So the redshirt freshman kicker at Division III Willamette announced Tuesday that he's bisexual.
"It got to a point where I just got tired of it, trying to hide who I was and trying to pretend I was something I was not," he said.
Mertens, 19, announced his sexual orientation to his teammates during a meeting on Monday. A story about him appeared on Outsports.com on Tuesday.
Speaking on campus later in the afternoon, Mertens said he hopes his announcement helps dispel the stereotypes and stigmas associated with bisexual athletes — and in turn let other LGBT athletes know they are not alone.
"You can be real and you can be yourself," Mertens said. "That only starts when you can love yourself and let others love you. That's kind of where I was going with this."
Bearcats coach Glen Fowles said the players were overwhelmingly supportive of his decision.
"It's been great to see the way our guys have rallied around," Fowles said. "For our guys, Conner is just a kicker."
Team captain and junior inside linebacker Jack Nelson said: "It wasn't a big deal and we were glad he felt comfortable to tell us."
While several LGBT athletes have come out, including former NBA player Jason Collins, WNBA star Brittney Griner and Major League Soccer player Robbie Rogers, it's believed that Mertens is the first active college football player at any level to publicly announce his bisexuality.
Willamette issued a statement supporting Mertens' decision, saying the university "respects his contribution to a more humane and just world."
Fowles joked about how Mertens first approached him: "He says, 'Coach, I'm really going to utilize this open door policy.'"
Mertens, who told his family just after Christmas, said he was humbled by the response.
"It sounds corny, but I legitimately feel there's a weight off my shoulders. It's tiring to pretend your something else for 24-7, for 18 or 19 years of your life," he said. "So finally to be able to joke about it, to be honest about it, not have to put on this mask, I'm finally able to take a deep breath."
The Bearcats play in the Northwest Conference. The team went 7-2 overall last season and finished third in the league at 4-2.
Mertens did not play his freshman season because he hurt his left knee while playing soccer. He will compete with two other kickers on the Bearcats' roster.