Kopay ‘happy for the country’ after Michael Sam’s announcement

Dave Kopay came out in 1975, three years after his NFL playing career ended.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Advocate

Dave Kopay was too tired to keep talking; he’d been doing it all day. To everyone. He couldn’t help himself. But he wanted to keep doing it, anyway, to keep thinking about it. It was pure joy.

"Until I fall down, I’m going to talk," he told me Monday afternoon. "I’m so happy for Michael Sam. I’m so happy for the country.

"I thought if Jason Collins would get a chance to play basketball this year, it was going to be a huge thing. But Michael Sam’s going to be in the locker room, and he’s going to play. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen."

On Sunday, Sam, the former University of Missouri football player, became a landmark in American sports and social history. With his announcement, Sam stands to be the first active major sports team athlete in the U.S. to compete while being publicly gay.

But history rarely happens in a vacuum. Almost everything has a predecessor, or a stepladder of some sort. And in 1975, three years after his retirement from the NFL, Kopay became the first ex-NFL player to come out as gay.

Only four more have done so since then. And Kopay has waited patiently — maybe not so patiently — for this day. When Collins came out last year, it was thought he’d be the first. But he was an expensive, aging backup center, and no NBA team signed him this year. At least, we hope that’s the reason.

Kopay has felt all the bumps along the way, been a spokesman for them. He was called again just last year, when a team was asking a player it considered drafting if he likes girls.

Kopay is ready for this. But is an NFL locker room ready?

"Oh they certainly are ready for this," he said. "There has been gays in locker room since . . . well, I was in locker room since 1964. Jerry (Smith, Kopay’s Washington Redskins teammate) came two years later.

"When they filmed that documentary (on Smith), they asked the question of his teammates ‘Did they know?’ Of course they knew. Every one of them said they didn’t know, but they knew. But look, the locker room is an office. It’s a workroom. It’s not for sex, not for sexual expression. It’s not a cruise opportunity."

Kopay, now 71, said he was happy with most of the reaction he’d seen. A few things brought out the tough guy in him, though. He didn’t like what he interpreted as some analysts saying that football had accepted criminals and druggies, so why not gays?

Honestly, I didn’t see anyone put it quite that way. But Kopay said he’s still in good enough shape, having just come back from swimming a mile, that he wouldn’t mind going face-to-face with some of those analysts.

I wish I shared Kopay’s optimism about NFL locker rooms. To me, they might prove to be the last closet.

It’s important to society that people are able to be themselves. It’s a moment to celebrate. But this isn’t going to be easy for Sam. Already, the talk from anonymous NFL team officials to the media is that it won’t hurt Sam’s career that he’s gay, but only that his announcement will come with too much attention.

That sounds like code.

The most encouraging thing is that the Missouri football team didn’t undermine him after he gave them the news, privately, before the season. And Missouri;s locker room apparently didn’t fall apart; the Tigers reached the SEC title game.

But there’s a king-of-the-hill factor involved. Sam was a great college player. But he;s projected only as a mid-round NFL draft choice.

And if he’s great in the NFL, then there won’t be an issue. If he’s bad, he’ll be cut without question. But what will happen to him if he’s marginal? That’s where you can’t see for sure how he’s being treated.

"I didn’t speak out when I was playing, but it was really close," Kopay said. "Really close. A couple of comments in the Green Bay locker room in 1972. . . .

"Coach told me not to go to a friend’s funeral. But that was the love of my life."

Kopay talked vaguely about personal issues back then. He said he was suffering from depression. His knees were torn up, yet some of his team doctors in Detroit weren’t taking care of him right. He wasn’t playing well.

"And I was trying to deal with being gay," he said. "I had questions about my own sexuality. I was losing my confidence, my self-esteem.

"I was suicidal. If it hadn’t been for people like Alex Karras, who put me under his arm and protected me . . . and Bill Munson. . . .

"Alex and I never never talked specifically about me being gay. But he knew. He told me that before he died."

Kopay came out in 1975 when he got angry over reading a story in a newspaper about the difficulties of being gay in sports. An anonymous NFL player was quoted in the story, and Kopay knew it was his teammate, Smith. Kopay has said that he and Smith once had a sexual encounter.

It’s hard for Kopay not to look back. His past was so much a part of Sam’s courage, and of the future. But he said he didn’t want to talk about the past anymore.

He wanted to talk about Sam. They met at a dinner party on Saturday night, in a group that included gay former baseball player Billy Bean and also former NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, who are straight but have been advocates for gay rights. Sam was telling them what he was about to announce.

"Look at the progress we’ve made," Kopay said. "I just thank the universe for the things that are happening. But I’ve probably already said too much."

Kopay wanted to keep going, but he needed a break from talking. He’d earned it.