Jerry Smith was a star tight end for the Washington Redskins from 1965-77, retiring with a then-NFL record of 60 touchdowns. He was also gay, and died of AIDS in 1986.
The NFL Network series "A Football Life" delves into Smith's sexual orientation in an hour-long documentary that airs Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 9 p.m. Eastern, followed by a half-hour discussion of the show. Based on the 2-minute trailer on NFL.com and on the interview I know they conducted with Smith's teammate, Dave Kopay, the documentary confronts Smith's sexual orientation head-on.
"Jerry and I wanted to be judged on the content of our character, not on our sexuality," Kopay said for the show. NFL Films spent a day in November in Los Angeles interviewing Kopay. Smith and Kopay had sex once (Kopay has joked that he wasn't Smith's type), and their sexual orientation was an open secret with some members of the Redskins.
"It was the worst-kept secret in the gay community and the best-kept secret in the straight community," said David Mixner, a long-time gay activist who knew Smith.
"I don't care what he was," then-Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer says. "He was just a great man and kind man and a great football player."
Unlike Kopay, Smith never acknowledged he was gay, even after he got AIDS and was on his death bed. "He was living in real fear and was really scared and really alone and terrified that he was going to lose everything," Mixner said of why Smith stayed closeted while playing.
The documentary looks like must-viewing, so set your DVR.