Justice Horn was never a popular kid growing up in Eastern Jackson County in the early 2000s.

The 2012 Blue Springs High School graduate was overweight, preferred music over sports and just felt “different.”

“I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t think I was normal,” said Horn, 20, a 197-pound wrestler at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, who is among the first collegiate wrestlers to come out as openly gay. “It all started in fifth grade, when I knew I was different. But I was in fifth grade – I didn’t even know what it meant to be gay. I was bullied, and it was pretty awful.

“That’s why I want to come out as gay and let those little kids who are struggling know that there were other people, like me, who struggled too. I want to be a trailblazer, someone everyone can look up to admire, not just members of the gay community, but everyone. I think it’s important to tell my story, and when I do tell it, it’s like this weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

While Horn attended Blue Springs High School and wrestled for legendary coach Mike Hagerty, he grew up in Grain Valley, at a time when the city was not as accepting as it is today.

“I was born in Blue Springs, but I went to elementary school and middle school in Grain Valley,” Horn said. “Grain Valley is very open-minded now, but it wasn’t in the early 2000s. My parents (Justice Horn Sr., and the former Shauna Tuiano) were an interracial couple, and that caused some problems. It was really pretty miserable for me and my family and we had to make the move back to Blue Springs.”

In Blue Springs, the name Horn is well known. His uncle Scorpio was a football standout at Blue Springs High School who went on to turn around a losing William Chrisman High School program into a consistent winner. Scorpio did it with his brother Willie at his side. Willie was a star at Blue Springs South High School and is now a member of the Jaguars coaching staff.

“I didn’t do much sports, just music, before we moved back to Blue Springs,” Horn said, “but if your last name was Horn and you lived in Blue Springs, you better play sports.”

He played football, but a series of concussions led him to wrestling – where he enjoyed great success.

“I actually came out to my football and wrestling teammates before anyone else, and it was so cool because it was no big deal to them” Horn said. “I never dated a guy in high school – or anything to attract attention to myself – but my teammates and friends knew I was gay and that was it.

“It was just who I was. But I think when Missouri’s Michael Sam (one of the top collegiate defensive players in the NCAA and an NFL draft pick by the St. Louis Rams) came out, I knew that I could come out, too. That gave me the strength to make my decision.

“I knew I could be myself, and not have to hide anything from anyone. And it was all really positive.”

No teammate ever refused to work out with him in the wrestling room and no opponent refused to meet him on the mat at a tournament.

“The wrestling community is very tight knit, a special group of people,” said Hagerty, a Hall of Fame coach and one of the most respected officials in the nation who recently stepped down as the Wildcats head coach. “When I look back at the time Justice was on the team I just thought of him as one of my wrestlers – not a gay wrestler. And that’s how his teammates thought of him, too. Really, it wasn’t a big deal.

“I think Ali Howk (one of the top female wrestlers in the country who wrestled against boys at Blue Springs) had a tougher go than Justice. If you were on the team, you were a Wildcat. Period.”

When Horn graduated in 2016, he accepted a scholarship to West Virginia Tech.

“And that just didn’t work out,” Horn admitted. “I was looking for something different, a program with better competition, so I began looking for a new school.”

And out of the blue, he received a call from Northern State University coach Rocky Burkett.

“He told me he was from Northern State University and I asked him where that was,” Horn said, laughing. “And he said, ‘South Dakota.’ And I then asked him where South Dakota was. We both laughed, but I could tell he was interested in me as a wrestler and a person.”

At that time Burkett had no idea Horn was gay.

“I decided to attend Northern State University, and in late October, I came out to my coach in a private discussion we had,” said Horn, who wrestled as a 285-pounder in his sophomore season. “He was so supportive and he said I could keep it between us, or do whatever I was comfortable with. So after practice, I told my teammates I was gay and they were so supportive, too. They’re my brothers, and they accepted me and I can’t wait to get back to school and get to wrestling with those guys.”

And he can’t wait to get back to the community of Aberdeen, where he is making a name for himself away from the sport he loves.

He is a student senator who is actively involved with the state legislature in South Dakota. He is as comfortable talking with fellow students on campus as he is elected state officials.

“I’ve become very active in my community and my university,” Horn said. “I’m going into my second year in student government and I need to be more representative, more of a leader in the community. I love talking with people and getting new ideas and letting them know how I feel about things. I want to eventually go to law school and run for public office.

“Who knows, one day I might come back to Blue Springs or Kansas City and run for mayor or maybe even run for governor. I am that passionate about my beliefs.”

And he is passionate about his family, who has backed him throughout a process that was difficult for his parents to initially accept.

“My mom and dad have always been there for me, been supportive,” he said, “but my mom, especially, worries about me. I tell her I am going to be fine, but she is concerned, and my dad just wants me to be happy and confident.”

Which is why Horn is concentrating on three things in his life right now – wrestling, working out and getting his message out to the people it will impact the most.

“This has all been so liberating,” said Horn, who received a text from his university about the possibility of doing an interview later in the week for a cable network news program.

“I have a message and I want to get it out there. I am so focused right now. I don’t think I have ever been this focused in my life. I see everything that has happened to me – from the early days of bullying to the amazing support I have received from my family, friends and teammates – as part of my mission as a trailblazer.”

And this trailblazer’s journey is just beginning.

“I am very blessed,” he said with conviction. “I have so many people who support me. I took a big step, a big chance making this decision and I now know it was the right decision at the right time. I needed to share my story and I hope to share it for many years to come.”