Dave Kopay, athlete (LGBT History Month)
Dave Kopay made headlines in 1975 when he became the first NFL player and one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay. His autobiography, now in its fifth printing, was a New York Times best seller. Bent Alaska presents his story as part of our celebration of LGBT History Month 2011, with thanks to the Equality Forum.
Dave Kopay (born June 28, 1942) made headlines in 1975 when he became the first NFL player and one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay. His autobiography, now in its fifth printing, was a New York Times best seller.
The second of four children, Kopay was born in Chicago into a strict Roman Catholic family. When he was in grammar school, the family moved to North Hollywood, California.
Kopay began his football career at Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles, a school known for its championship athletics. He was named to the all-Catholic conference all-star football team. He enrolled at the University of Washington and as team co-captain led the Huskies to the PAC-10 conference title. The following year, he was named an All-American running back.
In 1964, Kopay was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. He was the team’s leading rusher in his rookie year. He played for five NFL teams in his nine-year career, including the Detroit Lions, the Washington Redskins, the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers.
While playing for the Redskins, Kopay had relationships with women and men, including teammate Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS in 1986. At the suggestion of his therapist, Kopay married a woman to try to fix what he perceived as a problem. The marriage lasted a year.
Three years after retiring from the NFL, Kopay came out publicly in an interview with the Washington Star. David Kamp writes in an August 2006 article for GQ about Kopay:
As comings out go, none could have been purer in intent, or more unsavvy by current standards: He didn’t call a press conference; he had no book to promote, like Greg Louganis, no TV show to plug, like Ellen DeGeneres, no battalion of agents to vet his words before he uttered them. He didn’t even telephone his devoutly Catholic parents to forewarn them. “I hope it might help some people,” he said at the time, “especially younger people who are going through similar experiences and haven’t had anyone to talk to about it.”
The impetus came on December 9, 1975, when the now defunct Washington Star newspaper ran the first article of a four-part front-page series on homosexuality in sports, written by a young reporter named Lynn Rossellini. The article was accompanied by a sidebar interview with an unnamed football star who called himself “bisexual” and angrily complained that he couldn’t come out for fear of getting kicked off the team and destroying his off-season business. Kopay, two years out of the NFL and living in Washington, D.C., instantly recognized the anonymous source as Jerry Smith, with whom he had once had sex. Astonished and exhilarated—and he says, mindful of Coach Lombardi’s sage advice that a back should always “run to daylight”—Kopay felt the only right thing to do was call Rosellini and tell his story. It’s probably the only outing Lombardi ever facilitated.
Kopay shared details about his struggle with homophobia and sports in The David Kopay Story, published in 1977. Kopay pursued coaching positions with NCAA and NFL teams, but believes he wasn’t hired because he is gay. Since 1982, he has worked in his family’s business.
Kopay is one of the founding Gay Games Ambassadors, and has been present to support participating athletes and artists at every edition of the Games.
A champion of gay rights for more than 30 years, Kopay has given hundreds of speeches and media interviews. In 2007, Kopay, an alumnus of University of Washington in Seattle, donated $1 million to UW’s Q Center:
Kopay became interested in the Q Center when he read about a gay UW student who had been living in a homeless shelter while attending school; he wanted to ensure that future students, whose families similarly might have turned their back on them, had resources for continuing their education.
Despite suffering serious injuries during his football career, Kopay still misses the thrill of playing for the NFL. “There’s nothing like the rush of playing on Monday Night Football,” he says. “There’s nothing that will ever fill that void.”
For more about Dave Kopay, visit his biography at the Federation of Gay Games website, his 1998 interview at ESPN.com (part of a series on gay athletes), his LGBT History Month page, or Wikipedia article.