(This story was published in 2004).
By: David Kopay
Former NFL player David Kopay made history with his 1977 coming-out autobiography “The David Kopay Story." A former star at the University of Washington, he will deliver a commencement speech June 9 to the Lavendar Tassel, graduating Washington students who are gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered. Here is his address:
Thank you Rick Sprichs and Sara Torres for inviting me here to speak to this Lavender Tassel graduating class. Getting a degree and a diploma from a university as prestigious as the University of Washington is no small feat. So I congratulate you and I congratulate your families and friends who’ve given you their support. And I especially congratulate you for being so out and proud at your age.
I don’t think I’ve been invited here because of my football career. And I don’t think I’ve been invited here just because I’m gay. I’ve been invited because I’m a football player who happens to be gay. But before I get into my story I’d like to tell you a little bit about my time here at the U. I earned two Varsity letters playing for the Huskies, made all league and all coast, and graduated with a BA in history in 1964. My senior year I was elected co-captain when we played Illinois in the Rose Bowl. I’ll never forget that game, not because we lost – that part I’d like to forget – but because we played in a record heat wave: 105 degrees in January.
After graduation I joined the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent. A free agent means you didn’t make the draft, but you’re talented enough to compete for any openings on the team rosters. You aren’t given much of a chance to make it, and it’s like playing for non-union wages. But I didn’t care. I loved the game. And the moment I set foot on that field I knew I’d make it. I did make it, and I stayed in the game – as a free agent – for 10 years. Then two years after I retired from the NFL I became the first professional athlete to speak out about being gay.
And what a firestorm that created. My coming out made the national news because back then it was shocking news for anybody to come out, let alone a pro football player. You see, unlike you guys today, I was part of the invisible generation. Back then we had no support systems whatsoever. There was no “Queer Eye” or “Queer As Folk,” no “Will & Grace,” no Rosie and no Ellen, no Billy Bean or Esera Toulo, no Billy Jean or Martina, no GLAAD or Human Rights Campaign. Armistead Maupin and Randy Shilts had not yet been published, Harvey Milk and Barney Frank had not yet been elected, and civil unions weren’t even a remote possibility, let alone the mere thought of gay marriage. There were no legal protections whatsoever! Here in Seattle, gay bars were underground, and the police would stage raids and haul us off simply for being who we are.
A Pivotal Moment
There may be moments in your life when events may seem trivial, but looking back they prove to be providential. After I’d been with the 49ers with a couple of years I was getting ready to go to another training camp, I think it was in 1966 or 1967, and there I was, literally naked as a jay bird, running freely in the Malibu surf on a spectacular blue sky, puffy cloud day feeling very much alive. It was quite cool and hardly anyone was there. But as I approached the end of the beach, up against the cliffs I saw a figure sitting on a rock and writing on an old paper bag. As I got close I could see that it was a young man. And he was badly scarred by burns and horribly disfigured. My mood changed. So I asked what he was doing sitting on a rock and writing on a paper bag. He said he was writing a poem. I asked to read it. He said it wasn’t any good, wadded it up and said, “Here, take it.” I opened it up and read:
Over the valleys of lighted tree tops
The sun is the maker of all that is good.
Here at the edge where all living hell stops,
Nature’s the ruler; you know that she should.
People create and now they destroy
A vast contradiction, don’t you agree?
Who is to blame, and what is the answer?
It’s so close, people; it’s just you and me.
Love and peace with a smile guides the way.
For all of us, a much better day.
But thinking is all right; talking is worse.
The way that is real is the way that is right.
I took the paper bag home, typed the poem up and hung it on my bathroom wall. I’ve moved many times since then, but that poem still stays with me. But I never realized the importance of those words until many years later.
And I most definitely had no idea what words like that meant when I was your age. When I came here to the University I was a big, strong, fast, natural athlete. I was always either on the Purple first team or the Gold second team. In those days we played both offense and defense. To the Huskie fans and my teammates it may have looked like I was a tough jock who had his act together, but on the inside I was an angry, confused mess. There was something missing from my life but I couldn’t figure out what it was. And then I fell in love with one of my pledge brothers.
Ray was a very good student from Everett who had played on his high school basketball team and then played on our fraternity intramural team. He was a prankster with blond hair and blue green eyes. We wound up taking some classes together and often studied together. We double dated, went to movies, drank beer and played darts. Ray became my inspiration to really make it as a Huskie football player. And I did. Although I was a starter my sophomore year, I wasn’t really ready for it and finished the year on the bench. The next year I hardly played at all and didn’t even letter. But Ray was there for me. He was my muse. And it was my deep affection and love for Ray that motivated me to become the tough ball player I needed to be, and I became just that.
