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'The NFL Beat': Lombardi and Kopay

A gay player's memories of a legendary coach
Alex Dunlap, 12:21pm, Sun. Feb. 3, 2013

To know is to understand.

To understand is to have knowledge.

To have knowledge is to tolerate, and to tolerate is to have peace.

Those are David Kopay's words, not mine. David Kopay is gay.

He's also sharp as a tack at age 70, outside of a few minor "senior moments," as he describes them. It's easy to get lost in thoughts and ideas when one has obviously spent so much of their life thinking; searching.

Taking constant NFL poundings as "the poster boy for how to pick up a fucking blitz."

We'll get to that. But for a moment let's step away from the peace and serenity which stem from this knowledge, and into the madness which has been Super Bowl XLVII media week.

The first week without NFL football since September. A one-week annual break which allows media from around the nation to descend upon the venue where the game will be taking place, and do anything they can to fill the void with headlines.

And headlines we've gotten. Dan Marino has a secret love child. Randy Moss thinks he is the greatest wide receiver of all time. A man sold Ray Lewis a questionable substance called "deer antler spray," and that man is clearly a lunatic. Ravens cornerback Ladarius Webb said he and his teammates "want to feel that graffiti." (We think he meant 'confetti.')

Chris Culliver, No. 3 cornerback for the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, would not welcome a gay teammate.

Sometimes it seems easy to forget that there is actually a game being played Sunday. After the final whistle blows, a champion will be crowned. Confetti (or graffiti as it's called in Baltimore) will fly, and the Vince Lombardi trophy will be raised in celebration by the victors. Seven pounds of sterling silver worth about $12,500 as scrap metal.

A multi-billion-dollar industry's crown jewel.

David Kopay was coached by Vince Lombardi. He was also the first NFL player to come out as being gay following his NFL career. The Chonicle caught up with Kopay this week to talk about his experience with Coach Lombardi, his journey as a player, and his ideas about progress and tolerance within the NFL culture.

Kopay was a hard-nosed running back during his nine seasons as an NFL journeyman from 1964 to 1972. The kind of running back who coaches and quarterbacks alike loved.

"My innate sexuality made me think I would have to show how tough I was rather than being 'clever' or 'cute,'" Kopay said. "Being gay gave me the impetus to be tougher than most guys, but it also deleted from my ability to 'create' for fear of being perceived as flamboyant."

There was nothing "cute" about Kopay's game. He was a plug-and-play utility back that played with a blue-collar style. Just the type of player that Vince Lombardi loved. In fact, it was Kopay's play as a San Francisco 49er against Lombardi's legendary Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s that led to his eventually being coached by the man.

1969 was Lombardi's last year as an NFL coach. He would die in September of 1970, succumbing to colon cancer. In this, his first and last season as coach of the Washington Redskins, he changed Kopay's life forever.

"In 1968, I played an entire season in Detroit on one leg." Kopay recalled, "I would get it drained once on Friday and then again on Monday after games. I found out after the season was over that I had been playing on torn ligaments all year."

Kopay said that his time in Detroit was one of the toughest stretches of his life. After being waived following three seasons with the 49ers, Kopay was claimed off of waivers by the Lions and hurt his knee during preseason training. The injury stuck with him all season, and during this time he fell into a state of dangerous depression. He was suicidal and struggling with his own identity.

Kopay credits Lions teammate DT Alex Karras, a true "rock star" of the NFL that many know best in pop culture as the father from the '80s sitcom Webster, as a major reason for his still being alive today.

"Alex knew I played well against the Lions as a 49er, and he figured out early on that something wasn't right, that I was hurt. He supported me as a friend. Alex wasn't gay of course, but he was a wonderful, intelligent, smart man. He was an individual."

Kopay went on, "In 1968 – the year they filmed The Paper Lions, Alex was the biggest star around, for him, just keeping other asshole teammates from picking at me for not performing, not chasing women, he kept everybody at bay, he was a lifesaver. I didn't get to talk about him near enough in (The David Kopay Story), but if it wasn't for Alex and his friendship, I would not be on this planet today. I was struggling not only with my sexuality, but with football. My self-worth was down as a man, and as a football player. I was suicidal. With Alex's support, it meant everything to me."

After making it through his tough 1968 season in Detroit, Kopay was again waived. Following surgery and rehab for the injured knee, he was signed to a contract by the Washington Redskins in 1969 who were entering their first season being coached by a living legend in Vince Lombardi.

Vince Lombardi was a devout Catholic. He spent four years in seminary school to become a priest before identifying a gift for football as a 5 foot, 8 inch guard that earned him a scholarship to play at Fordham University. From then on, Lombardi's profession and life's work was football. He is widely considered the best football coach of all time at any level.

Not just everyone has the Super Bowl trophy as their namesake.

