'My career-ending injury was a beautiful nightmare' - Thomas Beattie on how he finally accepted himself as gay

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Beattie LGBT History Month
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For most players, a career-ending injury is the ultimate fear, but for the former Hull City trainee Thomas Beattie, it probably saved his life

For most players, a career-ending injury is the ultimate fear, the life-altering horror they all dread. For Thomas Beattie, it probably saved his life.

During a game between Warriors and Geylang International in the 2015 S.League – the top division of football in Singapore – the then-29-year-old Beattie challenged for a header with opposition striker Lionel Felice, and they collided.

A standard coming-together on most football pitches around the world, the worst result in most cases being a concussion.

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For Beattie, though, the outcome was far worse.

"I went up for a header and clashed heads – it fractured my frontal lobe in multiple places, both my eye sockets were compressed, my brain haemorrhaged after it hit the skull, I had bone fragments down the back of my eyes," he says, in an exclusive interview with GOAL from his home in Florida. "It was more like a car-crash injury.

"It was a nightmare to go through, but I honestly look back on it and describe it as a beautiful nightmare. Football was all I'd ever known, I'd lost something I loved – but I found myself in the process.

"I remember waking from surgery, and thought, 'I'm not going to spend a single day more trying to appease people I might never meet.'"

These comments might be confusing to the millions who have dreamed of being a professional footballer but never made it.

Why would someone who travelled the world playing the game he loved welcome it being abruptly and prematurely ended in such a violent manner?

However, it was Beattie's chrysalis moment, which allowed him the freedom to make the most important decision of his life – to come out publicly as gay.

"It was a big catalyst for me, to learn to embrace every part of myself and be ok with it," he explains.

"After training, I used to go home and lay on my bed looking at the ceiling, praying that I would wake up and it would all go away.

"I still think if I was playing now, I'd still not be out."

For Beattie, it has been a very long journey to the point where he can sit, 35 years old and still in prime footballer's physical condition, as someone who is proud and comfortable in himself and his identity.

Born in Goole, a small town in West Yorkshire which can be triangulated from the greater footballing centres of Sheffield, Leeds and Hull, Beattie always stood out for his football talents and was signed up by Hull City aged nine.

He appeared to be on a fast track to stardom, playing for an upwardly mobile team who during his time at the club earned Premier League promotion for the first time – but, internally, Beattie was in turmoil, confused and in denial about who he was when faced with his burgeoning sexuality.

"Football was my saviour," he says. "I'm from a small town in Yorkshire; I was always determined I wasn't going to stay there.

"I signed my youth professional contract at Hull when I was 16, straight out of high school, and I was already playing for the reserves. I was playing years above my age in the academy and I was on the trajectory of breaking into the first team.

"I found the ruthlessness of the environment made it difficult to work out who I was at that point. Especially when you're an adolescent, and football becomes your job, your main focus becomes climbing that ladder.

"But I was struggling with something internally which my team-mates weren't. I didn't know what it was, I knew I was different but I just felt that because of the environment I was in, I couldn't embrace every part of myself.

"Where I grew up, I didn't have any role models, I didn't understand what being gay was. So, I hid behind football, focusing every bit of energy on that."

Ultimately, the game could not serve as the be-all and end-all for Beattie. Aged 19, he quit Hull and instead took a college scholarship to play in the United States.

"I felt like I really needed to get out", he says. "I had a year left on my contract, so I went to the club and told them I wanted to leave. They were really good with me, they said they'd support anything I wanted to do.

"In some ways it was very difficult, because it had been all I had ever wanted to do; Hull is my hometown club. At the same time, it was everything I felt like I didn't need."

While Beattie praises Hull for the way they handled his exit, he says there was little by way of support for him to turn to when he was feeling deeply unhappy during his time in the academy system, and upon his breakthrough with the Hull first team aged 16.

Even today, 15 years on, he feels there is not enough structured support for players when they are having personal issues – and it is a problem that does not come only from football, but from the way LGBT+ people are viewed in British life as a whole.

"It's not just a football issue; it's a societal issue," he says. "There are so many misconceptions around sexuality and gender; people assume that if you play football, you cannot be gay.

"In the UK, who do you reach out to? Especially as a young athlete who might be struggling.

