Documentary Recounts The Heartbreaking Romance Between Two Gay Pro-Football Players

Jerry SmithIf 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

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  • jimbryant

    Having AIDS has got nothing to do with being gay. AIDS is something that comes about through promiscuous behavior within a concentrated environment where men form a network of promiscuity. These networks of promiscuity are perfect test-tube environments for the spread of STD’s. You choose – yes, choose – to become a part of these networks of promiscuity. They don’t just happen.

    As for this documentary, I think the NFL is trying to shut us up again. It won’t allow a player to come out so it tries to calm us by citing dead or dying players in relation to homosexuality. I think it’s highly homophobic of the NFL to do this.

    Can we ever be allowed to get beyond the dead or dying stage?

  • Tackle

    Seems like an interesting documentary. I definately plan on watchng it. But I would not call it a heartbreaking romance. I don’t see how anyone got their heart broken since there was no relationship. And I don’t see how two athletes after a night of drinking, that ends up with them in bed together that one night, would even constitute a relationship. Not criticizing the documentary, just my observation/opinion… Loved coach’s Lombardi’s attitude on the matter.

  • tardis

    @jimbryant: Dude, your the one always igniting flames here, so this is pretty much my only reply I’m going to give you. Having said that, give me a freaking break. No, HIV/AIDs is NOT an exclusive gay disease, but it is one that hugely devastates our community and to negate that really short changes the issue. I wish the numbers would go down. I wonder if it ever will…

    @Tackle: Maybe it was one of those night to remember kind of things. By our standards, no it wouldn’t be considered a relationship, but in those times, being in the closet was a reality to most gay men and I reckon that truly must have been a horrendous place to be. I don’t know, maybe his fear paralyzed him to pursue anything.

  • ppp111


    I still think the NFL, despite all their bravado about being accepting, is still one of the most homophobic environments to be in. I used to be on another board, Outsports, and I once said that it would be a while before we see any openly gay male athlete in any team sport. I now think that it will probably never happen. Yes, Jason Collins is out but has any team even signed him? If he hasn’t been signed at this point, he probably is looking at the end of his career. I don’t blame any gay male athlete for choosing to stay in the closet; most of your teammates may be accepting but that’s not taking into account opposing players and fans and, most of all, your teammates who may have strong emotions against it. It’s just sad but that’s the reality of our society.

  • Discodaddybob

    Aside to JimBryant, one needn’t have been promiscuous to become exposed to HIV. It could take just one encounter having unprotected sex to do it. I had several friends who were hardly promiscuous but were unfortunate to have an encounter without using condoms who contracted HIV. Your attitude is one that was prevalent back in the 80s and early 90s but is surely outdated (and inaccurate) today.
    All professional sports remain extremely homophobic and I can understand why gay players remain in the closet for fear of being ostracized by teammates and the public. Sad but true.

  • mezzacanadese

    @Discodaddybob: Thank you for your most intelligent response.

  • Caleb in SC

    @Discodaddybob: Right, on! I would only add that this was not a heartbreaking romance, but a one night stand.

  • casey

    The documentary, as presented by the link in the article, is a disjointed mess and does very poor service to its subject.

  • TWS

    @jimbryant: Not until people stop dying from it.

  • jimbryant


    Nobody who has ever caught HIV has not caught it from one person. There is nothing new in your assertion. The real issue is risk.

    There is a greater risk of catching HIV if you take part in these networks of concentrated promiscuity. The male-male social scene is famous for concentrating itself within a specific set of bars and clubs to which men return week after week for years and years and years.

    Concentration and networking are two very important reasons why HIV has become an issue amongst men who sexualize with men. It’s got nothing to do with the sexual orientation but everything to do with concentration and networking.

    Gay men are making poor choices.

  • Stenar

    jimbryant, I don’t think the NFL is trying to “shut us up” by producing this documentary. More likely, it’s trying to soften up sports people to accept gay athletes.

  • Stenar

    I would hardy describe a drunken one-night stand as a “romance.”

  • Kieran

    Until we end the deeply ingrained and time honored stereotypes of gay men being swishy, soft, effeminate, weak, cross-dressers it is highly unlikely that many professional athletes are going to publicly acknowledge having a homosexual orientation.

  • jimbryant


    I’m not buying what you’re selling. Sorry.

    I am sick and tired of gay men playing the AIDS card and expecting everybody to feel pity for them.

    Memo to gay guys: if you didn’t have such poor choices, you wouldn’t be holding AIDS fund-raisers.

  • davincibarnette

    When will you learn to ignore jimbryant ?! He has issues. Issues of self-hatred, confusion, and a deep rooted need for attention. As long as you respond to his pathetic “outbursts” he will continue to “show up”.

