Sunday, February 2, 2014

Football and Jerry Smith

Gerald "Jerry" Sanford Smith (July 19, 1943 – October 15, 1986) was a professional football tight end for the National Football League's Washington Redskins from 1965–1977. By all accounts, the 6' 3"  blonde Smith had a stellar career. 

Kids collected Jerry's cards.  He played in the 1973 Super Bowl VII.   During his football celebrity, Mr. Smith caught 421 passes, including 60 touchdowns, a record at the time. He was named All-Pro twice and held NFL records that stood for years.  Jerry was so popular that he even had his very own toy action figure, and sports magazines glorified him.   It seemed obvious that the game loved Jerry and Jerry loved the game. Smith was lauded by Sports Illustrated as a top pass catching tight end during his era.


But all that fame, all that praise was professional and not about his personal life.  There was something about Jerry that many who knew him suspected: Smith was gay.  Many modern sports historians suggest that Jerry was probably considered too-talented to force out of the game based simply on the gay rumors, and indeed there was no need, since masculine Jerry remained in the closet.  Many fans believe Smith, based on his sports record, belongs today in the NFL Hall of Fame, and can't understand why he hasn't been recognized when others who achieved much less, have. Many question if the NFL is prepared to recognize a gay player who died of AIDS. 
After retiring from football, Jerry co-owned The Boathouse, a gay bar in Austin, Texas.  Perhaps, if he had lived in another era,  things would have been different and Jerry might have been allowed to quietly remain in the media closet, forever immortalizing his straight professional sports image. But like so many others that were caught in the social fishnet of the AIDS nightmare, that was not to be the case.

Pro football player David Kopay (who was profiled here at VGMH this week) finally "outed" Jerry when Dave came out himself (after Smith had died of AIDS ..becoming the first former professional athlete to die of the disease).  In his book, David told the story of their sexual relationship.  Although Jerry acknowledged that he had AIDS, Mr. Smith never publicly acknowledged himself as being a gay man. 

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