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Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Alex Karras was the original gay sports ally

Gay sports trailblazer Dave Kopay credits Alex Karras with saving his life when he was struggling with his sexuality.

Detroit Lions
Alex Karras, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a close friend to Dave Kopay, a Lions teammate who came out as gay after retiring.

NFL lineman Alex Karras, selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday, was the original LGBTQ sports ally, decades before the acronym existed.

Dave Kopay, who played with Karras for the Detroit Lions in 1968, credits Karras with saving his life by being a close friend and confidant at a time when Kopay was struggling with being gay. Though Kopay never told Karras directly he was gay, the star lineman — elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously — sensed something was different and took Kopay under his wing.

”In 1968 — the year they filmed “Paper Lion,” Alex was the biggest star around. For him, just keeping other asshole teammates from picking at me for not performing, not chasing women, he kept everybody at bay, he was a lifesaver,” Kopay told the Austin Chronicle in 2013.

“I didn’t get to talk about him near enough in (his book, “The David Kopay Story”), but if it wasn’t for Alex and his friendship, I would not be on this planet today. I was struggling not only with my sexuality, but with football. My self-worth was down as a man, and as a football player. I was suicidal. With Alex’s support, it meant everything to me.”

Kopay came out after retiring in 1975 and he Karras remained close friends until Karras’ death in 2012. Kopay has told me for years about how important Karras was to him at a time when he seriously considered suicide. To honor his friend’s memory, Kopay named his beloved border collie “Alex.”

Karras went on to have a huge movie and TV career after retiring, best known for his role as “Mongo” in “Blazing Saddles,” for playing a closeted gay bodyguard in “Victor Victoria” and for TV’s “Webster.”

”Watching Alex play a homosexual in ‘Victor Victoria,’ I couldn’t stop laughing.” Kopay told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “He didn’t know a f------ thing about homosexuality, but he knew a lot about empathy.”

Kopay has a framed photo of Karras in his Los Angeles living room. “I’m looking at his picture right now,” Kopay told me Wednesday night “and I’m sure he’s smiling.”