  • LadyL

    It’s true that on the face of it one night together after an evening of drinking hardly constitutes a romance.
    But what registers to me as heartbreaking is realizing the unrelenting stress these guys were living with and how it must have short-circuited any chance for emotional connection and mutual support.
    Kopay’s description suggests to me that maybe he felt something for Smith beyond just physical attraction and would like to have pursued a relationship, but Smith was too burdened by fear and self-loathing (the kindness of Coach Lombardi notwithstanding) to permit it. That Jerry Smith ended all communication between them even when Kopay took care to disguise his identity speaks volumes about the depth of his terror of being found out. It must have been debilitating, exhausting for him. That is truly heartbreaking.

  • Andrew Yang

    @jimbryant: Please get your facts straight before seeking to pontificate what you certainly think are facts and insight, which is far from the truth. Yes, promiscuous individuals are more at risk, but countless others have gotten HIV through single encounters. Further, your initial post was way too general and pedestrian.

  • trilingual1946

    I haven’t seen this documentary yet, but I doubt there was a romance between these two players. I knew both players casually. Jerry Smith was an extremely close friend of a friend in D.C., which is how I met him — I was living in New Orleans at the time and my friend from D.C. usually came for Carnival with Jerry in tow. Even though he never formally came out of the closet, Jerry traveled constantly during off-seasons and frequented gay clubs. I ran into him a number of times in bars in cities around the country. I’m not sure when he was exposed to HIV but probably in the late 70s like so many other men were before anyone knew about its existence. Jerry was a very good-looking guy with a winning personality and never had much problem finding someone to spend the night with, so he could have been exposed anywhere. However, I doubt there was ever any romance between him and Dave Kopay — from all I had seen or heard about Jerry, Kopay wasn’t really “his type.”

    I don’t know Kopay well at all, but he was playing for the Saints at the same time I was living in New Orleans. Everyone in town knew who he was (the N.O. resident gay community isn’t that large and you knew who’s who after living there for a while). I lived only doors away from the three most popular gay bars, so I was in them frequently, especially Lafitte’s. Kopay would often come into them, but as soon as he realized he’d been recognized he’d panic, throw his beer down and fly out the door! This was before he came out publicly. I’m very glad that he did, and eventually grew to be comfortable in his own skin, which obviously wasn’t the case when he was playing in New Orleans.

    Please remember that this was in the early 70s and attitudes were very different then. Lots of people were still in the closet, not just professional athletes. Coming out is often a difficult process and there was a lot of pressure not to do it in those days — it certainly could have jeopardized your career if you did. Jerry Smith always seemed to be comfortable with his sexuality when I knew him, but he was cautious of coming out because of his work. It seems to have taken Kopay a lot longer to reach the point Jerry had reached, but every person’s coming out story is different and this is an example of that. And ironically, Jerry never formally came out, and Dave Kopay did.

  • pscheck2

    This article intrigues me in a couple of ways. In ‘trilingual46’ post we know Jerry to be a very personable, good looking hunk, who, in spite of his tightly closed ‘closet’ door, did frequent gay bars and had in tow a BF? on such visits. As ’46’ mentions gay bars are almost an open forum where you are liable to meet almost anyone (owners, other players or others who might ‘out’ you—-and yet, he did not seem to keep himself oout of them! The other is, he was not uncomfortable in living the lifestyle of a gay person, since he was active sexually and had an affair with another teammate (not Kopay) and eventually died from Aids. I think we have, in Jerry, a person who was self-loathing in that being gay, he was marginalizing himself from what was the norms of the society he lived in. The label of being called a ‘fag’ was an appellation he feared most! (IMHO). I think this is one of the reason many of the gay closeted athletes, today ,don’t want to come out, for the same fear. Anyway, RIP, Jerry, you may have lost the battle, but maybe won the war?

  • olfwob

    @jimbryant: I guess you are a very lonely man. How you meet guys? And how can be be sure, that these guys hadn`t have a sexlife befor you, and will have one -maybe even behind your back in your relationship? A Relationship depends on trust,but sometimes one of the partners isn`t faithful, has a affair, catched HIV and isn`t open about it. Thats what happend not only to gays, it happens in alot straight realtions as well ( Partner goes with friend to Thailand for a “holiday on the beach” comes back with an STD).
    Unless your partner is under 24/7 surveillance you can`t never be 100% sure.

  • mujerado

    Jim Bryant, in the end your posts say more about you than about AIDS or athletes or men in “networks of concentrated promiscuity.” Your moralizing generalizations aren’t worth the time it takes you to post or someone else to read them.

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