This story was published in 2002.
For more than 25 years, Dave Kopay has been fighting the good fight on behalf of gay rights and shows no signs of slowing down.
He has had four major knee surgeries, courtesy of nine years in the NFL as a running back and special teams ace with San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington, Detroit and Green Bay. He is also recovering from a total left hip replacement this summer to relieve agonizing pain he endured the past four years. But Kopay, who turned 60 on June 28, is still very opinionated and a forceful advocate for gay rights.
“I say what I want to say,” says Kopay from the den of his beautiful home in the Larchmont section of Los Angeles, surrounded by memorabilia from his days as a star at the University of Washington and in the NFL. Along with five NFL helmets, an autographed football and framed newspaper clippings sits a Tinky Winky doll and a cardboard “Old Queen” crown, a gag gift from friends on his 60th birthday.
Kopay, whose 1977 coming-out autobiography “The David Kopay Story” was a New York Times bestseller and is in its fifth printing, can wax forcefully on a variety of topics, with anger, empathy, bluntness and humor. He can bounce from Herman Hesse to Jerry Falwell to Brett Favre without missing a beat. Some of his unvarnished observations:
On former Green Bay Packer and outspoken homophobe Reggie White: “He’s an idiot …. I’d love to be on Bill O’Reilly’s [cable talk show] with Reggie White."
On Dan Devine, who coached Kopay when the Green Bay Packers won the 1972 NFC Central title but lost 16-3 in the playoffs to Washington: “He was pitiful … the worst coach I ever played for.”
On Martina Navratilova: “She’s always been my hero. She’s been out there and always stood up for herself.”
On finding acceptance from the Episcopal Church: “I get a deep-seated love from them. It’s incredible. This is what I need.”
On gay activists who claim very little progress has been made: “Bullshit. Are you kidding me? We’ve made huge progress.”
Kopay has come a long way since his days as a pro from 1964-72. He talks with an obvious sadness about the isolation and self-loathing he felt when he was coming to grips with his homosexuality.
“The biggest fag-haters I know are the ones who are most confused and I was one of them,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine that this is the same man who became an outspoken champion of gay rights over the course of 25 years, appearing on numerous radio and TV shows and in newspapers and giving hundreds of speeches. He remains one of the handful of professional athletes who have come out. He still gets mail and phone calls from people who have been touched by his book. Kopay’s message through the years has remained constant: Be yourself.
“I always let [audiences] relate to me as an athlete and as a man,’’ said Kopay, who added that young people most identify with his plea for fairness in the treatment of gay people.
Fairness is a common theme with Kopay and it’s obvious he never felt he was fairly treated by football once he came out. He is angry that “there never was a shot for me” in coaching, though he admits his pride and struggles with his homosexuality played a big part at the time. He is also angry that the “NFL has totally run away from me,” instead of acknowledging the positive contributions he has made for gay rights. Kopay added that he would jump at the chance to be a diversity speaker for the league.
Kopay agrees that sports still lag behind the rest of society in its acceptance of gays, “ but that we are making progress.” He is blunt when asked how straights could co-exist with openly gay teammates in lockerrooms: “We’ve been trained since we’re very young to not pay attention to other men. …. Why is it that every heterosexual man thinks every gay man wants his ass?”
Kopay was heartened by the generally favorable coverage this spring over rumors of Mike Piazza’s sexuality as one sign of progress. He also quoted former San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh as saying that if one of his players had come out it would have been a big story for four or five days and “after that I don’t think there’d be a problem at all.”
Instead of coaching, Kopay forged a successful career for the past 20 years at Linoleum City in Hollywood, owned by his Uncle Bill, where the ex-player is the principal buyer for TV and movie studios. Kopay is single and laments that his image “got in the way of my romantic life.” Once he fully recovers from his hip surgery, which requires him to use crutches, Kopay looks forward to golfing and just walking along the beach.
Kopay, who at 6-feet and 213 pounds is seven pounds below his playing weight, is working with a screenwriter on a film treatment of the “David Kopay Story.” It will center on his relationship with tight end Jerry Smith while both played for the Washington Redskins in 1969 and 1970. Smith died of AIDS in 1987 while never publicly admitting his homosexuality. To honor Smith’s desire for privacy, Kopay never mentioned him by name in the book, though he was a catalyst in Kopay’s coming out.
Smith “was my first major [gay] experience and the first person I thought I could love,” Kopay said.
His love for Smith and his love for football are evident, and Kopay realizes his sport gave him opportunities and experiences he could have gotten in no other profession.
“There’s nothing like running out on a Saturday afternoon before 72,000 in Husky Stadium. There’s nothing that will ever fill that void. There’s nothing like the rush of playing on Monday Night Football.
“I would do it again.”