By George Ramsay
(CNN) -- During his rugby career, Campbell Johnstone built a reputation as a tough scrummager with "the best right shoulder in the game," according to one of his former coaches.
He played three times for the All Blacks -- a dream for thousands of young rugby players in New Zealand -- and represented club teams at home and overseas.
But for all his commitment and uncompromising physicality on the pitch, Johnstone was also hiding a part of himself.
"I loved playing rugby," he tells CNN Sport. "And then one day, this other side of me, my sexuality, was coming through and I liked guys.
"That didn't fit the picture and that wasn't part of my plan. I always pushed that to the back of my head and wouldn't address it -- just kept pushing it away and pushing it away and kept focusing on my goals."
Last month, Johnstone became the first All Black to come out publicly as gay, around a decade after calling time on his rugby career.
The response to the announcement, he says, took him by surprise. New Zealand rugby stars Ruby Tui and Aaron Smith, among others, praised Johnstone for his bravery on social media, while sports minister Grant Robertson, who is openly gay, thanked him for "blazing this trail" and inspiring "future generations to be open, happy and comfortable."
"So many people have sent messages of support," says Johnstone. "Hundreds of people have sent messages telling of their story and their struggle and how rewarding or refreshing it was hearing me talk and come out.
"In that respect, it's been really overwhelming and so positive."
On top of his three Tests for the All Blacks in 2005, Johnstone, a prop forward, played 72 times for Canterbury and 38 times for the Crusaders. He moved to France in 2009 and went on to make more than 100 appearances for club side Biarritz.
Now, the 43-year-old says he is "at peace" in his private life. But he can still recall the anguish he faced in his playing days when he didn't believe his sexuality aligned with his childhood dream of playing for the All Blacks.
"It was kind of like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place," says Johnstone. "Here was this game and this sport that I loved and enjoyed so much, yet I couldn't be myself. And I felt I was living a double life, basically.
"I'd go home and then the anxiety would rise and then I'd go out the door, go to training. But that, funnily enough, was the enjoyment side, and it gave me the relief, eased the stress a bit. Then I'd come home and realize that I'm not actually being truthful to my teammates."
There are only a handful of openly gay men in the professional rugby community.
Former referee Nigel Owens came out in 2007, and two years later, former Wales international Gareth Thomas became the first openly gay top-level male rugby player.
Both Owens and Thomas have spoken about experiencing suicidal thoughts as they struggled to come to terms with their sexuality, while former Australia international Dan Palmer, who came out as gay in 2020, said he "routinely numbed" himself with a "heavy cocktail of opioids" during his playing career.
But Johnstone is optimistic about rugby's future.
"As long as coaches and players are very open-minded and provide a very caring and supportive culture and framework within the team, then I think it'll progress very well," he says.
"I think rugby is a living culture and it's always progressing and it's progressing in the right directions."
Johnstone never considered coming out during his playing days -- largely because he's always been a private person and "wasn't 100% comfortable" with his sexuality at the time.
He's now speaking publicly in the hope of empowering others to do the same.
"I was happy and very strong in my private life and everything like that, so I thought: 'Yeah, okay, let's address it and take away that stigma,' because there's always been this stigma around the All Blacks and who is the first one and things like that.
"If we can open that door and I can be the first one, then that stigma is gone and it just makes it easier and less stress or anxiety for other people if there are other people out there."
After retiring from rugby, Johnstone undertook coaching roles in Spain, the US and New Zealand.
He recently visited one of his former clubs, the Crusaders, to share his story and highlight the importance of creating a supportive environment within a professional sports team -- something he believes has a positive impact when it comes to the performance on the pitch.
"That, in a nutshell, will make your team stronger and more effective," says Johnstone, "and you'll get better results, I believe."
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