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David Kopay: Still giving

Ex-football star pledges $1 million to gay students

(This story was published in 2007).

David Kopay remembers the feelings of isolation, paranoia and loneliness in college, when he stayed deep in the closet. A star on the football team in the early 1960s, he was not about to come out.

Now nearing retirement, Kopay is giving back so that future gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students will have resources to have an easier time on their own coming out journeys.

Kopay, the first NFL player to come out and author of the seminal 1977 autobiography "The David Kopay Story," has made a $1 million testamentary pledge to the University of Washington, his beloved alma mater. Kopay hopes the pledge, to be used for at-need LGBT students, will spur others to donate to the David Kopay Endowment. He will be honored at a special dinner Friday, along with others who have pledged at least $1 million.

"I never thought I'd ever be in a position to make a pledge of a million dollars," said Kopay, 65, who is retiring this year from his family's flooring business in Los Angeles. "It humbles me. … The impetus, I think, was getting older, the idea about retiring and wanting to make a difference in this world."

He got the idea for giving back more than a year ago after conversations with George Zeno, the executive director for scholarships and student programs at the school and himself gay. Zeno told Kopay about some of the difficulties that confront gay and lesbian students, who often face ostracism from families that make staying in school difficult ("stories that gay people have heard all the time," he says).

"There are more demands on the universities in our country to showcase how their alumni are making a difference in this world and Dave is an incredible testament to what our alumni are doing," Zeno said. "We hope this will continue to demonstrate that the University of Washington is a learning place for all of our citizens of this state and that this is a welcoming and nurturing environment to receive a world class education regardless of self-identification."

Kopay sees the endowment as a way to help these at-risk students. "The fact that I can be part of a support system for kids is important for me," Kopay told Outsports. A 1964 graduate, Kopay was in the closet during his years when he was a co-captain of the football team. Despite being a big man on campus, he still more than 40 years later remembers "being so lonely with no place to go."

As part of the start of the endowment celebration, Kopay will give welcoming remarks to incoming LGBT students. "It's a chance to let them know they are welcome and have a place to go and have a support system," he said about the Sept. 28 event at the gay and lesbian center on campus. A longtime public speaker, with numerous TV appearances, Kopay said speaking at the event "scares me and empowers me at the same time."

"Public speaking always scares me to death," says Kopay, who addressed the American Bar Assn. at its convention shortly after coming out in 1975 and urged the lawyers to end legal discrimination against gay people. "I feel much more common than uncommon."

But for the thousands of people who have written Kopay the past 30 years about how inspired they were by his courage to come out and tell the world, Kopay is anything but common. At a screening in Los Angeles last year for an HBO documentary on Billie Jean King, Kopay waited nervously to try and say a few words to the tennis legend he had never met but long admired. As he approached her and started to introduce himself, King broke out into a big smile, reached out to hug him and said, "I know who you are!" She proceeded to tell Kopay how much his book helped her come to grips with her sexuality; Kopay was momentarily speechless and humbled.

These photos of Kopay at the University of Washington were taken by Bob Peterson. Kopay did not see these until this year.

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A Husky Legend

Separate from his activism, Kopay is also getting his due once again in the athletic arena.

On Saturday, at halftime of the Huskies' home opener against Boise State, Kopay will be inducted as a Washington sports legend. Just thinking about walking out to midfield of Husky Stadium before 72,000 purple-clad fans causes Kopay to choke up and take a moment to compose his thoughts.

"It gets me emotional, it makes me cry," he said. "I just get this feeling -- I'm no different than anyone else. But people have to be able to see who we are and see that we're everywhere."

Despite the inner turmoil of wrestling with his sexuality, Kopay has many fond memories of his football days, especially his 1964 senior season when he led the Huskies to the Rose Bowl. "The fans in Washington were always so incredibly supportive of me." This continued nearly 40 years later when Kopay was selected a captain for an alumni game.

About his Saturday induction as a legend, Kopay jokes that "if it was homecoming, I would ask to be escorted by the homecoming king." After two hip replacements, plus a knee and a shoulder replacement, Kopay is pain free for the first time in years. He has lost 25 pounds in the past few months and is now at his collegiate playing weight of 215 pounds at a height of 6-1. He reached his goal of being able to fit into his letterman's jacket and possibly wear it on the field.

In addition to the festivities at Washington, Kopay is also being honored in the upcoming 40th anniversary edition of the Advocate as one of the 40 gay and lesbian heroes of that time. "That really makes me feel validated in a way," he says, referring to times early in the gay movement when some activists criticized him for being too outspoken.

If his Husky days was one chapter and his coming out another, Kopay eagerly awaits the next after he retires. He is considering a long-term move to Seattle and continued involvement with his endowment.

"People told me how much my coming out has meant to them over the years," he says. His pledge ensures that David Kopay will long mean something to future generations.