On the football field, high school star running back Jake Bain relied on offensive linemen to block for him, clear his path.
On Monday, the senior at John Burroughs School in Ladue, Mo., saw that a lot of people are willing to do the same for him off the field.
When the school and LGBTQ communities heard last week that members of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., planned to protest Monday at the school against Bain, they organized a peaceful counter-protest.
Westboro, known for protest signs that say "God Hates Fags," targeted Bain because he came out as gay at a school assembly last year on National Coming Out Day.
St. Louis media noted that he was the first openly gay star athlete in local high schools. He was recently honored as a "Hometown Hero" at Pride Night during a St. Louis Blues game, Fox 2 in St. Louis reported.
“This beast is vaunted as the best thing that has happened to football since Knute Rockne,” a Feb. 24 press release on the church's website read. “In fact, in the wake of this football playing fag phenomenon, Knute is just a proverbial water boy.”
On Monday, dueling protests set up outside the school — Westboro on one side of the street, more than 100 Bain supporters on the other, easily outnumbering the Topeka protesters and drowning out the hate speech with music and chanting.
“The other protestors only had about 20 people,” counter-protester Alayah Lipnick, a sophomore from Whitfield High School, told The St. Louis American. “I think we really brought it today to let the LGBT community know we support them no matter what.”
According to Fox 2, Burroughs students and faculty avoided engaging the Westboro protesters but participated in events inside the school to show their support for Bain.
Students wore rainbow-colored clothing. Videos from alumni declaring their support were shown, including a message from Bain's oldest brother, Jon Hoeven, who married his husband just last summer, according to the Statesmen.
Hoeven came out in college because he was too insecure to do it while at Burroughs, where he graduated in 2004, Bain said.
Bain went outside the school and talked to the counter-protesters as the demonstration concluded.
“I thought it was so amazing to see how supportive not only the Burroughs community was but the entire St. Louis community as a whole,” he told the American.
“There were so many people there who I’d never met before that were willing to come out and support me and support my community. It was a really cool thing to see that this hate was able to be turned into so much love and support for the LGBT community.”
He was open about his sexuality on social media before he spoke publicly about it at a school assembly last October, according to KSDK in St. Louis. The station also noted the stats that made Bain one of the greatest players in John Burroughs history: 50 touchdowns, 3,700 rushing yards, a "stunning 255-yard performance" in the state championship game, nine returns for touchdowns and "his school record in the 400 meters."
Other teams' players targeted him on the field during games.
"Stay down, you fag," players would say after tackling him.
Football isn't a sport for gay people, people told him.
"I never gave my opponents the satisfaction that they were getting to me,” he told KSDK.
In fact, his openness about his sexuality seemed to make his star shine even brighter.
“I was, one, proud of him, and two, I admired him for his bravery," Bain's football coach, John Merritt, told KSDK of the day Bain came out to the school. "To stand up in front of the student body and profess anything about your identity is certainly a moment of courage."
Recruited by Division I schools, Bain chose to play football for Indiana State, but only after meeting with head coach Curt Mallory and his family.
He told Mallory: "I love the place. I love everything about Indiana State but before I commit the next four years of my life, I want you to know I am an openly gay person and that is something that is a part of my life."