NFL's First Gay Star on Michael Sam and His Own Shocking Decision to Come Out in 1975: 'I Was Desperate'
This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In February, on the eve of Michael Sam's historic coming out, Howard Bragman, the veteran Hollywood publicist who coordinated the reveal, hosted an intimate dinner party at his Valley Village home. Invited to toast the NFL's first openly gay draft prospect over Chinese takeout was a gathering of athletes who'd helped pave the way. Some, like Major League Baseball outfielder Billy Bean and NFL Europe cornerback Wade Davis, had come out post-retirement; others, like the NFL's Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, were straight but outspoken advocates of the cause.
In particularly high spirits that night was a silver-haired former running back named David Kopay. Nearly 40 years earlier, Kopay -- who between 1964 and 1972 had played for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers -- had stunned the world by coming out as gay in a sensational feature in the Washington Star, the final installment of a groundbreaking series the newspaper published on homosexuality in sports.
"Back when I wrote about it, I mean, my God, it was just unheard of. We got so much hate mail," says Lynn Rosellini, the reporter behind the series, which ran on five consecutive days in December 1975. Now 67, the D.C.-based Rosellini was a 28-year-old rookie on the sports beat when she stumbled into the story of a lifetime, earning her a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Seated in the sun-speckled garden of his cozy Craftsman home in the Eagle Rock area of Los Angeles -- its walls and shelves covered in sports memorabilia, framed fan letters and arty beefcake portraits -- the soft-spoken Kopay, now 72, reflects on why he opened up to Rosellini all those years ago.
"I was desperate," he says. "I was totally, 'What am I going to do with my life? Can I make a difference?' " He'd hoped his tale, which he expanded on two years later in the best-selling memoir The David Kopay Story, would encourage other pro athletes to come out. But years turned to decades and few had followed suit. Meeting Sam, the gifted defensive end who shattered the last civil rights hurdle in pro sports when he kissed his boyfriend after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in May, came as more than just a passing thrill. It was the culmination of a life's work.
One need only consider current attitudes toward gays in sports -- when a celebratory kiss between men can result in an uproar -- to grasp just how shocking Kopay's admission was for the 1970s. And yet somehow his remarkable story has faded over the years. According to columnist Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin, that largely is due to Kopay being eons ahead of his time. "I think it was honestly too early," says Leitch. "It was 1975. In four years, Al Pacino would be making Cruising. People were not ready for an NFL player being gay at all."
The man once called Psyche for his frenzied enthusiasm on the field had suffered through a disastrous 1968 season with the Lions, tortured by his sexuality and hobbled by a severe knee injury that required draining after every game. (He credits late teammate Alex Karras, who'd later star on Webster, for getting him through that "suicidal" period.) But the following year, his knee healed and another player's bad luck became Kopay's good fortune: The Redskins' new running back, Ray McDonald, a No. 1 draft pick from the University of Idaho, was arrested for having sex with another man in a park across from the White House. McDonald was let go the following year by the legendary Vince Lombardi, who served as the Redskins' coach and GM for the 1969 season. But Lombardi took no pleasure in the decision; despite his reputation for tyranny on the field, he had zero tolerance for bigotry of any kind, including anti-gay bullying. (Lombardi's brother was gay.) In search of a dependable running back to replace McDonald in 1969, Lombardi's thoughts turned to Kopay.
When Walt Rock, a former teammate from the 49ers, heard that Kopay might join him on the Redskins, he pulled him aside after a game. "[Rock] said, 'Dave, I heard that you're on waivers and are going to get picked up. You're going to love it with the Redskins because there's a player there, Jerry Smith, whom you're going to like a lot. He's your kind of guy,' " recalls Kopay.
Just as Rock had predicted, Kopay instantly fell for the lantern-jawed tight end, a popular player among the team and a shining star on the field. What Kopay did not realize, however, was that Smith was gay, too. "We went out drinking and to parties for a long time before I had any idea that he was homosexual," Kopay wrote of Smith, using a pseudonym for him, in his memoir. "Finally, though, one night at dinner, [we] began dropping some clues, and after a while, we were able to talk fairly openly about having sex with men." Their dalliance lasted just one night, after they drunkenly had stumbled home from a party. "I woke up with [him] lying on top of me, kissing me all over," Kopay writes. "I was in a kind of ecstasy lying there in the arms of this person I shared so much with. But what he wanted to do was f-- me. And that was the word he used. I kept wondering what in hell he was talking about." The following day, Kopay was devastated when Smith, who seemingly regretted the one-night stand, "rejected me cold."
Smith and Kopay weren't the only closeted men within the Redskins organization at the time. "People didn't know it and he certainly wasn't out, but David Slattery was a gay man who was Lombardi's assistant general manager," Kopay tells THR. "And Joe Blair, who was the sports information director, or PR guy, also was gay and very, very closeted." (Slattery came out in 1993; Blair, who died following a stroke in 1995, never did. He was described as "a bachelor" in his Washington Post obituary.)
Credit for the team's quiet acceptance of gays among its ranks almost certainly was due to Lombardi. Says Leitch, "Lombardi kind of hinted to Kopay and Smith that he would make the team have their back if they were to come out. But I think they understood the environment better than Lombardi did."
It was Smith who first broke the code of silence -- albeit anonymously -- to Rosellini. The ambitious young journalist had been told by her editor to look into the possibility of gays in sports, and she fearlessly dived headfirst into the topic. As she conducted interviews with more than 60 players, coaches and psychologists for the series, several suggested that she talk to Smith. She arranged a meeting with him at a local D.C. restaurant, where she dropped her bombshell: She wanted to interview him for a series on gay professional athletes. After an agonizing silence, Smith agreed to the interview -- under strict conditions.