Yet Ray and I could never talk about our feelings for each other. Our sexual feelings were only expressed after we dropped our dates off and got drunk enough to forget what we did by the next morning. Or at least to pretend to forget.
Something Was Still Missing
My football career took off, but inside I was still that confused mess. Something was still missing. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and that gnawed at me. I became a very angry young man.
I didn’t know I was gay. I had no clue. No one ever called me a sissy, and I bought into those stereotypes – here I am, a big macho college football star. How the hell could I be gay? But there was always that deep and troubling fear that down inside I was a big old queer.
Eventually I would spend 10 years as a running back in the NFL: I played with the 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders. I was only a year out of the league and in Washington D.C. on business when I saw the headline that would change my life: “Homosexuals in Sports: Why Gay Athletes Have Everything to Lose.” Somewhere deep in my subconscious those last two lines of that scarred young man’s poem emerged: “Who is to blame, and what is the answer? It’s so close, people. It’s just you and me.” You see, that article, while not naming him specifically, was all about my ex-teammate Jerry Smith, who played tight end on the Redskins with me. He was quoted anonymously as, “a closeted homosexual NFL player.” He was not identified by name, position or team. But I knew it was Jerry.
My feelings were really complex … very confused and conflicted. But even more than all that, reading this headline I felt betrayed. You see, he and I had been lovers and had many times discussed our dilemma. We even discussed writing a book together and telling the world the truth. We laughed and spoke of setting the record straight, so to speak. But I knew Jerry would never do something like that. Not in a million years. He couldn’t. He was the “X-Factor” of the Washington Redskins. He was “Mr. Touchdown,” and it was only this past year that his record for touchdowns by a tight end was broken. Jerry was a huge star, and his closet door was bolted shut.
But by him remaining so anonymous I realized that once again the truth was not being told in this article. So I decided that I had to tell the truth. And that’s when I finally got it. I found the piece that was missing from my life and was making me so nuts. It was about my integrity. It was about being honest and living an honest life.
I called the author of the article, Lynn Rosellini, and said we needed to talk. And talk I did. I never mentioned Jerry by name. I respected his privacy and especially his love for the game and his career. But I gave her my name, on the record, and spoke to her openly and honestly. The article was written, and later my 1977 book “The David Kopay Story,” written with Perry Deane Young, expanded on the theme of honesty. All those years of lying to my friends, lying to my family, lying to myself were wasted history. I felt like I climbed out from under a rock. A huge burden had been lifted, and the freedom and exhilaration I felt were just like hearing the National Anthem at kickoff.
I Chose to Live a Lie
There was nothing really unusual about me being a jock, or even being gay. The problem was that I bought into other people’s stereotypes. Literally the day that article was published, the PR director for the Minnesota Twins held a press conference where he railed against, “The cop-out, immoral lifestyle of tragic misfits.” He said, “Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversions to an area of total manhood is simply unthinkable.” I knew people would say things like that; that’s why we stayed in the closet. So I chose to live a lie.
A friend had recently given me the book “Markings,” written by UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. In it he writes, “Life only demands of you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible: not to have run away.” That was my problem: the difference between a truth and a lie. By remaining in the closet I was running away. And it was only when I embraced the truth that I stopped running away.
In 1977 I testified before a Washington State legislative committee and said, “I am not here asking for my rights. I am demanding my rights.” That was about the same time I narrated a KING-TV special that asked, “Who are these people and what do they want?” And we told them the truth. Maybe we were heard because the next year, the American Bar Association asked me to tell them at their convention why us gay folks need the protection of the law. And later that year I met with U.S. Senators and Representatives in Washington D.C. to speak about myself and us gay folks.
In those days everybody heard of the legendary Coach Vince Lombardi, and I was fortunate enough – blessed, really – to have been coached by him when I played with the Redskins. He told us, “The quality of one’s life is in direct proportion to one’s commitment to excellence.” And what he meant by that was if you slacked off by not training as hard as you could, took a practice off by faking an injury, or missed a block or a tackle – all that would all lead to failure, disappointment and loss. Lombardi always coached his running backs to run to daylight. That meant to find a hole in the defensive line and move the ball down the field, but I took it as a metaphor for my life.
But these lessons that Lombardi become famous for were already instilled in me: stick-to-it-ness, work hard, persevere and stop feeling sorry for yourself were lessons I saw every day in my parents going to work and looking after us. In a similar way I saw these qualities in my coaches here at U. W.
