A LOT CAN happen in a year.
Just ask Braeden Lange. Twelve months ago, he was a typical sixth-grader working on his lacrosse game and getting picked on by his older brother. Now he's a role model, having received thousands of letters and texts from people who say his bravery in the face of adversity has inspired them.
It all started back in February. Braeden, 12, was in a group-texting session with a large group of friends, one of whom kept cracking gay jokes. Suddenly, he'd had enough.
"I said, 'There's nothing wrong with being gay, because I'm gay,' " he recalled.
"I was just so sick of it because kids that young - a lot of kids didn't really understand, like, the whole concept of being gay," Braeden explained as we sat last week in his family's comfy living room in Glenmoore, Chester County. "It always really annoyed me. I kind of just wanted all of that to stop and I thought that the only way I could really make him stop was, you know, if I told him the truth and I told him who I really was."
His friends were stunned, as were his parents. No one had had any inkling. As is often the case, not everyone in his circle took it well. He started getting bullied. There was name-calling, cyber-bullying. One kid informed Braeden that he was going to hell, which Braeden "kind of believed for a second because I had such low self-esteem."
The harassment sent Braeden, usually a sunny, popular youngster, into a downward spiral. He began isolating himself in his bedroom, crying himself to sleep and talking about suicide.
His parents, Scott and Mandy Lange, weren't quite sure how best to support their second-oldest. Scott admits that he initially said a lot of the wrong things. They tried a few therapists in their desperation to find help.
Then, one day, Scott remembered Andrew Goldstein, who's credited with being the first openly gay man to play pro sports. Back in 2003, the All-American goalie had made national news when he came out to his lacrosse teammates at Dartmouth College. Scott, a former lacrosse player himself, emailed Goldstein, now a molecular biologist living in Los Angeles. Scott sat Braeden down and had him watch a 2005 ESPN video about Goldstein, which made quite an impression.
"We were hoping he would write back and give us some advice or something," Mandy recalled.
Goldstein wound up doing a whole lot more than that. The former pro athlete emailed back immediately, then had his husband videotape him delivering a message of support for Braeden in which he called him "the bravest kid I've heard of." He also had gay lacrosse players email the youngster similar video messages of support.
Then, Goldstein took it up a notch when he mailed Braeden the helmet he wore when he briefly played professional lacrosse for the Long Island Lizards. It was an especially kind gesture, especially considering that Goldstein had never met Braeden.
"I mean, I felt so bad for this kid," Goldstein told me over the phone. "I've never had a parent reach out to me on behalf of their kid. That told me how dire the circumstances were."
The afternoon I visited, Scott's dad brought the helmet down and placed it on the coffee table. Braeden's eyes lit up at the sight of it. On the side, Goldstein wrote: "You courage inspires me. Keep your head up and live your truth with pride . . . " Within a few weeks of communicating online, Braeden was able to meet Goldstein in New York City.
"It just felt really good knowing there was someone else out there like me," Braeden said. "It was really awesome. We stayed in a really fancy hotel. He came into the lobby, and me and my mom gave him big hugs . . . I gave him a letter thanking him for all he did for me."
Braeden added, "It was one of the best days of my life."
Braeden and Goldstein stayed in touch. Goldstein decided to set up two lacrosse matches in honor of Braeden and call it the Courage Game. It took place Memorial Day weekend at the James F. "Ace" Adams Field in Penn Park at the University of Pennsylvania. In attendance were openly gay lacrosse players along with their friends and relatives. Plans are afoot for a similar event next year.
After an ESPN piece about the Courage Game aired, Braeden began getting thousands of emails from other young people, who shared their own stories about being gay and told him how he had inspired them. According to his mother, Braeden has helped about a dozen people through the process of coming out. In Harrisburg in October, he spoke at National Coming Out Day. He's spoken about his experiences at the William Way LGBT Community Center on Spruce Street in Center City.
Scott and Mandy are thrilled. They've got their happy-go-lucky son back. Braeden no longer cries himself to sleep and instead is focused on school and on making the basketball team. Mandy, a stay-at-home mom, has been inspired to try to open a center to help LGBT youth. She'll no doubt be aided by her son, who has had one heck of a year.
On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong