Two autumns ago, he scored three touchdowns in the state title game, but on this October day, his senior season ended unceremoniously. So the running back walked off the field, seeking solace in a hug from his boyfriend.
“I did notice that moment, and knowing that was the last game of Jake's career, I thought, 'How lucky is Jake for that?'” said John Merritt, the football coach at John Burroughs. “And what does that say about our community, that they can both express themselves without any fear?”
Jake Bain is the best athlete at his high school. He'd be the best athlete at most high schools. As a sophomore running back, he was named the Class 3 offensive player of the year in Missouri. And after winning the state title, he was selected team captain for his junior and senior seasons. On Wednesday, Jake signed to play college football — he's headed to Indiana State.
He is openly gay.
“This is a kid who, in every traditionally stereotypical way, would not have been connected to that community,” said John Burroughs head of school Andy Abbott, “but in every authentic way, was and is.”
Legend has it, Jake Bain popped out of the womb wearing a Burroughs helmet.
His two older brothers played football there. His mother went there. And his grandfather is the school's legendary football coach, Jim Lemen, who won eight state championships from 1970 to 2004. So Jake was always around. During games, he'd pass out water to the running backs. In the summers, he'd attend Burroughs' day camp, where he was “always astronomically more coordinated and more athletic than every other kid 2-3 years older than he is,” said Abbott, who heads the private school nestled in Ladue. “You'd see him doing flips off the diving board when he was 5. Then he got to Burroughs as a seventh grader, and he was just, really, an athletic phenom. And when you're 12-13 years old, that's who everybody looks up to, everybody respects. The boys were always wide-eyed around Jake Bain.”
They still are. Jake now spends his summers as a counselor at the same day camp. He wants to be a teacher someday — perhaps a coach, too — and he feeds off mentoring and molding young students. Recently, a camper's mom shared a story with Jake's grandmother, Carole Lemen. Seems the mom had dragged her son shopping for clothing. She picked out some sweats — “No,” the boy said, “I can't have those. That's not the kind Jake Bain wears.”
'IT WEIGHS ON YOU'
In the biggest game of his life, Jake had the game of his life.
In the 2015 state title game, he galloped for 255 yards, scoring three touchdowns. He got a congratulatory call from a Burroughs running back predecessor, Ezekiel Elliott. Jake was a star and a stud, strong and strapping, the center of attention — yet hidden in sight.
“When you're kind of half yourself, showing everyone half yourself pretty much, it weighs on you,” said Jake, 18. “I definitely always tried to play to that macho status of a football player with a girlfriend, so I was definitely trying to cover all the bases so people wouldn't find out. I had a couple girlfriends in high school at Burroughs. People used to always describe me as a ladies man. … I was still questioning what I really wanted. Was I bisexual? Was I gay? It was definitely a time where I was able to verify it for myself.”
The summer before his junior season, the best player on the reigning state champs started telling people he was gay. Back as a freshman, he'd privately told his best friend. And Patrick Bolster told Jake: “I'm in your corner, always.” Finally, in the summer of 2016, Jake told his mother. And his father. And his brothers. And teammates. They were exceptionally accepting.
“Coming out does not have to be anything other than what a person wants it to be,” said Jake's grandfather Jim, age 77, who is in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. “Maybe the hardest thing for some will be talking to the people that care about them the most. …
“We are so happy that he's the type of person that he is — that he's kind to others, a good leader with how he treats people. And he has a lot of strong qualities as an athlete and as a person.”
That was the key for Jake — that he was still just Jake. Same guy. Same running back that bulldozes linebackers inconveniently in his way. Same camp counselor. Same team leader. Same guy he was when you admired him yesterday.
August of '16. Word spread. Jake Bain? And soon, Jake began dating Hunter Sigmund, a Burroughs classmate and swimmer. The Burroughs community prides itself on acceptance, and here was perhaps the most symbolic example of it — their homegrown hero, proudly out of the closet.
And then the football season began.
CONSEQUENCES OF COMING OUT
The text messages would come from numbers Jake did not know.
He'd recognize the 314, sure, or the 636, but the people who texted him didn't identify themselves. His cell number had been passed around, school to school, and students texted vile homophobic slurs to Jake. Each text, a sucker punch. That junior football season, he'd get messages day after day — hateful, hurtful words that pierced the 17-year-old boy.
“There was one night, this guy started sending me hate stuff, and it was one of the few times that I responded,” Jake said. “I shouldn't have, I shouldn't have given him the attention. But the words he was saying started getting worse and worse. I was laying in my bed. And I thought to myself — I really don't know if I can do it anymore. I cried myself to sleep that night. …
“That's the hard part about it — it's something I'm born with. It's like the color of our skin, I can't change it. So the fact that people can attack you over something you can't change?”
At least once a game, a player from the other team fired off a gay slur at Jake. One guy barked: “Gay people shouldn't be on the football field.” A Burroughs teammate once retaliated and got a penalty, and Jake was suffocated by emotions, proud that his teammate stood up for him, enraged by the slur, disheartened that because of something personal, all this was happening — and now his own team was being penalized.
A player from another team posted a hateful slogan about Jake and Burroughs on Instagram.
Imagine the comments.
“Kids were brutal,” said Jake's grandmother, Carole. “They said horrible things. … Bullies are kids that don't have confidence. And the only way to make themselves feel better is to put someone else down.”
Jake's grandparents have seen the evolution of our society, of our city. They remember previous generations, when it was such a big deal for people from different religions to date each other — compared to how that is perceived today.
