Cardinal coach comes out
Dust not settled in aftermath of announcement
August 12. 2014 1:52PM
A St. Mary High School coach who last week announced he is gay doesn’t know if he’ll be invited back to coach another season of volleyball at the Dell Rapids Catholic school.
Nate Alfson, the coach of the St. Mary Cardinals volleyball team last year, published a letter he penned on Outsports.com in which he said he is a gay man and detailed many of the challenges he’s faced living in silence and since coming to terms with his sexuality three years ago.
"I can breathe, I can smile, and I'm not afraid to cry, and I'm not afraid to feel what I'm feeling," said Alfson, 25, who spent last week fielding interviews from dozens of news outlets, including a few national publications.
In the essay, published online Aug. 5, the former Augustana College athlete described himself as a "gay, Christian athlete with a lot of different interests."
Alfson knows he may have put his coaching job in jeopardy because he is employed by a private school system guided by a faith that rejects homosexuality.
"I haven't yet told officials at the Catholic high school where I coach volleyball. This might be a challenge but I am confident it will work out for the best and the Earth will still keep turning regardless of the outcome. I hope it doesn't affect my opportunity to be a good role model for the athletes," Alfson wrote in the letter.
Since the news broke that he was gay, Alfson said he’s been in contact with officials at the school, but they haven’t gave him any indication if he’ll be offered the coaching job for the upcoming season.
Alfson said he is unsure if he signed a multi-year contract that would include this season, which begins practice Aug. 14, or if last year's contract was for one year only. The school district knows he is willing to coach for a second year, he said.
"After our loss last year, the girls cried because they've had a new coach for the last five years in a row," Alfson said. "They said 'You're not leaving too?' and I was like, 'Nope, I'll stick around and see what happens.'"
The decision, he said, isn’t likely to be made by Catholics in Dell Rapids.
“Some of them (at St. Mary) have shared their support and they’ve been nothing but fantastic, but in the end it’s not really on them as people and administrators. It’s on the Diocese in Sioux Falls or further than that even,” Alfson said.
Calls to St. Mary High School athletic director and principal Brad Peters and Sioux Falls Diocese spokesperson Jerry Klein were not returned. St. Mary’s Fr. John Lantsberger declined to comment.
Last year the Cardinals volleyball team ended its season with a 13-15 record, the best in its history. The team advanced past the first round of the playoffs for just the second time ever.
Nationwide, several Catholic school employees have lost jobs after coming out as gay. The New York Times reporting on the issue in January said Catholic school employees generally sign contracts saying they will abide by church teachings, which do not accept homosexuality.
Federal law prohibits discrimination against certain classes, but the issue of sexual orientation currently is being discussed, said Laura Millett of Aberdeen, state spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management.
Local sportscaster Mike Henriksen, a Dell Rapids resident, said Alfson probably is the first former college athlete in South Dakota and the first coach in the state to come out as gay.
"When you're the first at anything, I think that's big," he said. "Right now a kid somewhere outside of Redfield, 15, 16 years old, is wrestling with the fact he's gay. Or in Winner, or a gal in Sioux Falls. Nate is a coach and an athlete, and I think that opens a few more doors."
Alfson said he hopes coming out doesn't affect St. Mary officials' decision to bring him back to coach. If he is not rehired at St. Mary, he would like to continue coaching at the high school level. His experience at St. Mary gave him a respect for high school athletes, Alfson said.
"I never expected actually to be a high school coach," he said. "Only at college — that's where athletes are really good. I was completely wrong. There are some really talented athletes in the high school system, and the effect you play on an athlete when you make a connection with them is arguably one of the most rewarding things as an adult and as a coach."
In his full-time job, Alfson is a program coordinator for Progress Inc. in Pipestone, Minn., which helps adults with disabilities. He first was approached about coaching volleyball by a player's mother, who had seen pictures on Facebook of him participating in a volleyball tournament.
A former coach warned him the Catholic school district may have prohibitions against rehiring him, even if individual players or parents want him to return, Alfson said.
"It is what it is. If it happens, I completely understand, and I can't change that right now. But I can start," he said.
"The pope has got all sorts of different pushes; he's been pushing Christianity to love one another and to be kind to one another and to really understand that it is OK. I figure if the pope can do that, then most other Catholics should be able to figure it out."
Volleyball isn’t Alfson’s only passion. The Pipestone native is also a standout player on Dell Rapids’ amateur baseball team. Before this summer’s season, he coached a club baseball team in the spring comprised of teenagers from Dell Rapids, St. Mary and Baltic high schools.
Chad Hansen, president of the Dell Rapids Baseball Association, said all hiring decisions are done by committee, but at a glance he sees no reason not to hire Alfson back as coach of the varsity club next season.
“I don’t think Nate’s announcement changes his coaching or baseball abilities,” Hansen said.
Alfson’s teammate Jordan Solberg, a first baseman for PBR who also coaches Dell Rapids’ American Legion team, agreed with Hansen.
“He’s a great coach and one of the smartest guys about baseball and knows what he’s doing,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter at all.”
Responses like Solberg and Hansen’s have Alfson feeling at ease after going public as the first openly gay high school coach in South Dakota.
“I feel normal and I feel like myself and I don’t feel anxious anymore,” he said. “I don’t think about it anymore and I don’t have anything to hide anymore.”