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.