Missouri defensive end Michael Sam found himself standing before a packed room of reporters Saturday afternoon at the NFL’s combine in Indianapolis.
“Heck yeah, I wish you guys would tell me, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going?’” the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year admitted. “I would love for you to ask me that question, but it is what it is.
“I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.”
“I wish I had that opportunity,” the 71-year-old said.
The events of Saturday were already weighing on Kopay’s mind.
A bruising running back during his nine-year NFL career out of the University of Washington and Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Kopay was trying to process some disturbing information he had gathered earlier in the day from a symposium in San Francisco. It was about the issues of long-term cognitive impairment caused by concussions, something he has been coming to terms with in his own life.
He was also en route to visiting his 99-year-old mother, Marguerite, who lives north of Sacramento. “I haven’t had the best of patience with her,” he said with a forced laugh.
But then there was Sam, someone who gives him some hope that things are getting better.
In 1977, Kopay wrote a ground-breaking autobiography that expanded on the moment in December, 1975 when he outed himself in a Washington Star newspaper story. The years between 1964 and ’72 he spent with the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers may have come during the counterculture, sexual revolution period in America, but he hardly felt liberated as a professional athlete.
“I had to battle everything,” Kopay said Saturday. “I’m just glad I survived. Survived to see all this happen.”
This fall, after all the maneuvering done during the NFL Draft in May, Sam will become the first openly-gay active player in any of the four North American major professional sports leagues. That is, unless some NBA team decides to pick up center Jason Collins, the former Harvard Westlake High standout, to help them during the second half of this season.
Kopay, who lives in Eagle Rock near Occidental College, actually found out that Sam’s coming-out announcement on Feb. 8, the day before it happened. Kopay was invited to a dinner at the home of Los Angeles publicist Howard Bragman, where former NFL player Wade Davis (who came out in 2012) and former Loyola Marymount University and Dodgers outfielder Billy Bean (who came out in 1999) were present. Also there was former NFL and UCLA standouts Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, whose pro careers may have ended prematurely because of their pro gay-rights issues stance.
They all raised a glass to toast Sam’s decision.
Kopay explains more:
Q: At this dinner earlier this month, did you have any idea what was about to take place?
A: Actually, I didn’t. I had not heard of Michael Sam – only because I don’t follow the SEC as close as I do West Coast football. But I know that anyone playing the SEC will put welts on you, so I figured someone like Sam had to have all the credentials. I didn’t have to have his stats to know that a co-defensive player of the year from the SEC is usually a first-round draft pick. When they told me he was coming out before the draft, I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. But the more I thought it about it, it was brilliant. Make (the NFL) make the decision, and put them on the spot. I was thrilled to be invited to the dinner. The energy it takes for someone like him to do this is enormous, especially when you’re talking about your own soul and your identity.
Q: When you came out, it was through the media, then your own book. The Washington Star received a lot of hate mail because of the whole series it did on homosexuals in the NFL. How did you gauge the reaction to Sam coming out, in a story in the New York Times and on ESPN, and how they were framing it?
A: I was mostly OK with it, but I also knew after Jason Collins came out (in April, 2013) and the way he handled it – and doing it in Sports Illustrated wouldn’t have been my first choice, because they’ve shown they’re as homophobic as they come – I think everyone handled it respectfully and came it from all angles. That’s the way it should be. I believe Michael has the insurance of friends, people who love and care for him.
Q: You wrote an open letter to Sam after meeting him that appeared on Outsports.com, urging to focus on playing, not to worry about what’s written or said about him. You included some personal poems in there too. Was that emotionally difficult for you to compose?
A: Absolutely. I kept thinking about how this was so real. This was so right. The time has come and the truth shall set you free. It’s time for truth in the world instead of all the garbage. I don’t want to put any pressure on him. I was thankful just to meet him.
Q: You’ve said that when you played in the NFL, you had to prove you were equal to or better than the next guy, be tougher, play with a kind of chip on your shoulder, never show a sign of weakness. Does Michael have to do the same?
A: I don’t think anyone can have any kind of weakness in the NFL, especially on the defensive site. As a running back, sometimes I could get too cute – it’d try to hammer someone. All Michael has to do is play football. That’s it. And he will. He’ll be challenged. I don’t think there will be any sort of name-calling. If you do, you’re a fool like the Richie Incognitos of the world.
Q: There may be all kinds of reasons why an NFL team may or may not draft Sam, based on needs, how they rate him as a player, maybe he needs to move from defensive end to linebacker and is undersized. How do you read between the lines in any of that?
A: As I told Michael, they once told me I’d be a mid-round draft pick, and back then, we had 20 rounds. I ended up undrafted, signed as a free agent and got 10 years in. You have to be a survivor. Now they’re saying all these things like he’s a ‘tweener.’ I was disappointed to hear that. Someone with his credentials has to be more valuable than that. If a team is bothered by media hoopla, that’s not a problem Sam has created, it’s created by the media. How dare they not give someone the right to make a living and draft him where he should be drafted. Now is the time he has to perform in the combine.
