Community member Kopay first NFL athlete to come out

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Author: Lauren Rewers

Everyday around noon, a 71-year-old man swims laps in Taylor Pool for a few hours. His 6-foot height and muscular build suggest a once-powerful physique, and it is still not yet completely diminished. He periodically mingles with the athletes, lifeguards and swimmers who frequent the pool, but generally completes his laps and goes home, until he returns the next day.

Even those who see and interact with David Kopay regularly may not fathom the man behind the friendly exterior: a talented former National Football League (NFL) player unlike any other. In 1975, Kopay became the first professional football player to acknowledge his homosexuality to the public. But for those fortunate enough to strike up a poolside chat or share his table in the Marketplace, Kopay reveals a wealth of experiences simultaneously funny, sweet, poignant and agonizingly painful.

A Google search of his name sheds light on the career that his own modest description does not, spanning over nine seasons as a steely running back with five different teams. The glamour and grit of professional football, however, is not what Kopay wants to discuss. His real fight was in the locker room.

“[It] is the most homophobic place around,” he said.

During his collegiate and professional career in the 1960s, the possibility of homosexual athletes was not even on the table for discussion. Much of the controversy in athletics was centered instead on African-American integration. Kopay himself had not yet identified as gay and continued to date women. Still, he felt like something was missing.

“All that was very, very painful for me,” he said.

It was precisely then that he met the love of his life: a fellow fraternity brother. The two were emotionally intimate but could not acknowledge the other aspects of their relationship. Kopay began to come to terms with his sexual identity, but his friend never was able to recognize their relationship. Before he had a chance, Kopay’s significant other was killed in the Vietnam War in 1973. Kopay still visits his grave often.

“His life wasn’t fulfilled, and in a way mine wasn’t either,” Kopay said. ” I don’t want to ever have to see anybody going through that. It’s not right.”

His struggle with discrimination against the gay community continued after his career when he found himself unable to secure interviews for coaching jobs, simply because of his rumored homosexuality. His years spent in the NFL did not bring financial security, as they were far before the era of inflated salaries for professional athletes. Barely into his retirement, Kopay found himself laboring to support his parents and siblings by running the family flooring business.

Despite the potential disadvantages, he made the unprecedented decision to come out publicly at 35 years old. He was motivated by the thought that it might encourage other players to do the same, particularly friend and fellow Washington Redskins teammate Jerry Smith.

“I wanted to show him that I could survive regardless,” Kopay said.

Since then, he has fought in support of the homosexual community in a multitude of ways. His memoir, The David Kopay Story, was published in 1977. He testifies and continues to speak to media sources and on panels about his experiences. Among these contributions is a promise to donate his nearly $1 million estate to his alma mater University of Washington’s Q Center, a resource facility for LGBTQ students.

“Never do I want to see anyone as isolated and alone as people like Jerry and myself were,” he said.

As Kopay wishes, Occidental is one such institution where tolerance for homosexual athletes is unwavering.

As a gay water polo player, Tomás Dakan (sophomore) has had a very different experience from Kopay’s. He came to terms with his homosexuality in his junior and senior years of high school, first with support from online groups and then from his family. Even so, he never told his high school athletic team.

“Occidental is far more accepting than I ever thought it would be,” Dakan said.

After coming out to his team via a Facebook posting about a new relationship, he was relieved to find that his fellow players had only support and congratulations for him.

“I really couldn’t wipe the smile off my face that night,” he said.

However, Dakan acknowledges that athletics still emphasize masculinity and that athletes often feel a need to prove their toughness. Especially problematic is derogatory language against homosexuals that still is common among the general population.

Director of Athletics Jaime Hoffman has had similar experiences as an athlete, coach and administrator. Although she has yet to witness such discrimination at Occidental, she often heard of prejudice against lesbian personnel as a women’s basketball coach.

“The more we discuss and accept diversity, we can eliminate the stigma sometimes associated with coming out,” she said via email. “Also, I believe that diversity among our staff is a subtle, but effective, reminder that we are a welcoming department.”

Despite the ongoing fight for equality, the progress that has been made since his days on the football field astounds Kopay.

“Fabulous,” he said, as his voice cracked. “It’s fabulous.”

 

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