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Tonight: NFL Network piece on Jerry Smith fully embraces his gayness

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NFL Films decided to produce the documentary on Smith in large part because he was gay in hopes of creating a push to get him into the Hall Of Fame.

Jerry Smith was the best tight end in football for the better part of a decade.
Jerry Smith was the best tight end in football for the better part of a decade.

The documentary airs Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 9pmET on NFL Network. At 10pmET, A Football Life: Backstory airs, and Brig Owens, Calvin Hill and David Mixner join the show.

NFL Network's "A Football Life" episode about former Washington Redskins tight end Jerry Smith fully embraces the man's sexual orientation as it weaves the story of one of the greatest tight ends to have ever played the game.

The hourlong piece is entirely about two things: Smith's excellence on the field and his sexual orientation. Various former teammates of Smith are interviewed, including Brig Owens (his roommate), quarterback Billy Kilmer and running back Larry Brown. All of the men talk about Smith being gay, how they found out, when they suspected and when they knew. For many of the men, it was the first time they had ever interacted with a gay man.

"One of the things I learned is that a person's sexual preference has nothing to do with their heart," former running back Calvin Hill says during the piece. The four-time Pro Bowler was a teammate of Smith for two seasons. "If anything I think the life of Jerry Smith showed a guy can be a productive person, can be a loyal person, can be a moral person, and it has nothing to do with their sexual preference."

Todd Schmidt, who produced the episode with Paul Monusky and Ken Rodgers, said Smith's sexual orientation was a big reason they chose his story to pursue.

"If Jerry smith hadn't been gay, i think his story would have been better celebrated over time," Schmidt told Outsports. "Because he was gay and how he died, he's a forgotten guy."

Schmidt said Smith's exclusion from the Hall of Fame was another selling point. When Smith retired, he had the NFL record for most touchdowns by a tight end, a record he held until Shannon Sharpe broke it 20 years later. While he hasn't been part of the voters' conversations, Schmidt believes Smith's sexual orientation has kept him out of the Hall of Fame. He hopes this documentary reignites that conversation.

Another piece to that Hall of Fame puzzle was Smith's reluctance to be in the limelight. While lesser tight ends like Mike Ditka sought out media attention, Smith ignored it. Schmidt said NFL Films was embedded with the 1971 Redskins, but they have precious little footage of Smith because he always ran from the cameras, a closeted gay man hoping to avoid attention and questions about his personal life.

"He didn't do a great deal of interviews," Schmidt said. "He wasn't an outspoken man. He was more interested in drawing attention to the team than to himself. So that lack of self-promotion is art of the reason he isn't in the Hall of Fame." Smith's hard work and selflessness are centerpieces of the comments by former teammates.

It's hard to understand why Smith isn't in the Hall of Fame, if not because he was gay and, eventually, died of AIDS. Tight ends with similar production -- like Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow -- are in the Hall of Fame. Both of them had fewer touchdowns and yards per reception than Smith.

LGBT politico David Mixner, who knew Smith when the two were in Arizona and again when they were in Washington, paints a picture of the NFL of the Sixties and Seventies as an impossible place to come out. Archival footage shows then-NFL head of security Jack Danahy equating homosexuals to spies and linking espionage to them.

David Kopay, the first pro athlete to come out publicly, is also prominently featured, along with journalist Lynn Rosellini, in whom Smith confided his sexual orientation for an anonymous 1975 story on homophobia in sports. Kopay talks openly about his brief affair with Smith.

Schmidt said almost every former player they asked to participate agreed enthusiastically. He said one player declined, saying he wasn't comfortable talking about Smith's personal life. A couple others agreed to participate but did not want to discuss Smith's sexual orientation; Most of them relaxed during the interview and discussed it openly.

As with so many gay stories from the Seventies, this one ends tragically. Smith was the first professional athlete to announce he had contracted AIDS. The players don't shy away from the topic. It's hard not to get choked up seeing other former NFL players like Charley Taylor getting emotional as they remember the end of Smith's life. Many of them visited him in the hospital despite the AIDS scare so prevalent in the United States at the time. My partner, Dan, who has no interest in football, watched the piece with me. He cried.

The hourlong episode is a powerful statement by NFL Films and the NFL Network. It's must-see TV for NFL fans and anyone interested in the history of the best NFL player we know was gay.

The documentary airs Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 9pmET on NFL Network. At 10pmET, A Football Life: Backstory airs, and Brig Owens, Calvin Hill and David Mixner join the show.