Q: With the Winter Games now ending in Sochi, Russia, a lot was brought up because of Vladimir Putin’s record with human rights issues. How do you see that coming to the forefront the last two weeks?
A: Any time human rights are denied, there’ll be a serious fuss made about it, if it’s true. Certainly, I’m glad the world has made an issue out of this and will continue to do so. The gay rights protesting has exposed and defined these games in some ways. If it makes the head of any Olympic committee squirm, that’s an issue he has to deal with to eliminate.
Q: The issue of tolerance is out there all over the place, with the military, marriage, family units, and health benefits. Do you have a gauge on how tolerance is an issue in 2014 professional sports?
A: Tolerance is one of those pejorative politically correct terms. It’s all about acceptance. I don’t want to be ‘tolerated’ by anybody. I want to be accepted. I’m not ‘admitting’ I’m gay, I will say I am.
Q: Let’s try the word “acceptance” instead. Is that something you can see working better today?
A: In sports, it’s not doing as well as it is with the rest of society, I don’t think. Maybe it depends on what state you’re in and how you vote. We’re getting more educated and more aware as a society, so that’s progress. But it’s miniscule in some ways. I am glad to be here, to see it, to enjoy the experience, to see progress. Maybe “hope” is the word that we’re seeing.
You know, I’m not sure I’d even be here to see this. There was a time when I playing in Detroit and the team doctor didn’t tell me I needed knee surgery. They sent me out there on one leg, and I couldn’t play. It was the bleakest time in my life. It was like a cloud was smothering me, and I was suffocating. I wondered if I was suicidal. I was questioning my whole character. I’m lucky to have survived such a desperate time. I think now of the hundreds, thousands of people who say, ‘Dave, you changed my thinking about a lot of things and given me hope for a happy life.’ None of that would happen if I wasn’t around. I would have missed the joy in experiencing that.
I know the older you get, the more emotional you can be at times. I was an emotional player. There is a lot of emotion in all this.
== Here is the open letter Kopay wrote to Sam that was posted on SBNation’s Outsports.com.
== An interesting piece written about Michael Sam by Rob Glauber of Newsday.
== The Feb., 2011 posting about the first Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks Athletic Hall of Fame class, which included Kopay.
== From the NFL Network’s coverage of the combine on Saturday came this discussion about Sam:
= Mike Mayock: “He came out to his teammates at the University of Missouri a year ago. He went on to have the best year he ever had, the University of Missouri went on had one of the best years they ever had – there were no problems in that clubhouse and that locker room. I look at this thing and say if the University of Missouri can handle it, why can’t an NFL locker room handle it? As far as off the field issues and we talk about batteries and we talk about beating up women and we talk about cocaine and we talk about all of the things we talked about this morning with different players. Here’s a kid that came out, expressed who he was as a person and I would give him a plus grade from an NFL franchise just on the basis of what he’s done and what I just saw in that press conference. They asked him about endorsement opportunities, what did he say? I don’t have any endorsements, I don’t want any – I want to make an NFL roster. We have to deal with it and let’s put it to bed, and then let’s make it about Michael Sam the football player. I thought he was more eloquent than all of us.
“I watched a bunch of his tape at Missouri, then I watched him at the Senior Bowl. I think I know what he is…He’s explosive off the edge. He has tweener size, meaning he should be a defensive end but he has linebacker size, but he lacks a linebacker skillset…[He is a] situational pass rusher because he can’t be an every down guy and a core special teams player. Teams define that value differently; I look at it as third round to fifth round based on how you see that value.”
= Brian Billick: “There is no team in this league that is going to take him off the board because of his sexual preference. If you do that, you have a lot bigger problems, the problems with your locker room…I would love to see us take the lead as a network that this is no longer an issue unless there is some other specific instance that comes out of this. I think the young man has been unbelievably upfront about it, he has made his position very, very clear. We now as he wants to let’s talk about him as a football player. That’s really the tough thing right now because those outside of this building that aren’t familiar with it will look at wherever he’s drafted. If you’re a mid-round guy which he is, you could not be drafted at all…If that should happen strictly for athletic purposes, there are going to be people outside of this atmosphere are they going to label it a different way? He’s going to get an opportunity on an NFL football team and I would be shocked if he wasn’t embraced by that team and looked at like as can this guy help us on the football field?”
= Rich Eisen: “Just the concept that he would be a red flag is so ludicrous, especially since you and I have sat here already today and with some of the red flags that you’ve mentioned for some of these players; arrests and batteries and things that they have gone through, the fact that anyone would look at Michael Sam and consider him a red flag situation is beyond the pale. You just even saw the media scrum that supposedly would be an issue for any NFL team, our colleagues in the media couldn’t even fill out a 10-minute press conference with question after question. It’s asked and answered already. This thing is asked and answered, and it’s obvious from my point of view it is obvious that he came out and said this – even though pretty much everyone in this building, all of the scouts and everybody knew it already – he came out and said what he said about his sexuality because he wanted to control the narrative which is his right to do in this day and age.”