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Walking across the Macalester College campus, Chris Kluwe passes unnoticed. As usual, the 30-year-old Vikings punter is dressed down: a pair of brown flip-flops, black basketball shorts, and a baggy zip-up sweatshirt. A backward World of Warcraft hat pins back his shaggy brown surfer hair, a giveaway to the Southern California boy's roots on this cool autumn afternoon in Minnesota.
Kluwe climbs a staircase to the second floor of a glass building where an LGBT group called No H8—an offshoot of the campaign against California's Proposition 8—holds a promotional photo shoot. No one is expecting him.
"Are you here to have your picture taken?" a woman asks as Kluwe approaches the check-in.
He nods modestly. "I'm Chris Kluwe, by the way."
Kluwe demurs bashfully, somewhere between cool and uncomfortable.
Two young photographers whisk him away to a white backdrop and toss him a plain V-neck. Kluwe peels off his sweatshirt and an anime T-shirt, exposing his muscular torso, the product of a workout he calls "Operation Adrian Abs" after the Vikings running back. The photographers stamp his cheek with a "No H8" logo, slap a strip of duct tape over his mouth, and begin posing him: "Cross your arms." "Now hold them out like this."
As word of Kluwe's identity spreads, the shoot becomes a spectacle. A dozen students gawk, whispering to one another and snapping pictures with their camera phones. By the time Kluwe changes back into his own clothes, a line of more than 30 onlookers has formed behind him.
"More pictures?" he asks, and poses with every one of them, including the two photographers working the event.
"Thank you for what you're doing," one says as Kluwe heads for the door. "It means so much to so many people."
Although homophobia is far from extinct, the tide of public opinion seems to pull inexorably against bigotry. Last year, Congress repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. Following a string of highly publicized suicides, schools across the country finally got the message and began taking an aggressive stance against gay bullying.
Yet in 2012, none of the four major American sports have ever seen an active, openly gay player. This is why major league sports are often regarded as America's last closet.
"During the times when I played, if I would have came out, I felt like I would have been hurt," says Esera Tuaolo, a former Vikings player who came out publicly in 2002, after retiring a few years earlier. "You talk about bounties in New Orleans. How much do you think it would cost to take the gay guy out? To take the fag out?"
But in Minnesota's near-deadlocked vote to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman, Kluwe has emerged as the unlikely spokesman for Vote No.
"He's going to save it for us, I swear it to you," says Tracy Call, founder of Minnesotans for Equality. "And it's going to be him alone."
Having no background in politics, Kluwe sneaked into the fight through the back door after writing a passionate and colorfully vulgar letter laying out his support of gay marriage, in the process telling a Maryland legislator that gays getting married wouldn't transform him into a "lustful cock monster." The letter blew up on Deadspin with millions of views and hurled Kluwe into the national spotlight as football's most aggressive straight ally to the gay rights movement.
"I teared up," says Tuaolo. "For me, it was like Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech."
In early October, Kluwe's celebrity in the gay community crystallized when he appeared shirtless in a provocative cover story for Out magazine, which heralded Kluwe as the "unlikely face of marriage equality." The Maryland Legislature recently awarded him an official citation for his "work in standing up for the equality of all." And The New York Times even flew a reporter out to Minnesota to profile Kluwe.
Beyond the gay marriage debate, Kluwe's defense of same-sex rights is further evidence that the culture in major league sports is finally changing, says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes.
"For a long time, I equated sports and the military as sort of the two last bastions where it was OK to be anti-gay," Woog says. "The military is now doing fine with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and I think sports is headed there."
On a Tuesday afternoon, Kluwe is in a place no punter wants to be: a wheelchair. As he shovels chips and salsa into his mouth, Tiffiny Carlson, a bubbly blond quadriplegic woman across the table, wants to know what he'd do if football was no longer an option.
"Open a tabletop miniature store in Southern California," he answers without hesitation.
"Really?" she asks, tickled. "I never thought you'd be into that!"
"I'm a huge nerd," he concedes, paying no regard to the boom mic hovering above or the two cameramen circling like vultures.