When Alex Karras Had A Gay Teammate: David Kopay Remembers His Season In Detroit
February 21, 2014
Originally published on Deadline Detroit.
Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, who came out as gay last month, is expected to become the first openly gay player in the NFL following this year's draft.
Pundits and analysts are speculating about whether or not Sam’s sexual orientation will have an impact on his draft status and his ability to connect with teammates.
"To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace," one unnamed NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated. "It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
But these issues aren’t new. Former NFL running back David Kopay dealt with them nearly half century ago. Though Kopay didn’t publicly come out until 1975, three years after his career ended, his sexuality and his identity weighed on him throughout his playing days. Kopay admits it even affected his playing style.
“I wasn’t the niftiest of runners because I was too damn worried that people would think I wasn’t tough enough,” Kopay told Deadline Detroit.
But there can be no questioning Kopay’s toughness on the gridiron, as proven by his 1968 season with the Detroit Lions.
“In training camp, I hurt my knee and I was kind of wondering if it was caused by my injury from the year before,” he said “It never got better, but I kept playing the entire year.”
There was a reason for that. According to Kopay, during a chance encounter with a former team doctor years after he retired, he learned that he had been unknowingly playing with torn ligaments and torn cartilage.
It seems inconceivable today, that a team would keep that information from a player, but 1968 was a very different era. And, Kopay says, his football injuries were the least of his problems at the time as the then 26-year-old athlete was still coming to terms with his identity as a gay man. Keep in mind, this was a year before the Stonewall riot and five years before the American Psychiatric Association declared homosexuality wasn't a mental illness.
“It was bleak, bleak time but a lucky time that year I spent in Detroit,” Kopay said. “Just surviving. There were times when I felt that black cloud over me and I felt smothered. It was hard to pick myself up and continue. But luckily I survived.”
Alex Karras: Teammate And Friend
Kopay, now 71 and living in southern California, says he had a key ally in the locker room during that tumultuous season: Lions great Alex Karras.
Karras is probably best known to younger generations for his acting roles on “Webster” and in the Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles.” In the 1960s, Karras was among the NFL’s most dominant defensive stars and the Lions’ team leader.
Kopay says he never formally came out to Karras during their year playing together, but he says, Karras knew.
“I never him talked to him specifically about being gay,” he said. “I kind of talked around the bush with him. I never said I was gay. I said people love different people. I wasn’t facing up to it myself.”
Kopay knew he was different from his teammates and some of his teammates knew he was different from them, but Karras’ friendship kept that from becoming a problem in the locker room.
“To begin with, nobody messed with Alex so being his friend helped,” Kopay said. “I wasn’t even out to myself and some of the guys were trying to out me. Some of the guys would try to get our goat by calling me his junior, but I liked the idea of being Alex Karras’ junior!”
Kopay also says other Lions teammates befriended him and helped him through that tough year including Mike Weger and Bill Munson.
Following his season with the Lions, Kopay joined the Vince Lombardi-led Washington Redskins in 1969. Kopay says Lombardi, like Karras, sensed his new running back was gay and protected him as well as another gay teammate, Jerry Smith.
“Coach Lombardi was great,” he said. “He had a great sense of humanity. He was tough, he cared, he was loving.”
Friends Stayed True
After Kopay came out in a 1975 Washington Star profile, he says he distanced himself from his NFL friends believing it was in their best interest. He says he doesn’t even recall his first conversations with Karras after coming out.
“I don’t remember [the conversation] specifically because it never seemed to be an issue with Alex,” he said. “That’s interesting. I think it was out here [in California]. I had drifted from him as I had with others so they wouldn’t have to deal with this Dave Kopay, pariah of the NFL.”
But Kopay says his football friends didn’t abandon him. Green Bay Packer great Paul Hornung even appeared on the “Phil Donahue Show” to support him after he came out.
“Paul Hornung told Donahue I had the right to do whatever I want to. He was a man who was comfortable in his masculinity and own sexuality.”
Kopay also remembers another former teammate, Howard Mudd, inviting him to dinner with the Cleveland Browns, where Mudd was coaching in the mid-1980s. On his way to meet Mudd, Kopay says he ran into Cody Rison, an offensive tackle and evangelical minister. Rison surprised Kopay by praising his autobiography.
While living in San Francisco in 1977, Kopay controversially endorsed his former 49er teammate Bob St. Clair for city supervisor over gay rights icon Harvey Milk in the race Milk ultimately won.
“Harvey was totally cool with it and when I congratulated Harvey on election night, he said: ‘Baby, I don’t think you’re ready to be a professional fairy or get involved in politics.’ I had never been called a fairy before!”
But Kopay’s affection for Karras, who passed away last year at the age of 77, is particularly poignant.
“He was one of those bigger than life people that I had the privilege to know, but he was really a quiet guy, under-spoken, but a powerful man. I was attracted to his humanity.”
It bothers Kopay that Karras' football accomplishments aren’t better remembered. He says Karras deserves credit as a pioneer who leveraged his football career into successful business ventures as well as stints as a Monday Night Football broadcaster and an actor. He seems frustrated that Karras’ suspension (along with Hornung) for associating with gamblers tarnishes his legacy.
“Alex never bet against his team. He said he didn’t and I believe him 100%. How hypocritical is it for the NFL to suspend him and Paul Hornung.”
Kopay would like to see his friend finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but acknowledges that Karras’ role in the class action brain injury lawsuit filed makes an induction unlikely.
“I’m not even sure Susan would really stand for it,” he says about Karras’ wife Susan Clark.
Ironically though, Kopay says he declined Karras’ request that he join the brain injury case.
“Alex and Susan tried to get me involved in the lawsuit, and I said no because I thought I knew the risks of playing and Alex said ‘that’s not right, David, you never knew,’” he recalls. “So I decided I wasn’t going to join the lawsuit. But certainly there was times over the years when I had my knee replaced I certainly didn’t do it on the NFL’s dime. I did it on my health insurance’s dime.”
“How Far We’ve All Come”
As for Michael Sam, Kopay is excited at the prospect for a gay pro football player able to live honestly, but also concerned that homophobia will prevent Sam from being judged on his talent.
“He better be drafted where he’s supposed to be drafted, otherwise it’ll drive me crazy,” Kopay says. “I get teed off that people call him a tweener. How do you make co-defensive player of year as a tweener? The last ten SEC defensive players of the year were first round draft choices.”
And Kopay has no use for the gays in the locker room canard.
“I was shocked by Jonathan Vilma comment about ‘what if he looked at me in the locker room,’” Kopay said. “Everyone looks at everyone in the locker room and goes about their business. The locker room is a sweaty, dirty place. I don’t think I’ve ever been turned on in the locker room.”
Still, Kopay believes the potential emergence of Michael Sam as pro team sports first openly gay athlete is an opportunity not only for gay athletes, but also for the NFL.
“Not only am I excited for you, I am excited for the NFL,” Kopay wrote to Sam in an open letter published on Out Sports. “I know the SEC is thanking its lucky stars that a player like you has succeeded and developed, and it would be a significant thing for the entire sports world and for you to continue on your path in the National Football League. But know that now that you are "publicly out" as a gay man you must focus on doing your job and don't let any naysayers bring you down. You are no wallflower and you can handle whatever crap comes your way. You will bring it like you never have before. For a moment, let's just remember how far we have all come.”