot-2, 102 pounds, a student at the University of Wyoming. Two men abducted him, pistol-whipped him and tied him to a split-rail fence. It began in a bar and ended on a dirt road outside Laramie. Discovered the next morning by a bicyclist who first mistook the body for a scarecrow, Shepard never regained consciousness and died five days later.
The day we talked, I asked Kuntz if the Shepard story worried him.
From the linebacker came a you-gotta-be-kidding-me chuckle.
"No," he said.
His voice was flat, perhaps worn out by the tellings of his story. He said he would talk about the future, but not about what happened.
The CliffsNotes version: After the game (a 63-17 defeat), NDSCS coach Chuck Parsons pulled Kuntz off the team bus and asked who that was in the press box and what happened. It was my grandpa, Kuntz said. Kiss him? Kiss my grandpa? No way. On the ride home, Kuntz posted enough tweets with a morose tone that roommates grew worried about suicidal thoughts and called the police. Police met the bus and decided Kuntz was OK. The next morning, he texted his coach with the truth. Parsons called him in and handed him a letter notifying him he’d been dismissed from the team. He’d lied. He was a "detriment" to the program. He was a "distraction." Kuntz quit school.
His plan had been to play a year or two at NDSCS and move on to Division I. Dispirited after leaving school, he tweeted that "football is no longer an option." He has since reconsidered. Though on the small side for any big-time program -- NDSCS called him 6-1, 210 -- he says, "I’d like to play. I’ve left a message at the University of Minnesota." Kuntz trained the last two summers with Simoni Lawrence, a former Minnesota linebacker who has NFL and Canadian league experience.
The notice and notoriety have confused Kuntz. "I really don’t know how I feel about it all," he said. "I just know they handled it wrong, and they know that. … I’ve admitted I lied. But I didn’t deserve to be kicked off. If they kicked off everybody for lying, they wouldn’t have a football team."
Media coverage began when Kuntz emailed gay activist/columnist Dan Savage. In a subsequent interview, he told Savage he had been singled out unfairly. Other players "have been caught drinking." One player, a minor, "was detained by the police after being found in a 21-and-over club." Others "have criminal charges and convictions." One player had a house party shut down by police, but "nothing happened to him. … I don’t feel that I should’ve been kicked off the team for this. It was a kiss. It was a mistake, but it was just a mistake. We weren’t making out."
The story’s complications have complications. North Dakota may be our most heterosexual state; the 2010 census showed it had the nation’s fewest number of same-sex households per capita, four for every 1,000. Yet here was a North Dakotan, an athlete in a macho, testosterone-heavy sport, coming out gay. He was due praise for standing up to bigotry. Still, he came with baggage. He had lied to his coach and had thrown teammates under the bus in a lame attempt to argue that his punishment was unjust. There was also the age thing, for whatever happens with an 18-65/boy-man relationship, its beginning would not go down well in today’s America. We have, after all, come to know Jerry Sandusky.
One more thing: In proof of the theory that any writing on football, sex and controversy will include a Tim Tebow allusion, there is a line from Kuntz’s Twitter account. A man wrote: "Glad that I finally have a gay athlete to crush on, thanks for being brave @Jamie_Kuntz. Now I can forget about Tebow ..."
Kuntz replied, "lol he’s still questionable."