Still, Lombardi's Catholic faith had a profound impact on his life. Every day on the way to work, he would stop at church to "offer a prayer in case of unexpected death." He would interrupt people in the middle of conversations to go to confession, and was reported as once emerging from his office in Green Bay surprising his secretary by being decked out in priest robes, "the miter ... tassel ... everything."

For as orthodox as Lombardi's upbringing was, his views on culture were anything but. He had a "zero tolerance" policy toward racism and prejudice on his football teams for players and staff alike. By 1961, the NFL had, for all intents and purposes, been "desegregated" but racial tensions most certainly still existed.

Any act of prejudice would result in being thrown off the team. Any establishment that would not serve, lodge, or cater to every member of his team was deemed as strictly off-limits to every member of his team. There was no "black or white, just Packer-green."

There was also no "gay or straight," although this was not a sentiment that Lombardi ever made publicly. Lombardi's brother was gay, as were his assistant GM in Washington, David Slatterly and PR director Joe Blair who Kopay described as Lombardi's "right-hand man."

Kopay joined Lombardi's Redskins for the 1969 season after having his knee checked out personally by the legendary coach. Between Alex Karras' friendship in Detroit and Coach Lombardi's willingness to take a chance on his knee in D.C., Kopay's life had been saved. He was playing football again, and in a place where he felt accepted, even in some ways protected, by his head coach, a man whose temperament and style filtered down through all levels of the organization.

Kopay enjoyed his time in Washington, "The music of the time was just great, so much energy. The places you would call 'gay bars' today, well, everyone was welcome, but they were the discos." Kopay continued, "I always had a better connection in the locker room with the black guys, because I understood prejudice. I knew that if my sexuality were out in the open like their skin color, I would be facing all the same things.

"I would always see the black guys at the discos. They weren't gay, but there was a connection there, just being in a place with no judgement. And it was the music. The black guys, it was a different time. There was a freedom in it. The black guys were looser, they loved the rhythm and the dance and the music, they were freer than the white guys who were pigeonholed in their traditional ways."

Kopay had two gay teammates on the 1969 Washington Redskins team, one was RB Ray McDonald and the other was TE Jerry Smith. Kopay described McDonald as being a little "foolish" in his flamboyant nature as it pertained to his career as an NFL player. "There were just things he did that you couldn't do at the time under the microscope we were under, not from Coach Lombardi, but this was Washington D.C."

Lombardi was anything but dismissive of McDonald, even given the fact that many obviously thought he was gay and a mediocre NFL player. Lombardi told running back coach George Dickson, 'I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him - and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."

Kopay had an intimate relationship for at least some period with Jerry Smith, a player he believes has been somewhat ignored in the annals of NFL history because of his homosexuality, and eventual death of AIDS in 1986. He is better known as the first former NFL player to die of AIDS than he is the former record-holder for receiving touchdowns by a tight end.

"When [Broncos TE] Shannon Sharpe broke the record, all you heard on the TV broadcasts, on the news, was that Shannon Sharpe was set to 'break the record.' It was never Shannon Sharpe is set to break Jerry Smith's record. Jerry was mod-squad, we called it, quite flamboyant at times, but also straight as an arrow. It was a different time in the 1960s where all anyone had to worry about was [venereal disease], when the 80s came, and AIDS, no one wanted to talk about Jerry's record. It was just 'the record.'"

Kopay believes that if Lombardi was alive today he would be the same kind of open champion for NFL equality regarding gay players as he was for black players.

"I've been saying this for a long time, but the NFL needs to address this somehow, and it can be done. People like me need to get into locker rooms and lay it all out there, let the players lay it all out there. Their fears, it's scary, it's scary in a society where we have these options that aren't open to others, others can't see, those intimate details."

When asked about whether it is fair for a straight player to feel uncomfortable being undressed in front of a gay player in the locker room, Kopay responded, "If you've been in a locker room, you know that not everyone is a physical specimen [laughs], some guys, sure, look, if you've been in a locker room, it's all out there, everything is out there, guys size each other up, who's endowed, you know, if we're being totally honest - it's human nature, it's not gay or straight. But you understand that, OK, yes, it may be uncomfortable knowing that one guy is gay.

"But this is life, and there's a lot of things in life that make you feel odd. Everyone has a right to feel uncomfortable. What no one has a right to do is demean others and hold back others because you feel odd. That's not a right."

Kopay will be watching Super Bowl XLVII intently Sunday from his home in Los Angeles, where he remains a huge NFL fan. When asked about what the Vince Lombardi trophy signified to him, Kopay said, "He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was kind and caring and intense and wild ... I was in awe of Coach Lombardi, everyone was, the way people flocked to him. I believe most religions teach compassion and humility is the greatest virtue there is. The trophy has his name on it, and it symbolizes what he stood for. Intensity, commitment, honesty, fairness, toughness, stick-to-it-ness, all the qualities you need to get through life. Not just football."

[Alex Dunlap is the Chairman of New Media for the Pro Football Writers of America and Founder of RosterWatch.]

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