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CFP final: Washington vs. Michigan has a lot to offer for gay fans

Dave Kopay, the first out NFL player, was a star at Washington. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh likes musical theater and got his gay son hooked.

Washington Huskies defensive end Bralen Trice, left, and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. celebrate the Sugar Bowl win.
Washington Huskies defensive end Bralen Trice, left, and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. celebrate the Sugar Bowl win.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Updated:

With their wins in the semifinals, Washington will play Michigan on Monday for the College Football Playoff championship. Gay fans can feel comfortable rooting for either.

Original story:

The four semifinalists in the College Football Playoff take the field on New Year’s Day, when No. 1 Michigan plays No. 4 Alabama in the Rose Bowl, and No. 2 Washington plays No. 3 Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

Are there gay angles to these teams? Of course there are gay angles.

Washington

Dave Kopay was the first former NFL player to come out publicly as gay, a revelation he made in 1975, three years after retiring following a nine-year career. Kopay is the father of the LGBTQ sports movement for being the first major pro athlete to come out and for the decades of advocacy that followed.

Before his NFL career, Kopay was a star at the University of Washington and the Huskies’ team captain in 1963, a season that saw them reach the Rose Bowl. Washington lost to Illinois (which featured future NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus), 17-7, and Kopay scored the Huskies’ lone touchdown.

A 2008 profile in the University of Washington alumni magazine detailed Kopay’s struggles with his sexuality while in college. From the article:

“Kopay joined the Theta Chi fraternity when he arrived at the UW, and it was at the fraternity that he met the man he now calls the great love of his life. But the very idea of being gay was still foreign to him at the time. This was the early 1960s, and to declare his homosexuality would have tarred him as an outlier. The thought frightened and repulsed him. He was a football player, after all.

“That remained his mindset throughout his time at the UW, even as he and his fraternity brother slept together on the sleeping porch of their house, their encounters often taking place after both had dropped off dates. He had closeted himself so completely, insulated by his fear and insecurity, that he never attempted to seek out others in his position, much less the city’s gay enclaves. It would take more than a decade for him to begin confronting his sexuality.”

“As his personal life grew increasingly complicated and clandestine, Kopay also struggled on the football field, failing to earn a varsity letter in his junior year. He finally broke through in his senior season, averaging over 48 minutes a game to lead the team. He was named an All-American and led the Huskies to the 1964 Rose Bowl. It should have been a joyous time for Kopay, but he continued to feel burdened by the weight of the secret he was keeping.

“Years later, when he finally went public about his homosexuality, some former teammates were amazed at his ability to perform under so much internal strain. “It certainly had to be a challenge for him, seeing the world through his eyes at that time,” says Rick Redman, ‘66, a former UW teammate. “I am happy for him, the way in which he handled himself, and how he was able to perform under the conditions he was facing. I am proud to call him a teammate.”

In the years that followed, Kopay continued to wear a mask of heterosexual maleness — getting married (and later divorced) and feigning interest in chasing women, hoping to suppress his internal struggle, continuing to live his lie.

“I was never thinking I was a gay man, because I just wasn’t like ‘one of them,’” Kopay says. “Just talking about it like that almost reinforces the utter bullshit that society uses to identify gay folks. I didn’t have the knowledge or strength to take it on then, and even after I did take it on, there were many, many times that it almost consumed me and took me into deep, deep depression. I grew to really appreciate the thousands of letters people sent me telling their own stories, but sometimes even that wasn’t enough.”

I’ve known Kopay for more than 20 years and have watched countless football games with him, so my rooting interest in this game will be with the Huskies.

Michigan

The Wolverines head coach is Jim Harbaugh, who for years sported $8 WalMart khakis that he later upgraded to Lululemon. His gay son, James Jr., called his dad’s WalMart pants “hideous,” and has a much better sense of style. A flight attendant for Delta living in Seattle, the younger Harbaugh is a huge fan of his dad’s Wolverines and his uncle John’s Baltimore Ravens.

“I challenge you to find anyone at this university who is as into football as I am,” he told a podcast in 2017. “I am at those games — I come home with bruises from cheering so loud. I am on top of those bleachers, I’m like throwing myself around recklessly. I am endangering myself for the sake of the game.

“I forcibly encourage the people sitting in my section or watching with me at home to be loud on every down and never sit down. I tell them they can sit down when they’re dead.”

As a bonus, dad got son into musical theater.

“I can kind of credit my dad for getting me into theater a little bit, oddly enough,” James said on the podcast. “In 2005, when he was at Stanford, he took the family — my sister, stepmom and I — we went and saw ‘Wicked’ in San Francisco. I was blown away by it. I was probably 12 at the time. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is so incredible. I would love to be a part of something that makes people feel this way, something that feels so magical and amazing.’”

Not that they’ll do a repeat performance at the Rose Bowl, but the Michigan Wolverines marching band in 2021 performed a fully LGBTQ halftime show commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Spectrum Center, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) university-based LGBTQ centers.

Texas

I’d be rooting for the Texas Longhorns if they were playing anybody other than Washington. That’s because among former Longhorns players is JJ Phipps, who was on the team in 1999 and with whom I played flag football in L.A. for years and won national and Gay Games titles. Phipps is a world-class trash talker but could back it up by being an insane defensive back. He was so good that he is in the National Gay Flag Football League Hall of Fame.

Texas also has an out gay man in its athletic department in Drew Martin, an associate AD, and one of their star swimmers is out Olympic medalist Erica Sullivan.

And in 2018, the Longhorns marched in the Austin Pride parade as a show of support for the LGTBQ community.

Alabama

Alabama coach Nick Saban has a reputation as a hard-ass, but he gave a thoughtful, measured response when asked in 2014 how he would handle any of his players being gay.

“I would expect everybody to be very respectful of what is private for most people and treat that person with dignity and respect, and respect them for being a good teammate and being a part of our team and doing the things that require them to be a good person on our team,” Saban said. “I can’t speak for everybody, but that’s what would be my expectation for the people that we control in our organization and on our team.”

I’m not surprised by Saban’s response actually, since that’s what a good coach would say, but people I’ve told this to seemed surprised (must be the “coaching at Alabama” part).