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The Healer

Editor's note: This story appeared in the Feb. 16, 2004, edition of ESPN The Magazine.

It was a journey he had made countless times. The stadium lights were off, the last banged-up player bandaged, iced and sent home. Lindsy McLean would pull out of the deserted lot on Candlestick Point and snake the darkened streets of San Francisco. As he drove, his mind would pivot from one world to another. At the Sunday night services in the Castro, few knew or cared about his five diamond-and-gold-studded Super Bowl rings. At the stadium, few knew about the gay church.

He spent more than 20 years on the brink of putting his two lives together, but he'd always step back. Worried about what his peers would think. Worried about his mom's reaction back in Nashville. About embarrassing Bill Walsh, godfather of the 49ers family, who lured him from Bo Schembechler in '79. And not least, fearful of being terrorized by players he'd kept on the field and in the money.

That was then. Now, on a late-November Sunday six months into his retirement, McLean whizzes by the stadium exit on his way to the city. He walks through the rain and fog into the Metropolitan Community Church, takes his place in the pews, nods at the familiar faces ... and smiles. At 65, the dean of NFL trainers has hung up his tape. The next person he patches together will be himself.

"A Home For Queer Spirituality," the church signboard announces. Queer, at least in this corner of America, is a blessing. Here there are no thoughtless linemen bent on humiliation, no ungrateful running backs to brand the guy who taped their ankles and bandaged their scrapes a faggot. Just a lot of regular guys like him, looking for sanctuary.

McLean is a long way from the Southern Baptist church where he grew up singing in the choir. Fundamentally, he's the same man. Only now he prays for his partner, George Paiva, who suffers from HIV and liver cancer. He prays for a little peace and comfort. He claps and sways along to the gospel.

There is strength in the name of our God
There is hope in the name of God

His bright-red 49ers parka is slung over the back of his seat.

* * *

LIKE ANY head trainer, Lindsy McLean is a keeper of secrets. He could tell you who plays hurt and who dogs it. He could tell you which guy is faithful to his wife or girlfriend and which one chases skirt the minute the team plane touches down. He could tell you whose bodies are chemically enhanced and whose are faithful testaments to hard hours in the weight room. He could tell you who's probably gay, who's certainly not, and who, when the topic surfaces, protests a bit too much. He could, but he never will. McLean adheres to the trainer's version of doctor-patient confidentiality. He'll go to his grave with their secrets. But not his own.

Every team – every successful team, that is – has a guy like Lindsy McLean in its locker room. We're not talking about sexual orientation here. We're talking about competence and talent and trustworthiness, combined with an essential yet mysterious ability to fade into the background.

McLean still lives in Redwood City, a short drive from the 49ers' Santa Clara training facility. Inside his unimposing bungalow, he opens a door to a tiny room packed with memorabilia. A photo album overflows with beaming faces and their tributes: Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Jeff Garcia, Keena Turner. "George has conceded this room to me as long as I don't spread all this stuff around," he says with a laugh. A framed domestic partnership certificate bearing the California state seal hangs, far more visibly, in a hallway. "It's just a little recognition of our relationship," he says. "Just like any other couple might have."

Modesty was a bedrock value in the Nashville of his youth, where sports and the gospel were never far apart. Saturdays, McLean's father, Joe Lindsy Sr., took him to games at Vanderbilt. Sunday mornings found him in the choir at Woodmont Baptist. To his chagrin, he was a far better singer than athlete. But he loved sports, so he volunteered to help out with the high school baseball and football teams.

"I was really good at tracking down foul balls from kids who'd take off with them," he says. "I chased them for blocks."

It was on the football sidelines that he learned to use a first-aid kit. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1960, he worked as an assistant trainer at San Jose State and UC Santa Barbara, then landed at Michigan. At the time, the profession wasn't much of a profession at all, more a loose affiliation of trainers feeling their way through uncharted territory. McLean and a small group of colleagues set out to establish national athletic training standards, standards that are largely in place today.McLean was also reinventing his personal life, grappling with his sexuality. "I dated women until I moved to Michigan," he says. "I finally decided it wasn't physiologically possible for me, and that it was time I stopped hurting women by going out with them." He made weekly forays into the gay bar scene in Detroit, where he fell in love with a bartender. The two dated for five years, during which McLean felt a growing tension between his perceived need for secrecy and his hatred of it.By 1979, when Walsh called him for an interview, McLean was feeling hemmed in by small-town life. He leaped at the chance to join the 49ers. Walsh, of course, had no idea he was doing him a huge favor. Not long after he arrived, McLean met Paiva at a bar. The two shared a passion for travel and theater, but not football. That didn't stop them from forming a relationship that has lasted 24 years.