"I was hyperventilating," says Rosellini. "We couldn't use his name. We could say 'all-pro' and 'a current player for an NFL team,' but we couldn't say what team and we couldn't say what position he played." During the next two hours, Smith poured out a painful story of his double life in the NFL spotlight. "I was stunned," she recalls. "Why was he going to trust me with a secret that could just devastate his whole career? But he did."
Kopay was building log cabins in Idaho at the time, trapped in a childless marriage with a woman who knew he was gay and three years into football retirement. But he happened to be visiting a friend in D.C. when "The Double Life of a 'Bisexual' Pro Football Star" splashed across the pages of the Washington Star. From the first sentence, which described the subject's hands as "massive and scarred," he knew Rosellini only could be writing about Smith.
"Then one thing really hit home," explains Kopay. "That only one thing in life is possible: not to run away. Here I see Jerry Smith running away from the truth in the Star, and I'm running away from myself and everything else trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my life. I never would have called Lynn Rosellini if I hadn't been in Washington that day. It's amazing how things happen."
That led to what Rosellini calls "the second hyperventilation," a call from Kopay, who said he wanted to tell her everything -- on the record. "We talked for hours," says Rosellini, recalling that epic purging session. "I wrote the story that night, and at midnight, we went to a bar on Capitol Hill and I went over the story with him, checking all the facts. We ran it the next day." The story was an instant sensation, drawing universal condemnation from coaches and sportswriters and delighting late-night comedians. When Johnny Carson asked Joe Namath on The Tonight Show if the rumors of gays in the NFL were true, Namath responded with silence and a campy, exaggerated shrug.
The article's publication created major upheaval in Kopay's life, resulting in divorce and estrangement from his immediate family, all at the behest of his mother, a domineering Roman Catholic woman who, upon reading the Star story, barked at her son, "I created you and I can kill you." (To his great distress, his mother, now 99 and, in Kopay's mind, as "homophobic and racist" as ever, recently has fallen into his care.)
But if his personal life was in turmoil, Kopay found himself savoring his renewed relevance as a stereotype-busting, gay rights trailblazer. "Here was someone so confused about his sexuality, and overnight he was a world authority on the subject," says Perry Deane Young, co-writer of The David Kopay Story. "But his presence, you can't argue with that. And my God, he was good on TV." Indeed, Kopay was holding his own on national talk shows like Tomorrow With Tom Snyder and The David Susskind Show, where he would frequently cross paths backstage with singer Anita Bryant, who was waging her war on gays at precisely the same time.
Shortly after the book's 1977 release, Kopay moved to San Francisco, where he sold cars to make ends meet and found himself rubbing shoulders with another prominent gay figure, Harvey Milk. At Milk's victory party, the newly installed city supervisor put his arm around Kopay and joked, "Dave, we're the two most famous fairies in San Francisco." Later, says Kopay, Milk sized up the 6-foot-1 jock as an unlikely poster boy for the cause: "I really don't think politics are going to be where you wind up." Kopay also recalls that Milk told him "you're not ready to become a professional fairy."
"All this stuff was beyond me," says Kopay. "I was just a simple guy selling cars." Kopay was living with Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin when Milk was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, and together they attended that night's candlelight vigil on the steps of City Hall.
Having spent a good chunk of his childhood in North Hollywood, Kopay returned to L.A. in 1981, taking a job out of sheer desperation at Linoleum City, a flooring company in East Hollywood owned by his uncle. He toiled there for years, along the way mourning the loss of many friends and acquaintances to AIDS -- including Smith, who succumbed to the disease in 1986. Kopay found meaning and satisfaction in holding down an honest job, and, thanks in part to several smart real estate investments, has gone on to lead a comfortable life. In 2008, one year after he retired from Linoleum City, he announced that he would leave the entirety of his 401(k) -- a sum of $1 million -- to the Q Center, an LGBT resource and support center at the University of Washington, where he co-captained the Huskies' 1964 Rose Bowl team.
Kopay swims laps daily at nearby Occidental College, regularly hits the Rose Bowl flea market and enjoys attending NFL alumni games and serving as honorary ambassador to the Gay Games. He lives alone, his garage lined with memory boards filled with photos of debauched days spent in New Orleans. Whenever he speaks of past loves, they are invariably of the unrequited kind. He still follows football religiously and says watching the NFL Draft play out three months after meeting Sam was an emotionally charged experience. As team after team passed on the University of Missouri player, a sinking feeling began to set in, but then came the fateful call from the Rams, followed by the kiss seen around the world.
"I was a bit unnerved," Kopay admits of watching Sam plant a passionate smooch on boyfriend Vito Cammisano, the pair later smearing cake on each other's faces. "I'm old school, you know? Certainly I felt he had a right to kiss his boyfriend and I was really glad he did. But I was not so happy with the cake in the face. It was a little bit over the top. I just worried about him like, 'Oh, what's the fuss that this is going to cause?' "
Now that gays in pro sports has become such a hot topic, a planned rerelease of The David Kopay Story is in the works, which will be updated to include Kopay's thoughts on the giant strides made by the likes of Sam, the NBA's Jason Collins and Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe. And while those names may have eclipsed his own, there's little denying Kopay's lasting place in sports history.
"I think it was the first brick removed from the wall of homophobia," says Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports.com, the gay sports news site that played a key role in orchestrating Sam's February announcement. "When Kopay came out, the gay community was just beginning to find its identity. For a portion that didn't associate with the stereotypical gay identity, Dave's honesty was life-changing. I'm sure it saved lives."