Last week in Philadelphia, the New York Mets’ Mike Piazza called a press conference to say he wasn’t gay. Twenty-seven years ago in Washington, former Redskin Dave Kopay called the press to say he was gay.

Much to Kopay’s dismay, other big-league jocks haven’t followed his lead.

Kopay came out in a front-page article in the now-defunct Washington Star. At the time, the well-traveled running back, who played with the Skins from 1969 to 1971, was retired from the NFL and living in Los Angeles. In December 1975, he had returned to D.C. for a brief business trip when he saw an installment of the Star’s multipart series on homosexuality in pro sports.

The Star piece that was published the day Kopay was in town featured an unidentified Redskin saying that to acknowledge his own preference would mean professional suicide. Kopay says he immediately recognized the source of the quotes as a former teammate and confidante, All-Pro tight end Jerry Smith.

“Reading that story, the whole thing made me so mad,” recalls Kopay, who was in Washington for a social visit over this Memorial Day weekend.

Kopay wasn’t mad at the Star for running the piece or at Smith for not coming out—he knew that, just as the anonymous Redskin had said, disclosing his homosexuality would be suicidal for an active star athlete. That’s among the reasons Kopay had waited until retirement to go public. But he was mad at a world in which a close friend’s sexuality was so newsworthy and could be used against him.

“I know how tough Jerry had it here,” Kopay says. “There were players on the Redskins who knew [he was gay] and stood up for Jerry, supported him against the bigots on the team. But it got back to me that he was also subject to the same sort of bullying, the same stuff that happens in locker rooms in high schools all over the country, where people make hateful comments and hateful statements. There are consequences to that sort of hate. I had to do something.”

He tried getting in touch with Smith for a few hours after reading the article but couldn’t reach him. So he called the Star and asked to speak with reporter Lynn Rosellini, author of the story about the anonymous Redskin, regarding the series.

“I got this pink-slip message that said Dave Kopay had called me,” remembers Rosellini, now a freelance writer living in Mount Pleasant. “My hands were literally trembling when I held that piece of paper.”

The reason for Rosellini’s trembling was twofold. First, Kopay was a childhood hero to Rosellini. She was a Seattle native, and before his NFL stint, Kopay starred for the beloved University of Washington football team. In high school, she’d traveled to Pasadena, Calif., with her father to see Kopay captain the Huskies in the 1964 Rose Bowl.

Second, she had a hunch that Kopay could be just what her series needed.

Before typing Word One, Rosellini had assumed it would be tough getting athletes to give permission for her to use their names. The subject matter was far too touchy for most newsrooms back in the day. Her editor at the Star, Dave Bergen, signed off on the series only after hearing about the nasty response that the Advocate, a gay magazine, had received earlier in the year to its requests to interview Major League Baseball players about homosexuality. Even allowing for the times, the rejection letter the Advocate got from the Minnesota Twins seems particularly hateful.

“The copout, immoral lifestyle of the tragic misfits espoused by your publication has no place in organized athletics at any level,” wrote Tom Mee, the Twins’ public-relations director. “Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood is just simply unthinkable.” (Mee, all these years later, still dwells in that area of total manhood, as the Twins’ official scorekeeper.)

Even so, Rosellini never thought that no jock would step up. But none did. Until Kopay came calling.

“We were getting slammed at the Star for our series. Just slammed,” says Rosellini. “It wasn’t just the subject matter—’How dare you write about gay athletes!’—but because so much of this was unattributed. I had been hung up on by so many people for so long. There were no names in our stories. So when I got the message that Dave Kopay called, I thought I knew what he was going to say, and it was like, ‘God, please let him go on the record!’ And when he did go on the record, and was willing to let us write about him about this double life he’d been leading, and use his picture—in a way, that verified the whole series. As far as we knew, nobody had ever touched that subject before. Dave Kopay saved us.” (Rosellini declines to say whether Jerry Smith was the anonymous Redskin featured in her series.)

Once the Star printed his story, Kopay became the media’s go-to guy whenever homosexuality in sports was the topic. So he’s been outed a lot lately thanks to Piazza’s odd presser, which the catcher called to refute rumors engendered by a New York Post gossip columnist. It’s a good thing for reporters that Kopay is opinionated, smart, and accessible, because all these years later, there’s really nobody else who played any of the Big Four sports at his level to go to. Now well into a successful career with a large linoleum retailer in L.A., Kopay still doesn’t mind serving as the conscience of the gay athlete.

His memories of Smith, who in 1987 became the first pro athlete known to have died of AIDS—but never publicly discussed his sexuality—are clearly a source of strength. And sadness.

“Being out there as the only gay major ballplayer to speak out has been very isolating for me,” he says. “But I think of Jerry all the time. I’ve got a pretty good job and live in a great house in a wonderful neighborhood. I’m a lucky guy. Whenever I have any little accomplishment in my life, I stop, and I think of him, what he went through, and how much tougher that was. So for me, sure, it’s not been easy.”

Then Kopay pauses to let a few tears flow. “But it’s been right,” he says. “It’s been right.” —Dave McKenna

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