Maybe it was naïveté, or his fierce independence hiding behind the trainer's diligent and deferential demeanor. But unlike the baseball player Billy Bean or footballers Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo, McLean stopped going out of his way to disguise his sexual orientation at work. He wasn't comfortable talking about his personal life, not by any means, but he had not-so-subtle ways of letting it be known from time to time. "I was 40, and I wasn't a player, so I couldn't understand why I had to hide," he says.

In 1982, McLean took Paiva to a team Christmas party. Looking back, he thinks it wasn't a great idea, mostly because his partner, a shy man, felt uncomfortable and stood in a corner for most of the night. Suddenly, within the organization, McLean's sexual orientation was an open secret. That was no problem in the office suite, but the trainer's room was adjacent to the locker room, where "fag" and "homo" were, and are, favorite put-downs. "It's just the worst thing someone can call you," McLean says. "It's supposed to mean weakness."

And just as quickly, the words were aimed at him. At first he pretended not to hear. When a defensive back refused to allow him to tape a pulled groin muscle, he simply told an assistant to "take care of that guy." When he had to summon a player from the shower for treatment, he made a point of keeping his head down or staring at the wall. He made sure guys were covered in the training room. He rarely socialized with players, even though his relationships with them were almost always good.

Much of the time, the players treated him like an eccentric uncle. Back in the early '90s, when they realized that McLean's full head of sandy hair was not his own, they took up a collection to persuade him to lift his toupee. When McLean refused, the wad of bills in the helmet grew. And grew. McLean, hardly accustomed to piles of cash, reconsidered. He walked to the middle of the locker room and doffed the hairpiece, revealing a shiny bald head. The players hooted and howled.

But the unfriendly incidents kept him on edge. At the very least, as when an injured All-Pro guard grumbled within earshot, "That faggot trainer's not taking care of me," they wrecked his day. At worst, they left McLean feeling physically intimidated.

It's not clear how to describe what was being done to him. Harassment seems too legalistic. Hazing is what veterans do to rookies, not middle-aged trainers. The perpetrators might protest they were just joking around. "They were cruel," he says. "They hurt. They made me feel ashamed."

To this day, the humiliation reddens his face as the stories pour out. The time a running back, frustrated over a career-threatening knee injury, shouted You f -- in' faggot at him, over and over, in the middle of an empty locker room. Or the time he found his 49ers cap cut to ribbons, courtesy, he later discovered, of a guy he'd just spent hours with, getting him ready for a big game. Or the time an All-Pro linebacker got in his face and repeatedly taunted him: Want a woman tonight, McLean? When's the last time you got some, McLean? How about the episodes, starting in the early '90s, when a 350-pound lineman would chase him around, grab him from behind, push him against a locker and simulate rape. Get over here, bitch. I know what you want. The lineman, a starter in this year's Super Bowl, reprised his act whenever he could; even after he was traded to another team, he'd sneak up on McLean in the locker room or alongside the team bus.

Kirk Reynolds, the 49ers' media relations director, witnessed one such scene. "There were coaches there, wives, sponsors, players, and we were all standing around waiting for the bus," he recalls. "At first I thought the guy was joking. But it became clear it was something else. It was disturbing and bizarre." McLean felt paralyzed. "I thought he'd get his jollies and stop," he says. "But he never did. The guy is huge. What was I going to do?" He's reluctant to point fingers at anyone other than the offender. "I was disappointed no one ever intervened," he says softly. "I wasn't worried so much about myself. I felt badly for my staff. The guys obviously felt awkward and embarrassed for me."

Anywhere else in the Bay Area, this was a fireable offense. But even in the most enlightened organization in the NFL, people looked the other way. McLean now wonders if he wasn't confrontational enough, and if his reluctance to be more open about his own life left others uncertain about how to help him. As he gained confidence over the years, he began taking a more direct approach, at least with the players he thought he could reason with.