"I would never want to speak to anyone at my club as my first point of contact, because it is an exploratory phase and everyone's journey is different.

"You want to be speaking to someone impartial, because when you start those conversations, there is no going back.

"I think it is unrealistic for a 17 year old lad in Sheffield to reach out to the PFA about them struggling with their sexuality. There are people in those departments who are brilliant, but I think for people in that environment, it is unlikely they will take that route.

"We need something in the middle of that route which is less formal, a group which can be a point of contact that can offer support, one which is not tied to a club or the governing bodies of football."

Beattie impressed in the US, playing at Limestone College in North Carolina and becoming their first ever All-American athlete. He was tipped for the MLS draft, but chose to try his luck with trials in Europe instead.

He admits this was a mistake, as the same insecurities that plagued him at Hull returned. Despite being offered contracts at Norwegian Premier League club Sandefjord, and Kilmarnock in the Scottish top tier, he chose to return to North America.

After a year at North American Soccer League side Ottawa Fury, the club folded, leaving Beattie as a free agent. His representative at the time had a suggestion.

"My agent told me Singapore was like 'Diet Asia', you can go there for a year and then move on," Beattie says. "I went there, and I fell in love with the environment. I moved to Warriors, we won the league and qualified for the AFC Champions League, it was an amazing experience travelling all over Asia to play."

Beattie initially signed for Hougang United, before moving on to Warriors in 2014, winning the S.League title in his debut campaign and featuring in their 2015 AFC Champions League campaign, scoring a penalty in the shootout win over Yadanarbon of Myanmar in the first preliminary round before they were defeated by Chinese giants Guangzhou R&F.

Having found success on the pitch, Beattie however was still battling his inner demons.

"That was when I really started to struggle with my sexuality," he says. "I was at an age when a lot of my friends were progressing, getting married, having children, and I hadn't taken one step in progressing my personal life.

"I felt really unfulfilled. I had been married to football up until then, and I'd been ok with that, but I longed for more fulfilment, which football would never give me."

The impact of his poor mental health was affecting Beattie on the pitch too, as his body physically suffered from the stress and lack of sleep that plagued him when away from the dressing room.

"We had a routine where we would train early in the morning, starting at 6.30am so we could train before the midday sun," Beattie says. "We'd train again in the afternoon with a weights session in there, so it was super-intense.

"I wasn't sleeping well, my body was starting to follow the struggle I was going through mentally, and I started picking up niggling injuries.

"Eventually, I tore my hamstring. I was at training having slept for about two hours, so I went to my coach saying I didn't feel great. My body felt like I had been hit by a train, it was overwhelming.

"My coach said, 'Do the warm up, see how you feel.' I agreed, as I never liked missing training. Literally 10 minutes in, I tore my hamstring and was out for a couple of months."

Eventually came the ultimate, career-concluding injury – and, after years of struggle, the clarity Beattie needed to finally be happy in himself.

His appreciation for Singapore has not been tainted by the end of his playing career.

Having moved into business, starting companies in the fitness industry as well as finding success as a mobile technology entrepreneur, he remains based in the south-east Asian nation for half the year.

This is in spite of same-sex relationships still technically being illegal in Singapore. There are also no rights for gay people to get married or adopt. Beattie, however, still insists it feels like home.

He says: "I know many foreigners who are married outside of Singapore, who go there to work and their husbands are granted residency in line with work policies, which the government adheres to.

"There are laws, but it is a pretty open society – you're not going to be in the middle of town and get arrested for being gay.

"It's a progressing nation and different cultures move at different paces. I can't complain about any reaction I had in Singapore, I always felt well supported.

"I can't speak highly enough of Singapore in so many ways, as an out former athlete who resides there for half of the year.

"Honestly, I've found the experience no different to America, or wherever else I've travelled. In the future, we want it to evolve, but it will take time, especially with religion and different societal norms."

Ultimately, Beattie has taken the blows from his career in football – the physical and the mental – and emerged happier and healthier on the other side.

He came out publicly in an ESPN article in June 2020, having already told family and friends about his sexuality, and says the years since have been the most rewarding time of his life.

"I've built and sold companies, I've been able to liberate myself and use my voice to advocate for the LGBT+ community and change perspectives," he adds.

"It has been really fulfilling, the last two years, on a personal level. I have found purpose in something that used to cause me pain."

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