Kopay, David

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KOPAY, David

KOPAY, David (b. 28 June 1942), athlete.

David Kopay was born in Chicago, Illinois, the second of Anton and Marguerite Kopay's four children. When Kopay reached fourth grade, his family moved to North Hollywood, California. In his biography, The David Kopay Story, Kopay recalls an unhappy home environment: "I do not remember a time in our house when there was not some kind of fight going on between my parents. Not once do I remember them exchanging any kind of love words. What I most often heard them call each other was 'You son of a bitch' " (p. 25). After attending a Claretian seminary for eighteen months and graduating from Notre Dame High School, Kopay won a football scholarship to the University of Washington (Seattle) in 1961. In 1964 Kopay co-captained his squad to a Rose Bowl berth. During his college years he also discovered sex, first with a woman and later with a fellow male athlete.

Despite Kopay's impressive college career, football's professional leagues did not draft him upon graduation. But he found his way onto the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent in 1964 and played on five National Football League teams during the next ten years (often as a member of the "suicide squad" or special teams). As a professional he knew his limitations, observing later, "I was … a good ballplayer, but I wasn't any star" (Kopay, p. 11). Toward the end of his professional career, at his therapist's suggestion, David married a female friend, but their brief union proved unfulfilling. The couple soon separated. (Divorce occurred only many years later.)

In 1975, following Kopay's football retirement, Washington Star reporter Lynn Rosellini wrote several articles about homosexuality in sports. Several athletes willingly acknowledged being gay, but only off the record. Kopay rejoiced at Rosellini's series and was finally ready to acknowledge publicly his homosexuality. He contacted Rosellini, and with her story on 11 December 1975 became the first openly gay professional athlete. He told Robert McQueen in an interview for the Advocate (10 March 1976), "I'd been thinking about it for a long time. Many people in the sports world already knew I was gay. My family knew. And I knew how difficult and frustrating it is to try to lead a double-life. I was tired of compromising myself" (p. 19). People from many professions came out as LGBT in the 1970s, but perhaps none startled society as much as the macho footballer.

Sadly, Kopay paid a steep price for his admission. Coaching and sales representative jobs, typical for retired players, never materialized. Kopay's public disclosure also initially strained several family relationships (since mended). However, with Perry Deane Young, Kopay wrote his autobiography; published in 1977, it became a New York Times best-seller for over two months, a first for any sports-oriented book.

Despite his good intentions, Kopay's relationship with gay movement leaders often was strained. Some inaccurately perceived Kopay as a "dumb jock" when his apolitical background highlighted an excusable naiveté. Writer Rita Mae Brown lamented that David "could have been so important to us, in so many ways. And instead, all the guys did was hit on him…. The movement made atremendous mistake with Dave" (Brown, p. 10).

After completing his autobiography, Kopay briefly relocated to several cities before accepting a job from his Uncle Bill at Hollywood's Linoleum City, where he has worked as a sales manager for many years. David remains hopeful that someone will film his life's story, but no one has yet accepted the challenge.

Kopay oiled the hinges to professional sports teams' closets in 1975, but still almost no active team sport participant has followed him through that door. Kopay muses, "I don't know why [other athletes] haven't come out. I know I felt so desperate that I needed to come out" (Kopay, p. 16). Perhaps money plays a crucial role. Kopay confesses, "If I'd had a lot more money, possibly I would have never spoken out" (p. 20).

Kopay's revelation changed attitudes regarding homosexuality. If one gay man could become a professional football player, perhaps another would not feel relegated to a stereotypic gay job—or life. Of his biography, Kopay told Michael O'Connor in a 1989 Torso interview, "it's done a lot of good for me, but it's also legitimized so many people in a way…. I know it's the best thing I've ever done and maybe ever will do!" (pp. 31–32)


Brown, Rita Mae. Interview by Paul D. Cain. Unpublished transcript, 19 August 1995.

Cain, Paul D. Leading the Parade: Conversations with America's Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Kopay, David. Interview by Paul D. Cain. Unpublished transcript, 16 July 1994.

Kopay, David, and Perry Deane Young. The David Kopay Story. New York: Arbor House, 1977.

McQueen, Robert I. "Dave Kopay Interview." Advocate, 10 March 1976, pp. 19–20.

Marcus, Eric. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945–1990, an Oral History. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

O'Connor, Michael E. "The David Kopay Story … A Decade Later." Torso, October 1989, pp. 30–35, 82, 86.

Paul D. Cain

see alsosports.