In 1997, a local TV station aired a Christmastime report on the Metropolitan Community Church. McLean, as usual, was in the congregation. A player sauntered into the training room the next day, chirping about the "fag church," clearly hoping to embarrass the head trainer. "I saw you on TV last night, McLean," the guy said in a singsong voice. "I saw you!" McLean had heard enough. "You saw me," he shot back. "So what?" No response. "And I never heard another antigay comment from him after that," McLean says. "He knew he couldn't get to me anymore. He knew I knew who I was."

Soon after that, the linebacker hectored McLean about his lack of interest in chasing women. McLean waited until he was alone with the player in the weight room. "I need to talk to you," he said. "You've been giving me a hard time about some things. I'd like you to stop. I'm different than you are, but I think I'm a good person, and I don't deserve this." For once, the guy was speechless.

* * *

IN AN office one floor above the locker room, Bill Walsh rocks back and forth in a black leather chair, fidgeting with a pen, as he discusses his relationship with his old friend. He says he wished he'd known about the abuse: "I'm sure bad things like that happened. There's no way I would have known these things because he was so private. If he'd come to me, he knows all hell would have broken loose.

I suppose that's why he never told me."

It's not that their friendship was distant. They amused each other for years with playful banter and dry wit. But they never discussed their private lives until McLean's retirement. "Bill was so focused on winning football games," says McLean, "there wasn't much time for anything else."

Walsh remembers being asked not long ago by a college student whether he'd ever worked with anyone in football who was gay. "Not that I know of," he said then. He shakes his head. "I've worked with Lindsy all these years, knowing he was gay, and it never came to mind. It's just not the kind of thing we talked about."

The day after McLean's retirement party, Walsh handed him a gift: a trip to Hawaii for both McLean and Paiva, whom Walsh calls "Lindsy's pal." As they discussed the logistics, McLean told Walsh that Paiva has had HIV since 1985, and is not always up to the rigors of travel. Walsh said, "Well, we'd better schedule it now, while he can enjoy it." Then he said something that shocked his old friend: "You know, Lindsy, my son had AIDS." Public reports said only that Steve Walsh, a radio broadcaster in Denver, had died in 2002 after a long battle with leukemia. McLean had heard people talk about the cause of Steve's death, but he'd been too respectful of Bill's privacy to mention it. Now the coach with the legendary reserve had done it himself.

"Football's been my consolation for such a long time," Walsh says. His words trail off. "These are the kinds of things for which there is no strategy, no easy answer. You just get through it."

* * *

THE 49ERS won five Super Bowls by building the best organization in football, and not just on the field. Top-down and bottom-up, they brought in the best minds and bodies and gave them the tools they needed to be successful. They treated players and staff with respect and caring, and expected them to treat one another the same way.

When running back Garrison Hearst fractured a fibula in a 1999 playoff game in Atlanta, McLean rushed to his side. As he placed Hearst's arm around his shoulders and helped him off the field, the head trainer was already plotting the player's comeback. For the next two years, McLean and the training staff guided Hearst through several operations and countless hours of rehab. Hearst made it back into the starting lineup in 2001. Though he had lost a step and some of his power, his strength of will helped propel the Niners to the playoffs. "I was so proud of him," McLean says. "A lot of guys would have given up, lost their spirit. I never saw Garrison doubt even for a second he'd make it back." Whenever he got the chance, Hearst made sure to thank his loyal trainer. Then in November 2002, McLean read this quote from Hearst in the morning paper: "I don't want any faggots on my team."

The comment, in response to Tuaolo's coming-out story in The Magazine and on HBO, was harsh but hardly unusual. In 1998 Reggie White declared the nation has retreated from God by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant." Last year, Jeremy Shockey made headlines for calling Bill Parcells a "homo." And in December, Lions president Matt Millen, a former 49er who's on a first-name basis with McLean, called the Chiefs' Johnnie Morton a "faggot" during an angry postgame rant.

But in the Bay Area, where the gay community wields political clout and the Niners covet public support for a costly drive to replace Candlestick Park, such remarks are the equivalent of a personal foul. The club endeared itself in 1997 by becoming the first football franchise to adopt health insurance benefits for same-sex partners of its employees. McLean, who had been trading his season tickets to two AIDS doctors in exchange for George's medical care, was one of the few to sign up for it.

