Op-ed: What Happened When I Met Dave Kopay
Do you know who David Kopay is? It is quite possible you might, but two weeks ago, I didn't.
"How much?" he asked. I looked up from a little bronze statue I was trying my damnedest to read the signature on. He moved closer, this still-handsome, somewhat older man of about 70.
"You have that rooster don't you?"
I blinked, thinking, Rooster? Rooster?
"Yes, of course, the rooster," I finally blurted out. "I moved it, it's back here!" I pointed toward the back of my antique space at a large terra-cotta rooster that stood there, forever frozen in pose.
"How much?" he asked again. I checked the price tag and looked at the man. Tall, tan, vibrant, and well, just handsome. He fixed me with his gaze. He searched my eyes, and then looked at my boyfriend, Angus, sitting in a chair not 10 feet away, reading a design book. The man paused, as if he understood the something unspoken. "You two have this space together?"
"No," Angus said, "it is all his."
"But he helps me out a ton," I said. "And those chairs over there are his!'
I looked at Angus. The man smiled, this charming, half-cocked, delightfully crooked smile. He knew — not that I was hiding. And I knew about him too. I am often amazed how gay people can so quickly and quietly communicate their gayness to each other where a casual onlooker might not see a thing.
I couldn't help but smile back at this man in front of me. There was something about him, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Something lingered around the crooks of that smile, behind it.
He leaned in closer. "I just love that rooster, consider it sold!"
"Well, then let's wrap it up for you," I said, adding, "Every house needs at least one big, er, rooster." I think Angus may have rolled his eyes a bit at one of my corny jokes, but the man laughed again, bigger than before, and man, that laugh!
At the Pasadena Antique Center there are, somehow, two dealers, both 80, both named Bob Anderson. Upstairs Bob Anderson and Downstairs Bob Anderson. Downstairs Bob Anderson, wonderfully gruff and quite straight, despite what you might think about antiques dealers, came rushing up to me as Dave was walking out of the store, having left me with a check for the rooster.
"Do you know who that is? Do you know? Do you?" In his excitement, Bob suddenly looked 12 again.
"That man is Dave Kopay!"
I waited, probably looking confused.
"Dave Kopay was a pro baller back in the day, and boy was he fast! No one — and I mean no one — could catch him. He went on to play 10 years professionally. Then, well, I followed him close as he went to my alma mater, the University of Washington. He came out ... as gay you know."
He paused a bit, as if the weight of what he said needed an extra moment.
"Then he wrote a book about coming out and he got blacklisted by everyone and couldn't get work in the industry anymore and it was kinda sad, but he went on to work for his family flooring business. He comes in here from time to time."
I looked at the check in my hand, and there, printed at the top, the name, Dave Kopay. Bob continued, "Well, I just thought you should know who he is. He is a great guy and a terrific footballer, and boy, was he fast!"
I Googled him immediately: Amid the football stats, the exalted college career as cocaptain of his team, the Rose Bowl, the decade-long career in the NFL for five different teams, there was his book, The David Kopay Story. There were pictures of him as a younger man, so extraordinarily rugged and handsome. He was the first professional team sport athlete to come out publicly as gay, six years before Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were outed in the press, almost 20 years before any other pro football player would come out again. Since that watershed moment, only four other professional football players have publicly come out, out of thousands of men, in 38 years.
I closed my computer to digest it all a bit. I felt a bit numb and a touch angry at myself, actually. I couldn't believe, as a 40-year-old gay man, that I didn't know who this man was. I was taught about Revolutionary War heroes, Indian chiefs, suffragettes, civil rights leaders, and boy, do I know my Jeopardy! but I did not know Dave Kopay, who Outsports named as contributing the number 1 moment in gay sports history. My own history, I did not know, nor did Angus or my two gay roommates. Nor did all but one of my friends on Facebook, when I posted about meeting him.
My roommates went to five different gay prides this year. They had a blast, they were visible, and they brought me back a rainbow bandanna and a bottle of some promotional alcohol that was given away. They told me about the hotties they met, about the hotel rooms they rented, about the drinking and how much fun they had. I looked at my gay friends on Facebook, and I saw their photos from all of the gay pride parades in cities across the nation. I saw rainbow banners and flags held high, half-naked men in fabulous shoes, tattooed women in fabulous bras, some leather, some drunk people (sponsored by certain alcohol companies, of course), but I did not see one photo of a parade float filled with older gay people. There was no mention of the Stonewall generation to be found, no shout-outs to the generation that lived through the AIDS crisis. Only lots and lots of beautiful, naked skin. Surface. And while I am sure that somewhere, at some times, our older gay family is applauded, I certainly did not see it visible anywhere online or in the anecdotes I heard about or during gay pride.
