Saturday, February 2, 2013

David Koopay, First Out American Football Star

Coming Out in the 1970's
Professional running back Dave Kopay was the first "professional team" sport athlete to declare to the world that he was gay.  At one time married to a flight attendant, Dave was a NFL running back from 1964-72. Since that moment when he came out in 1975 (three years after his retirement), very few others have followed him. despite his suggestion that there were (back then) a good number of other gay players in professional football.

David was born in 1942 in Chicago. As early as when he went to college at the University of Washington, David could remember being secretly attracted to men. Yet the thought of being a "homosexual" both frightened and repulsed him. Not understanding the attraction he felt, he didn't know how to act on his desires, except in straight-male-approved ways, like brawling/rough play with the other guys. He joined the Theta Chi fraternity, and it was at the fraternity that he met the man he calls the greatest love of his life. David would later describe how he and his fraternity brother slept together on the porch, with risky encounters often taking place after both of the young men had dropped off their dates. It was a time when being gay was still thought of as a mental disorder. He was big and tough and talented and his football skills were noticed...Kopay played for five teams during his career -- San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay. Towards the end of his career, David has said that he felt like many of his team members were probably aware of his sexual orientation.

His best-selling 1977 autobiography, The Dave Kopay Story told of his journey and the book has as much to do with finding oneself as it does with the game of football. After the book was published, he found it difficult to find any type of work coaching in the NFL. He also told the story of his sexual relations with another pro footballer, Redskins tight end Jerry Smith. In fact, Dave describes Jerry Smith as a turning point in his personal life: "That was like my first real coming-out experience. Jerry was much more worldly than I was. He had been to a number of countries, had a number of different lovers." Dave packed a lot of emotions into what they did together, while he said the relationship meant little to Jerry. (Smith did not acknowledge being gay and died of AIDS in 1986).
The reaction from the world of professional football was as expected.  This was an all-american guy who they couldn't destroy or shame with instead Mr. Kopay's sexuality simply would be mentioned as little as possible with regards to his sports record, hopefully fading away, as if it never existed in the sport (because after all, everyone knows that there are no gay pro football players).  But by the age of personal computers and the internet, stories such as David's became easier for people to share, and combined with the media attention from being a gay activist, the David Kopay story lives on. 

Mr. Kopay remains a gay-rights activist. To help today's gay University of Washington students, David set-up an endowment of $1 million to the University's Q Center (a resource and support center for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students and faculty). Kopay has since been recognized as a UW Husky Legend.

As Mr. Kopay has said: "There was really a long time where I was repulsed with who I was. It took me a long time, too long, to accept myself as I really was...I'm hoping I can at least make a difference in that others in my position will have the freedom to be who they are, and to live the lives they want."

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