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FEATURE

Sports Complex

Who was the first gay football player to play in the Super Bowl?


Jim Provenzano | January 26, 2004

NFL great Jerry Smith, the first gay football player to make it to the Super Bowl
Esera Tualo, who came out last year, played for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1998 Super Bowl, but he wasn't the first. Neither was Roy Simmons, a Washington Redskins offensive guard, who played at the 1984 game. He later came out on a 1992 episode of The Phil Donahue Show, and as HIV-positive in a 2003 New York Times article.

If you're thinking David Kopay, you're close. Go back a little further to learn the story of another Redskin, one of football's most accomplished players, gay or straight: Jerry Smith.

Kopay, who played for five teams during his 10-year career (unfortunately, no Super Bowl) says that four members of the 1969 and 1970 Redskins were gay or bisexual. For a time, Jerry Smith was his lover.

Smith was born in 1943 in Livermore, Calif., and raised Catholic. A Redskins tight end from 1965 to 1977, he caught 421 passes and scored 60 touchdowns in his career - a record unsurpassed until just last year. Smith was the league's third best in pass receptions.

When Kopay joined the Redskins in 1969, he recalls one of his co-captains encouraging his friendship with Smith. "Supposedly the guys didn't know I was queer, but maybe they did," Kopay told me. "They'd say [about Jerry], 'He's a guy who thinks a lot like you. You guys are gonna have fun together.' We became close friends, being on the same offensive team. We had to compliment each other on blocking schemes and pass patterns."

Kopay says that Redskins Coach Vince Lombardi was a great mentor to both players, and had a relative and two staff members who were gay. In the book Run to Win: Vince Lombardi on Coaching and Leadership, Smith is quoted as saying, "All the things a man searches for all his life I found in Coach Lombardi."

Could it have been Lombardi's enlightened attitude that helped Smith's career in an otherwise homophobic sport? Kopay says, "I think in today's world, Lombardi would react [to gay players] totally different than a lot of people think he would. He was very compassionate, loving - he loved Jerry."

Understandably, despite some acceptance, "Jerry was guarded at first," says Kopay. During their early friendship, Smith lived with Joe Blair in Silver Springs, Md.

"He was well-respected among his peers, so I became accepted because Jerry accepted me," says Kopay, who credits Smith - blond, affable, and "California casual" - with helping him accept his sexuality.

"Jerry lived life big," Kopay says. Visiting discos and bars along their travels, Smith charmed men, and occasionally women, into one-night encounters. He was charismatic, yet unwilling to get emotionally involved with Kopay.

"He didn't want to recognize it as a relationship, just purely a physical release," says Kopay. Smith believed a gay relationship "would probably be impossible," and his liaison with Kopay lasted only part of a season.

Smith had affairs with several other NFL players, too. In the off-season, he traveled through Europe. More than a mere playboy, though, Smith also worked in a summer camp for inner-city kids.

After being cut from the team, Kopay parted ways with Smith, who continued playing with the Redskins for eight more years. Reporting on his performance in the 1973 Super Bowl VII, _Sports Illustrated_ described Smith, then 29, as "an outstanding receiver among tight ends, with the ability to break open for a long gain."

Then in 1975 came a Washington Star article, which claimed that three NFL starting quarterbacks were gay. Kopay says one of the unnamed sources was Smith. Kopay called the reporter and came out in a subsequent article.

One of the first people Kopay heard from after his coming out was Smith. Doing his best Vince Lombardi imitation, Smith told Kopay over the phone, "You're really something, Mister. You're really something."

As Kopay garnered international attention following the publication of his autobiography, he also became a symbol that defied stereotypes. A screenplay based on his book is in development.

Indirectly, Jerry Smith may have been responsible for inspiring the first former pro gay athlete to officially come out, paving the way for dozens more in other sports. And yet, Smith himself never really came out. After retiring from football, he lived in different cities and co-owned The Boathouse, a gay bar in Austin, Texas.

Before dying of AIDS on Oct. 15, 1986, Smith acknowledged having the disease. Despite the importance of his being the first former pro athlete to die of AIDS, the New York Times shunted the story to a back page.

In 2003, the Denver Broncos' Shannon Sharpe was entered into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio - for outdoing Smith's record of 60 by one touchdown. It's almost as if the Hall of Fame had been waiting for someone to surpass Smith, rather than give posthumous honors to the fascinating yet elusive man who held the record for nearly 25 years.

Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org


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