Dave Kopay: Remembering the first openly gay NFL player
For many of us, the start of the NFL season is a much-anticipated event. We will relish in rooting for our favorite team and marvel at the apparent super-human exploits of our masked and helmeted heroes — heroes who seem to be modern-day gladiators, risking and sacrificing their bodies in a violent sport. The masks may accentuate the tendency to view these players only as warriors. However, they are not just warriors. They are people with families, feelings, personal lives and dreams.
The story of Dave Kopay powerfully reminds us of this. In 1975, just six years after the Stonewall uprising, and three years removed from his retirement from professional football, Dave Kopay publically came out as gay in a Washington Star article, becoming the first NFL player to openly do so. This was a remarkable action, considering the time, a full 18 years before the Department of Defense implemented "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," advising gay military recruits to keep their sexual orientations a secret. Also, Kopay's reveal came 28 years before Texas became the last state in the nation to strike down sodomy laws, according to a UC San Diego Timeline.
Kopay was raised in a strict Catholic family in Southern California, according to the University of Washington Magazine. Because of the guilt he felt due to his sexuality, he entered a junior seminary as a teenager to become a priest in the hopes of "curing" his self-perceived ‘abnormality.’ Kopay found this track unsuccessful in providing relief from his emotional pain and left the seminary. He then became an accomplished football player, starring on the University of Washington team and before moving on to a highly successful nine-year career as a running back in the NFL, where he compiled 1,469 all-purpose yards while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and finally for the Green Bay Packers, according to CBS Los Angeles.
After his retirement, and seeing the hypocrisy in reporting about gay athletes, Kopay felt the need to represent a gay athlete in an accurate way. That Kopay was able to do this in 1975 is truly remarkable. Following his announcement, Kopay published his autobiography, "The David Kopay Story," in 1977. In the book, he expressed the angst and emotions he had to endure: "The hostility and self-loathing that had so been ingrained in me from my earliest years by the nuns and priests and society in general."
In an interview with Rona Barrett, Kopay shared the great personal cost of his coming out. Initially, his family "no longer wanted [Kopay] in their life." Kopay felt alienated and "too straight for the gay world and too gay for the straight world." The disclosure also impacted his dream of coaching football after his retirement as an active player. Although at the time of his father’s death in 1990 Kopay's father had not come to terms with his son's sexuality, Kopay and his mother eventually were able to enjoy a satisfying mother-son relationship, and he has renewed his relationship with his brother, Tony, according to a video MOR music clips. Kopay has since made a one million dollar donation to the University of Washington Q Center, an LGBT+ support center with the mission of creating a community "where justice, equality, compassion, and respect for all people prevail" according to a University of Washington article.
In the words of Bob Dylan, "the times, they are a changin." But change is slow sometimes. There have been 13 gay or bisexual NFL players who have come out after their retirement, but none during their time as an active player, according to SB Nation. Perhaps there is a fear about the response within the culture of the contemporary NFL locker room that continues to prevail, but the sensitivity, courage and intelligence that Dave Kopay has demonstrated in dealing with this complex issue is a much-needed reminder that the helmeted, masked and phenomenally gifted warriors, whose physical exploits we marvel at, are human beings at their core, just like all of us.