As pressure mounted to fine or suspend Hearst, John York, who owns the team with his wife, Denise, had a heart-to-heart talk with him. The team organized a public act of contrition. "First of all, I want to apologize to the gay community for the comments that I made," Hearst told the media. "I didn't realize they would be so harmful. Me being African-American, I know that discrimination is wrong. I know that I was wrong saying what I said."

It wasn't long before the faces of Denise and John York could be seen on the pages of the local gay newspaper, smiling and mingling with the patrons of a gay bar. Back in Santa Clara, York was surprised to get a call from his PR guy. The head trainer wanted to talk. York, a medical doctor, had gained enormous respect for McLean's ability over the years. "In addition to the obvious competence, I could see the kindness and care in the way Lindsy treated players," York says.

In a conversation in York's office, the two exchanged pleasantries. Then McLean got to the point. "If it would help in any way right now," McLean said, "I'd like to come out in public and defend the organization." York was floored. Until then, he says, he knew nothing of his trainer's sexual orientation. "First of all, this doesn't change my impression of you one bit," York responded. "Second, this offer is beyond the call of duty."

McLean says he was never angry with Hearst. "Garrison didn't know what he was talking about," he says. "That doesn't make him a bad person." The two have never broached the subject. "It says a lot about Lindsy's professionalism that he didn't let it change his relationship with Garrison," says defensive tackle Bryant Young, a friend to both men. "It must have hurt. But he dismissed it and moved on."

A year past the furor, on a Monday morning after Thanksgiving, Hearst hobbles on crutches into an interview room. A photocopy of a handwritten quote by Walsh, now a consultant to the club, is taped to the wall. "You must be willing," it says in part, "to perish before conceding."

Scars and bandages dominate Hearst's legs. He's on his way to an MRI that will reveal a torn ligament, which will cause him to miss the rest of the season. At 33, with his best days behind him, there's talk he may lose his job to 25-year-old Kevan Barlow. Hearst stares at the floor as he considers both his homophobia and his admiration for McLean. Yes, he learned McLean was gay when he joined the 49ers in 1997. No, he didn't have a problem with it. "Lindsy's cool, man, very cool. He's been here so long, other trainers ask him stuff. He's the head trainer, and that's the only way I ever looked at him. He gets his players back into action." But Hearst can't bring himself to say the word gay. "His personal habit is his personal habit," Hearst says. "It don't matter to me."

Then he looks up and smiles. He's just remembered what brought them together – college football. "He's a Vandy guy, and I'm a Georgia guy. Every year we'd have this little wager."

When this is relayed to the old trainer, he beams. "Of course I know what he's talking about," McLean says. "He got my five bucks every year."

* * *

AFTER SO many years of silence, McLean isn't about to proselytize for the gay cause or evangelize for all those in the sports world who've struggled the way he did. He'd rather fade comfortably into old age, maybe trade his place in Redwood City for a little house with a pool in Palm Springs. These days, he watches the Niners from the comfort of his living room. When a favorite player tears a ligament or breaks a bone, he puts down his beer, reaches for the remote, changes the channel.

His last remaining critic is far tougher than a crazed lineman. It's his 94-year-old mother, Maude, back in Nashville. In a recent letter, he put down on paper all the things he's wanted to tell her for decades. That George is the love of his life, not his roommate. That her son is gay, and proud of it.

Maude wrote back that she's surprised and not entirely pleased about the news. Her son, the head trainer with all the championships, has been the family celebrity. Now he'll be known for something else, something she believes the Bible frowns upon.

"She'll come around," McLean says with a sigh.

Others have. Last October, McLean was a guest of honor at the Niners' alumni dinner. When he agreed to attend, he wondered how he'd be received, how many of the old gladiators knew his story, how they would react when his name was called.

Here's how: When McLean got up to receive his retirement award, the alumni stood up on their creaky knees to cheer. And cheer. And cheer some more. When McLean toddled back to his seat with his trophy, a miniature wooden football on a stand, his ears were ringing. He was followed to the podium by former quarterback John Brodie.

"Hey," Brodie said, "the trainer got the most applause."

Chris Bull is editor of PlanetOut.com.