Mike Zimmer said he received a phone call several months ago from former "Bachelor" Colton Underwood to discuss an important personal matter.
"He seemed super relieved like a huge weight was taken off his shoulders," said Zimmer, Underwood's close friend and teammate at Illinois State University where the two played college football together.
That weight lifted off Underwood's shoulders was the revelation that he's gay – a truth Underwood told the entire world on Wednesday in an emotional interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"It was a little shocking," Zimmer said. "It took amazing courage to do that with me and then publicly. I wouldn't expect anything less from him as a person. He's been able to navigate his public life and he's had times in his life where he's had to dig down deep and fortify himself, to find that strength. That's what he's doing here."
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Colton Underwood played football at Illinois State from 2010-13. (Photo: Courtesy of Illinois State University Athletics)
Underwood was a two-time All-American as part of ISU's program from 2010-13 – recording 215 career tackles while playing as a linebacker and tight end. He helped guide the Redbirds to the FCS playoff quarterfinals in 2012. Underwood latched on with several teams in the NFL after going undrafted— with the San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders, though he never appeared in a game.
"Everyone knows him as this popular guy," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "He was a poster child for doing everything right on the football field and in training. He was one of the hardest workers I've ever coached as both a student and an athlete. I've always been very proud of him and couldn't be happier for him. I think I speak for all of his former teammates in saying that we support him in coming (out as gay). He always led by example here (at Illinois State) and he's doing that (in his public life)."
On GMA on Wednesday, Underwood described football being his main identity and that locker room homophobic language throughout his high school and college career played a part in him staying closeted. Former teammate Jordan Neukirch said he reached out to Underwood personally to let him know he regretted using any discriminatory language back then and that it wasn't reflective of how much he respected him.
"You never know what's going on in someone's inner world," Neukirch said. "We used to joke around because Colton was this good looking guy who wasn't always after girls, they were after him. Looking back, I wish I would have been more sensitive. I just told him anything I said back then was never meant to be (hurtful) or make him feel like he couldn't be himself. I can see how a (sports) culture could make that hard."
Underwood was courted by more than 30 women on the 23rd season of "The Bachelor" and notably jumped an 8-foot fence while pursuing his now ex-girlfriend Cassie Randolph. But Underwood said he was lying to himself and the outside world, driving self-hatred to push him to the brink of suicide in 2020. While he was once in a "dark place," Underwood said on Wednesday he's the
"happiest and healthiest I've ever been in my life and that means the world to me."
Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris, another teammate of Underwood's at Illinois State, said his friend's personal well-being came from being authentic.
"As long as my guy is happy, that's all that matters," Harris said on Twitter. "Happy for you bro to live your truth. You still ugly but that's okay! Love you my guy."
Zimmer and Neukirch were Underwood's college roommates for two years and recalled how the now 29-year-old was quiet and soft-spoken in his first few years on campus in Normal, Illinois, before being thrust into a more vocal role as a leader when he became one of the Redbirds' best players.
"He always wanted to play in the NFL and he always loved the ('Bachelor') show," Zimmer said. "To see him accomplish two of his dreams was pretty cool."
Spack recalled a memory when Underwood played through a hamstring injury in 2012 and how his mental and physical toughness was so respected by his teammates. That same inner strength is on display now, and as Spack put it, "if Colton's happy, we're all happy with him. His happiness is the most important thing."
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