And Jim Lemen remembers the reaction from his own parents, in 1971, when he and Carole adopted an African-American baby daughter.
“They were very prejudiced,” Jim said. “But it only lasted about six months.”
“People can really change,” Carole said. “She was so beloved by them after a while. … I think people have to have a real, personal experience to have them turn (their thoughts) around. … A lot of people don't have the opportunity, therefore they're not as open to things that are different or changing. They see the world as just one way.”
That 2016 football season, Jake continued to play hard. He leaned on his grandparents for wisdom. And his support group, notably his mother, coach and boyfriend.
“It's hard not to let it get to you — at the end of the day, I'm an 18-year-old kid,” Jake said this month. “Dealing with that stuff is definitely hard. But it makes me stronger. It makes me realize there are people out there who are going to inherently not accept me. And that's something I'm going to have to work with. …
“There were times I thought it might be easier and go back in the closet, leave St. Louis, switch schools and start over. But I knew that's not what I truly wanted.”
'I COULD FINALLY BE TRUE TO MYSELF'
The football star stood at the podium in front of his fellow classmates and faculty at John Burroughs, wearing a shirt that read: #PRIDE.
Jake gave a speech.
“There were countless nights that I would cry myself to sleep, begging to wake up straight,” he said. “And asking why it had to be me, why can't I just be normal?”
It was the autumn of 2017, during his senior football season. National Coming Out Day was coming up. At an all-school assembly, Jake spoke for 13 heartbreaking and heartwarming minutes.
“For the first time in my life I could finally be true to myself — I owed it to myself to be me,” Jake said at one point. “I also felt like I owed it to everyone out there who was in the same position — and felt lost and alone like I did.”
He began to get choked up, pausing to gather himself.
“I've been given this platform by the successes in sports and my ability to connect with a lot of people,” Jake said. “I hope that people out there who are too afraid to come out — because of what people might think of them — will see me in this position and have the courage to be themselves, as well.
“I'm with you and in your corner — both to support you and give you any advice you may need. Trust me, I know it's hard.”
He was crying. And quivering. But he made sure he got out every single word.
“I'll do everything in my power to make it OK to be yourself,” Jake continued. “I hope that one day people won't have to come out, the same way straight people don't have to come out. I hope that we as a society get to the point where it doesn't matter who someone chooses to love — and that we are judged by the content of our character, rather than what gender we are attracted to. …
“I wouldn't change who I am for anything.”
After his speech, five students reached out to Jake.
Five students, lost and alone like Jake once was. Five students confiding in Jake that they, too, are gay — and now felt like someone was in their corner.
Jake's courage and character has touched such a variety of people. He remembers the texts he got from a “very high-profile high school athlete in St. Louis.” The player admitted, after hearing that the great Jake Bain was actually gay, that he now sees gay people in a positive way.
“He never really knew a gay person, and that's just the environment he came up in,” Jake said. “So he had his own perceptions of what gay people were, how they acted. That's the problem. There are so many different perceptions and stereotypes placed on gay people — until you get to know one.”
TAKING HIS GAME TO THE COLLEGE LEVEL
Jake sure wanted to be a Sycamore.
Indiana State coach Curt Mallory has a vision, and Jake sees it, too. And similarly to Jake, Mallory comes from an impressive football family — Mallory's father took Indiana to six bowl games as its coach, and Mallory's two brothers are NFL assistants.
Jake liked this guy's energy. And Indiana State is just a few hours from St. Louis. So Jake sat in Mallory's office with his grandparents on a summer day in 2017, “when I felt it was the right time to let them know,” Jake recalled. “So I said, 'Before I commit here, I want to let you know that I'm openly gay, and if that's an issue at all, then I understand, and we can go our separate ways.'
“And it couldn't have gone any better.
“He was very supportive from the beginning. And I'm so thankful for Indiana State for giving me the opportunity to play — and accepting me for who I am. It would have been easy for them to say they weren't sure they wanted to deal with the publicity that would come from it. And that's something I would've had to accept. But they've accepted me with open arms.”
On Wednesday at Burroughs, in a cramped room with onlookers, a TV camera and a cookie cake, Jake officially signed with Indiana State. He carefully placed a blue hat on his head. He was a Sycamore. His mother teared up. His coach gave him a hug.
Tell coach John Merritt that Jake wants to be a teacher and coach, just like he is, and you can see the pride in Merritt's face. In his smile. In his eyes. Merritt has been there for the journey. He's helped guide it, even pave some of the path.
“Listen, we want to win football games, we want to be tough and strong,” said Merritt, who coached the 2015 state champions. “But also, I look at our roster. I have Asian players, I have Muslim players, I have gay players, I have straight players, I have black players, I have white players — we have tremendous diversity. And the way that works is by being inclusive.
“One of the things we talk about in our football program all the time is — our biggest charge is to love one another. It's our human cause, it's our human condition, and we try to build our football team around that. … The wins are great. The life lessons are better for me. If we go 0-36 in the next four years, and I have 10 more Jake Bains who become men and are true to themselves? Then those are great seasons.”
At a busy coffee shop last weekend, Jim and Carole Lemen sat in the corner. The septuagenarians have seen generations of students come through — Carole as an elementary teacher, Jim as a teacher and the great coach at John Burroughs. And over the decades, Jake's grandparents themselves have endured prejudices and taught kindness and seen the best of St. Louis and the worst of St. Louis.
“I think we live in a very challenging world today,” Carole said. “I think we're going backward in how we treat people and what's acceptable. And I think Jake is the kind of person that can make a difference.”