- Author's Note: Todd Searcy, football star and honors student at Geneva High School from 1979-1983, decided to divulge the story of his journey as a gay athlete because he wants to share what he has learned about how to cope and survive, with the hope of helping others. This is the second of a three-part series. —Martha Quetsch
After graduating with honors on a football scholarship from the University of Illinois, former Geneva High School star linebacker Todd Searcy lived in Chicago with high school friend Jeff Hill. Hill played football with Searcy at Geneva High School in the 1980s and said the two of them had a great time during the year they shared an apartment.
“There’s nothing like being in your early twenties and in the city,” Hill said.
Despite being Searcy’s roommate and close friend, Hill had no idea that his friend was gay because Searcy continued to live the “dual life” he led in college, keeping his sexual identity a secret.
After living in Chicago, Searcy was a frequent visitor to San Francisco, where for the first time he met other athletes who were assumed heterosexual simply because of their prowess on the playing field. It was a reassuring time for him.
“I didn’t feel I was alone anymore,” Searcy said. “There were (gay) people just like me, football players, rugby players.”
But he still kept his sexuality a secret from most people. In his twenties, Searcy entered into a discreet, same-sex relationship. By then, the gay community had become more aware of the risk for HIV, which could lead to the deadly illness the Center for Disease Control labeled AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in 1982. Searcy and his partner were tested for AIDS, and neither tested positive.
Little did he know, his HIV test had been falsely negative because the virus had not yet gestated.
Searcy didn’t find out until 2003. That year, he had not been feeling well and was always extremely tired. So, he went to the doctor, who ordered a battery of tests, including one for HIV. Searcy was not worried that he might have HIV because of the negative test in 1993 and because he had protected himself from the virus since then.
“There is no way in hell I thought I had it,” Searcy said.
But, Searcy tested positive for the virus and likely had contracted it 10 years earlier.
“I was shocked," he said. "My viral load (amount of HIV in the blood) was approximately 250,000. What I heard was basically, ‘You are dead.’ ”
A viral load of more than 100,000 is extremely dangerous and if the CD4 test—which assesses the strength of the immune system—result is under 200, AIDS is indicated, Searcy said.
“I was at about 35 to 50 on the CD4,” he said. “I knew what the numbers meant.”
That is when Searcy decided he had to tell his family the secret he had been keeping for so many years.
“I was done lying. ‘I’m out,’ I told myself, ‘I’m just not going to lie anymore,’ ” he said.
Searcy had told his mother, Mary Ellen, three years earlier that he was gay but did not tell his father, Merl.
“My dad comes off as gruff,” Searcy said. “He’s kind of like Archie Bunker. He’s not used to gay people.”
As it turned out, when Searcy told his family about his health condition in 2003, his father was accepting right away.
“My dad said, ‘We’ll take care of you,’ ” Searcy said.
“I will say, the transformation was amazing,” Searcy said. “I thought he’d be mean, he’d be mad. All those things flipped upside down for me.”
Despite his parents’ and most other family members’ acceptance, Searcy said it was a weird, stressful period.
“In one day, they found out I had HIV, had AIDS and was gay,” Searcy said. “It was not an easy time. My entire family did the death watch.”
Searcy was so ill that he moved in with his parents in Sahuarita, AZ. He was taking antibiotics and other medications to fight HIV and AIDS-related illnesses and “got as sick as a dog.”
“I was allergic to everything,” Searcy said.
One antibiotic caused severe nausea and fatigue, but he had to take it to fight potentially fatal infections his depleted immune system could not combat.
“It’s like chemo. It’s terrible for anyone,” Searcy said. “You use it as a last resort. They needed to pull out the big guns to keep me alive.”
Searcy depended on his mother to give him injections of Procrit, which helps create red blood cells. He was not eating, he was frequently vomiting and his energy level was so low he rarely left the house. Searcy spent most of his time alone in his room at his parents’ house. Medications he took caused his skin to turn purple and his body to itch. He soaked in oatmeal all day. One drug he took caused him to hallucinate.
“I felt like I was going crazy,” Searcy said. “I basically didn’t want to live.”
- The final segment of this three-part series, “Tackling AIDS,” will examine Searcy’s current life and outlook.