In professional football, it was once a common practice for teams returning a kickoff to set up a wall of blockers — or wedge — to help their returner rack up more yards. To defend that, kicking teams designated a “wedge buster,” whose job was to hurl himself into the formation.
Retired NFL player Dave Kopay was a wedge buster on the field and off, and perhaps the biggest wedge he ever helped quash was the notion that homosexuality did not exist or belong in professional football.
In 1975, Kopay, a former West Hollywood resident, became the first retired NFL player to come out as gay. Since then, the former running back has advocated for the LGBT community — especially in the world of sports.
“It’s what I need to do,” Kopay said, eyeing newspaper clippings about him on his dinner table. His words could easily apply to his playing days, his LGBT advocacy or both. “It’s how I can contribute.”
While the 71 year old has received a lot of support from friends and strangers over the last 40 years, it’s obvious that the decision has taken a toll — much like the wear and tear his body has endured from playing so aggressively.
“I don’t want to see people go through life with that kind of restriction ever, because it’s lonely. I’m keyed up, because it’s important to be keyed up. It’s really, really important,” Kopay said.
He mentioned his mother and his role as her main caregiver. She is 99 years old and still “very homophobic and racist,” he said.
“That’s pitiful, right? It’s like, what in the hell? And she knows what a good son I’ve been. …It’s very hard to deal with when someone is that negative,” Kopay said. “It’s really, really painful. It’s not easy, you know?”
He also discussed the time he supported a heterosexual friend who was running against Harvey Milk in a bid for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although Milk understood why Kopay offered his support to a friend, Kopay faced backlash and was called a “turncoat,” he said.
But he tries not to focus on the negative. Instead, Kopay brought up an e-mail he received recently that thanked him for providing the individual with a sense of hope. He also gestured toward a pencil drawing of him that the artist gave him after hearing one of his talks.
When in need of inspiration or motivation, Kopay looks to a poem he stumbled upon in the 1960s, when he was running on a Southern California beach and encountered a disfigured young man who was writing poetry on a paper bag. Kopay asked him about it, and the individual said the poem wasn’t any good and said Kopay could have it. Decades later, he still knows it by heart. It reads:
Over the valleys of lighted tree tops, the sun is the maker of all that is good.
Here at the edge where living hell stops, nature’s the ruler you know that she should.
People create and now they destroy, a vast contradiction don’t you agree?
Who is to blame and what is the answer, it’s so close people, it’s just you and me.
Love and peace with a smile guides the way, for all of us a much better day.
But thinking is all right and talking is worse. The way that is real is the way that is right!
Kopay offered the poem to NFL prospect Michael Sam in an open letter published by Outsports. In February, Kopay met with Sam, a University of Missouri graduate who is poised to become the first active NFL player to come out as gay. He referred to Sam as an “authentic” individual who knows how to handle himself.
“Michael Sam has done the right thing by speaking out,” Kopay said. “Michael Sam has done the right thing by being himself, by being free to be who he is and who he was born to be. I felt the same way after I spoke out.”
He has had correspondence with Jason Collins, who became the first active NBA player to come out as gay at the end of February. Collins wears No. 98 for the Brooklyn Nets in honor of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was murdered during a hate crime in 1998.
The NBA center had spent all of this season as a free agent until recently signing with the Nets. Kopay said he wasn’t sure if Collins would get the chance.
“But he can play, and he knows what he’s doing,” he said. “And he can contribute. Not everybody contributes the same way. Everybody’s not a star. That’s why they call it a team game. …He’s a very impressive young man. I’m proud to just be around people like him.”
The state of gay athletes has certainly evolved since Kopay entered the NFL in 1964. He refers to the era as “the dark ages.”
“It was horrible. They talked about doing lobotomies and they talked about sending us to institutions. It was a terrible time. You have no idea,” Kopay said.
After graduating from the University of Washington, he played for five teams — the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
In college, Kopay experienced love for the first time when he met Ray, a fraternity pledge brother who would become the love of his life, according to the letter he addressed to Sam. Ray was later killed in Vietnam.
“I knew that I was gay even then,” Kopay said, “but I was struggling.”
His office and hallways are lined with memorabilia from his playing days. Kopay pauses at a frame that displays football cards and photos of a former teammate, Jerry Smith, who he “loved dearly and still do love to this day.”
“Jerry was wonderful,” he added.
Kopay said he was interviewed for a documentary on Smith’s life, and the interviewer asked if their teammates knew they were having a relationship.
“Of course they knew, but they’re all going to say they didn’t know,” he said. “But then they’re going to say, ‘But we knew.’”
Smith died of AIDS in 1986, and Kopay hopes to see him in the NFL Hall of Fame some day. He said Smith’s stats make a case for his induction.
Kopay said he and Smith had discussed writing a book, but they never had the opportunity. He said Smith was still playing when Kopay came out in a newspaper article, and he worried that he may accidentally impact Smith’s career.
“I didn’t want to out Jerry, you know? I always tried to avoid anything related to the Redskins and stuff,” Kopay said.
After football, he hoped to move on to coaching, but found that his announcement made it difficult to find employment — for teams specifically and employers in general. Kopay began working for his uncle’s floor covering business, Linoleum City in Hollywood.
“I wasn’t getting any interviews. I wasn’t getting anywhere. …I just wanted a job,” he added.
Kopay retired from Linoleum City in 2007, but his LGBT advocacy continues. He agrees to many interviews in the hope that at least one person — and by extension one family — will benefit as a result.
“And that’s what’s important,” Kopay said.
He now lives in Eagle Rock and spends time swimming, hiking, speaking at events, antiquing and gardening. Kopay gets emotional when discussing how things have changed over the last 40 years, and his eyes begin to well up.
“It’s just been amazing. Don’t get me wrong — with a lot of the ups, there are down moments too. The down moments you don’t see, but that’s OK,” he said, adding, “I can’t believe how blessed I’ve been.”
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