Jerry Smith of the Washington Redskins

Jerry Smith, The Gay NFL Hero No One Ever Knew About

Jerry Smith played for the Washington Redskins from 1965 until 1977. Even though the Redskins suck for having a racist mascot, Smith was a great tight-end. He played in two Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl, catching a record 60 touchdowns in his career — a tight-end record that remained unbroken for over a quarter century. Throughout his career, Smith made 421 catches, more than three other Hall of Fame tight ends. Oh, and Smith was also gay, and in relationship with NFL running back Dave Kopay, but the public didn’t know about.

Dave Kopay, first openly gay NFL player
Dave Kopay, first out player in the NFL
(image via LGBThistorymonth.com)

Kopay came out way back in 1975, the first pro football player to ever do so, after retiring from a nine-year NFL career. He came out in a newspaper story about homosexuality in sports, one which scored a Pulitzer nomination for Washington Star reporter Lynn Rosselini.

Smith came out nearly eleven years later, after he had been diagnosed with AIDS. He went public because he wanted the public to know how awful the disease was. “Maybe it will help people understand,” he told the Washington Post. “Maybe it will help with development in research. Maybe something positive will come out of this.”

Three decades later, not a single openly gay player exists in the NFL — though Michael Sam came close —nor are there any out gay coaches or staff on any of the league’s 32 teams. That leaves a lot of guys in the closet.

Here’s some basic math. Each team is allowed 53 players on its active roster, meaning there are roughly 1,696 players in the NFL at any given moment. If CDC statistics are anything to go by, that would mean there are approximately 32 closeted players gay right now, plus another 34 who consider themselves bisexual.

There’s a lot of fear involved in coming out, of course. The average pro football player makes $2 million a year, and that’s a lot of money to lose. Add to that the potential revenue lost from endorsement deals, and the closet suddenly becomes a very safe financial place to be. Maybe that’s why players like Kwame Harris and Esera Tuaolo waited to retire from the league before they came out.

Vince Lombardi was a legendary coach, an old fashioned football hero who led the Packers to five NFL championships between 1958 and 1967. When Lombardi moved to Washington for the 1969 season, he brought with him a gay assistant coach (David Slatterly) and gay PR director Joe Blair. He coached the Redskins knowing that Smith was gay, Kopay told NBC Sports Profootballtalk in 2013.

“If a coach who was considered old-fashion even by the standards of the 196Xs accepted gay players in his locker room,” said sports blogger Michael David Smith, “the idea that gay players coldn’t be accepted in an NFL locker room in 2013 is both silly and sad.”

(featured image via David Mixner)