If you think it’s hard being gay in the NFL today, imagine what it was like in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet at one point the Washington Redskins had two gay players on the team: Jerry Smith, a tight end, and David Kopay, a running back. And a new documentary from the NFL Network captures the brief moment when the two shared one night together.
Smith was a star on the team, and according to the film, A Football Life, he struggled with the closet throughout his career. While many teammates knew that he was gay, Smith never discussed his sexuality openly. Amazingly, Smith found a protector in Redskins coach Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother. Lombardi, who was notoriously tough, made it clear to the team that he would not tolerate any homophobic outburst directed at gay players.
That included David Kopay, a journeyman player on the team. In the film, Kopay recalls the night he and Smith went out drinking and wound up in bed together. It is a heartbreaking vignette.
“I thought this was really good,” Kopay says. “At least I was sharing something of myself with someone who’s close and understood all that I had been through and understood so much of what we hoped for would come. And that’s where we left it. And it never happened again.”
After retiring, Kopay write an autobiography, published in 1977, when he became one of the first professional athletes to come out. In the book, he recounts having sex with another athlete, for whom he uses an alias. Smith never spoke to Kopay after that.
A few months before his death from AIDS in 1986, Smith gave an interview to the Washington Post where he spoke candidly about his disease. “I want people to know what I’ve been through and how terrible this disease is,” Smith said. “Maybe it will help people understand.” But even then, Smith would not come out as gay.
The documentary is playing throughout the month on ESPN and can also be viewed on ESPN.com