The Dali Lama has said,
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck! The goal is to view every doorway, even one with a shadow, as an opening to new horizons.
All I can say is, how true. When I was your age I was terrified at the thought of Change. But change is simply the fear of the unknown… Of the shadows in every doorway. But change can be rewarding and now I’ve come to embrace it. After I finished my book tour there were no glamorous coaching jobs for me out there: a 10-year NFL vet… who happened to be gay. Ten years in the NFL … a lifetime of football … and then nothing. My future was unknown. I was scared. So to pay the bills I took a job with my uncle selling floor covering at Linoleum City in Hollywood. At first I drove the truck and stacked boxes of tile. A far cry from the Redskins and Lombardi. But I learned the business and in a very short time started to do much of the buying! Yes, I had the queer eye and knew what both the straight folks and gay folks wanted or needed in their homes and what the production designers and set decorators needed for their TV shows and movies, and many of my professional relationships became personal friendships. So by accepting change and persevering I found a place for myself and made some of the best and lasting friendships of my life!
I am also very proud to say that my faith has changed. Like many of you perhaps, I was rejected by the faith of our fathers. My faith was such an important part of my childhood, but for so many years I wanted nothing to do with formal religion because there was no place for me in my Catholic Church. But a few years ago I discovered the All Saints Parish, an Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills where I’m now an active member … because they want me just as I am: a spiritual person who happens to be gay.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that President Bush was raised as an Episcopalian before he converted to Methodism when he married. Later in his life he would give up alcohol, and it was then that he embraced a more fundamentalist approach to his faith. But faith is based not just on Scripture, but also on reason and life experience. In light of what’s happening in the world today it’s amazing to me that President Bush doesn’t see how his own religious fundamentalism is a danger, not only to the world, but to our own beloved Constitution. Never before in our great country’s history has a Constitutional Amendment been proposed to specifically discriminate against a class of people. It just baffles me how people of the religious right that President Bush so courts can distort the bible and Christ’s teaching for their own bigotry. The Confederacy used the Bible to support its immoral positions during the Civil War. Haven’t we gone beyond that? Discrimination is antithetical to faith, and our Constitution guarantees to all of us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It does not say that those rights are only for white, Christian, heterosexual men.
Sports World Needs to Change
The sports world is another place where change is needed, and needed badly. It’s a place where it is still legitimate, even celebrated, to dehumanize, degrade and express wanton bigotry against gays. And it’s in the sports world where athletes are still conditioned to equate manhood with dominance and brutality. The sports world needs to wake up and realize that what they are doing to athletes today is similar to what was done to black athletes 40 years ago. There have been a number of reported incidents recently where the accusations and taunts of homosexuality are used to undermine an athlete’s performance. And that is especially true for women. Historically, female athletes have been subject to the same innuendo, taunts and accusations. These taunts are still tolerated and are far too common in many schools and at every level of education in America.
The NFL, to its credit, has met the challenge of racism … but to its shame it has yet to confront this homophobia. Who among you, whether you are a student, a professor, a friend, a family member or a journalist will help me confront this homophobia? Sportsmanship is about fair play. Is it fair to scapegoat gays? Surely the sports world can do better.
Regardless of how hard it’s been, and how far we have to go, I still very much believe in athletics and sports. A healthy body contributes to one’s happiness and success. But a healthy mind is even more important. And what I have found is that my health and happiness have indeed come by acknowledging who I am.
We’ve all heard the words, “The truth shall set you free.” Well I can tell you that it certainly does! I have never regretted speaking out, or writing my book. And I would challenge all of you to have the courage of your convictions and be true to yourselves. There are those who tell us we should go about our business and private lives without telling the truth. Don’t believe them.
I went from being an angry closet case to a spokesman for gay rights. My sexuality was no longer something I was ashamed to talk about, and I even discovered that my speaking out empowered many others to do the same. Now, I don’t have a partner at the moment, but I’m still looking. But sharing so much of myself with others has given me a genuine feeling of connection and a sense of purpose that has helped me along the way.
The following verse says so much to me, and I hope it will to you:
To know is to understand;
to understand is to have knowledge;
to have knowledge is to tolerate
and to tolerate is to have peace!
So guys, and gals, I’m telling you to run to daylight. Don’t be afraid to explore every doorway, even the ones with the darkest shadows. Face your challenges. Be proud of who you are. Accept responsibility for what you are… what you say… and what you do. Experience being alive and live your life!
Thank you for your time. Stay healthy and be happy!