Standing Out

The grainy black-and-white photo is framed and propped near the top of the bookcase, celebrating a time when men were men, when grimacing David Kopay was eluding Dick Butkus at the goal line for the first score of the 1964 Rose Bowl.

Below it, on the floor, is a tall gold statue of a naked man with flippers.

“My gay mermaid,” said Kopay with a smile.

Some might find the combination of football memorabilia and alternative art in this Hancock Park-area home an amusing paradox.


When, in fact, it is a message.

Twenty-five years ago, David Kopay delivered it to the world.

At the Rose Bowl on Monday, he will subtly repeat it.

You really wanna be a tough guy? Be yourself.


As co-captain on the 1963 University of Washington Rose Bowl team, Kopay spent a week here as the official escort of the Rose Queen.

While dating one of his fraternity brothers.

In nine years as an NFL running back for five teams, among them the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins, he was known as a fearless blocker and macho hitter.

While, at one point, having an affair with a teammate.

In 1975, three years after he’d retired, he became the first athlete from a major professional team sport to acknowledge his homosexuality.

Being yourself has rarely been so tough.

The revelation cost him any chance of returning to the sport as a coach. It caused trouble within his family. It scared away some of his so-called friends.

“I look back and think, ‘Was that me? How in the hell did I do that? How did I play? How did I come out?’ ” said Kopay, whose throat still tightens at the thought.


Twenty-five years later, though, that revelation has done a most athletic, enlightened thing.

It has outrun those early tacklers. It has eluded much of that old ignorance.

It sprinted directly into a recent phone call with Barbara Hedges, Washington’s athletic director.

Kopay needed help buying tickets to this year’s Rose Bowl game between Washington and Purdue. He had never met Hedges, but a story about him had recently run in a Seattle newspaper.

According to Kopay, the conversation went something like this:

Hedges: “I know you. I saw that story about you.”

Kopay: “Yes?”

Hedges: “And I really admire you.”


Reached Thursday, Hedges confirmed the story.

“We accept people here regardless,” said the former USC official. “David Kopay decided to be public about the direction of his life, and that’s his personal decision, and I would never be critical of it.

“He’s a former Husky football player, and that’s how he should be treated.”

So Kopay will be attending Monday’s game with other Husky alumni, after watching most of their games this year with the same group at a Pasadena restaurant.

They will talk about how Marques Tuiasosopo compares to Sonny Sixkiller, what Hugh McElhenny would do to today’s defenses, and is Jerramy Stevens another Mark Bruener?

They will not talk about who David Kopay is sleeping with, and why.

An enlightened thing. A normal thing.

“I have found freedom in all this,” Kopay said. “I’m in a pretty good place right now.”

That place includes his longtime job as a salesman-buyer for Linoleum City near his home, and his avocation as a speaker for gay rights.

He doesn’t have a current partner. But, at 58, with more respect than he ever thought possible, Kopay is anything but alone.

“You never know what people say when the ‘fag’ leaves the room,” Kopay said. “But the world has come a long way.”

But with, he acknowledges, many more miles to travel.

While many athletes in individual sports are open about their homosexuality--from Martina Navratilova to Greg Louganis--the professional team sports world remains a virtually locked closet.

Since Kopay’s admission, only one other professional football player has come out, former New York Giant and Washington Redskin guard Roy Simmons in 1992.

Only two professional baseball players, both former Dodgers, have declared their homosexuality--outfielders Billy Bean and the late Glenn Burke.

There have been no professional basketball players to come out.

If you believe Kinsey Report studies indicating that as many as 7-10% of the population are homosexual, that means there are dozens of pro athletes hiding their lifestyle for fear of their careers and their safety.

If you believe Kopay, that’s a whole lot of pained silences.

“I finally came out because I could no longer live with myself,” Kopay said. “I was growing more and more frustrated. Finally, all the hiding just wasn’t worth it.”

Of course, he was retired when he made his admission. This is why he would never make a blanket recommendation that today’s athletes try the same thing.

“Young people can still be destroyed, you have to be careful,” he said. “My advice would not necessarily be to come out, but to do whatever is necessary not to suffocate.”

Kopay said that might be reaching out through the Internet, through magazines, through gay and lesbian centers.

None of which was around when he played.

So he took it out on the field.

In his senior season at Washington, leading the Huskies to the championship of what is now the Pac-10, Kopay played running back and linebacker as if crazed.

He remembers watching film of the second half of a 19-11 victory over Stanford and not remembering any of it.

“I had taken a hard hit in the first half and was basically knocked out on my feet after that,” he said.

Many Husky fans remember how, two weeks later, he played 52 of 60 minutes in a 22-7 victory over hometown USC.

They remember because of a classic football photo showing Kopay walking off the field afterward with blood trickling from his right eye.

“I was consumed,” Kopay remembered. “I wanted to be held in high esteem. I wanted to prove my value. And I didn’t want to lose the admiration of my friend.”

That “friend,” who Kopay will not name, was his fraternity brother. They were in a relationship even as Kopay was driving around Pasadena with Rose Queen Nancy Kneeland.

“I was doing what was expected as the co-captain,” he recalled. “My frat brother and I would go on dates all the time. It’s just that afterward, we would take the girls home and end up together.”

The same motivation carried Kopay into the Rose Bowl against Illinois and Butkus, where Kopay scored to give the Huskies a 7-0 lead. But then he injured his ribs later in the first half, and played the rest of the game in such pain, he could barely bend over.

Illinois won, 17-7, but Kopay’s toughness took him to the NFL and then, unwittingly at the time, into social history.

“It’s not been easy, this journey,” he said. “But it’s been freeing. It’s created so much room for me.”

Several years ago, a vision from the past walked into that room. It was a woman who approached Kopay while he was signing copies of his best-selling coming-out book, “The David Kopay Story.”

“I want you to sign my picture in your book,” she said, turning to the photo section.

Yep, it was that former Rose Queen, Kneeland, who was married and had brought her children.

Kopay wondered if she would scold him for being phony. She instead applauded him for being honest.

“Sign it,” she insisted, and he did, with a signature that time has made more pronounced.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:




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