I couldn't get that quote out of my head from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."
Dave Kopay has pledged almost all of his personal estate, when he passes, to the support of the University of Washington's gay and lesbian center. It is the blood, sweat, and tears accumulation of approximately $1 million from a lifetime spent in the day-to-day grind in his family's business, Linoleum City of Hollywood. This man who never had a safe place to go and study and read gay literature when he was in school is providing that so an entire generation after him will have it. I was moved so greatly, I immediately shared it on Facebook, including a link to the video. I got some comments and some likes, but I must admit, my funny cat video the week before got double the comments and likes even among my gay friends. It made me a little sad.
Kismet stepped in.
Dave Kopay miswrote his check for that rooster — he wrote out the amount of the check different than the boxed number. The bank teller looked at me flatly, refusing to deposit it. "I am sorry sir, there is nothing more that I personally can do."
But luckily, Dave had scrawled his phone number on the top of the check. I called it, secretly glad he had written it wrong. He apologized. "I will come in tomorrow and write you a new check," he said. "I have been hit in the head too many times, you see?" And he laughed, that infectious laugh.
And the next day, Dave came into the store, wearing a gardening hat and shorts and looking even tanner and taller and more handsome than before. I was nervous. We stood in my space, chatting about his gardening and my love of antiques, and my palms were sweaty. Then I seized the moment. I could not hold back. I read the post I had written on Facebook about meeting him. To the very man whose sacrifice meant so much to me, I was able to read aloud the words from my heart. It was one of those rare moments of clarity in my life, when I knew I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing.
Dave Kopay stood in front of me, that wonderful smile downturned and quivering just a bit, his eyes watering almost to brimming. He hugged me and we clapped each other's back. And I got a little teary too. And he said, "You know, that never, ever gets old."
There was no one else around in the antique store; it was a quiet day. There were no floats or rainbow flags or cameras flashing. We shared a simple moment, just the two of us. I thanked him for his sacrifice. I thanked him for making it easier for me to walk down the street hand in hand, arm in arm with Angus, for helping to pave the way for me, for all gay people. I was not an avid football fan approaching him for an autograph; I was not a neophyte blinded by fame and notoriety. I felt supremely lucky to be able to share my deep thanks, from one gay man to another, one gay generation to another.
As I walked Dave to his car, he turned to me once more.
"Would you please forward that on to me? Your Facebook post. I want to read it to my mother."
His mother?! My mind raced.
"My mother is 98 and she has never accepted me and what I did, not really... and now I am the one mostly taking care of her... and yes, she has softened a bit, but... " he paused, the sun on his face, his eyes shining. "I want to read it to her, to…" he searched for the words, so I added, "To show her the effect you have had by doing what you did."
"Yes." He shook his head, and this time the tears came.
Here was a man, 71 years old, still struggling with that decision all those 38 years ago. Still fighting to prove something to a now-98-year-old mother, and to his Catholic family and brothers and sister, most quite conservative. Still fighting. This giant football player, this tough man, this icon, this businessman, shedding tears in a parking lot in Pasadena because his mother did not understand. I imagined him going into his family business after writing his book. I imagined the stares and sneers he may have endured, I imagined the talk that may have taken place among his family. I imagined all of those years of nonacceptance for doing what he knew he had to do, for coming out as a gay man, for coming out as a gay professional athlete.
He looked at me. "And one other thing... you mention how you can walk down the street with your boyfriend and hold hands and such... hold that, make it everything, it is so very important."
He grabbed my arm for emphasis, the strength of his grip formidable. "Make it everything. You don't want to get to be my age... and... not have it. It is all for love, love."
And there is was, at the corners of that amazing smile, behind it, a certain touch of loneliness, a slight sadness, now there... visible and shared, and then suddenly cloaked and silenced by that football player toughness he has had to use his whole life to get by.
You see, the love of Dave Kopay's life, a college fraternity buddy, died while fighting in the Vietnam War. Dave keeps a photo of him in a drawer in the spare room.
This is our history, and Dave's story is not unique among our gay brothers and sisters who have come before, many of them long dead, having never seen the benefits of their sacrifices. Dave Kopay is very much alive and vibrant. He swims two miles a day. He gardens vigorously. He shops for antiques in dusty corners of the world, like mine. Dave Kopay knows that he has made a difference. His story, his athletic career are extraordinary. He leaves an extraordinary gift to his alma mater and a whole generation of gays and lesbians. His legacy is extraordinary. To me, Dave Kopay is gay pride!
If attention must be paid, and I feel it must, please pay it to Dave Kopay, but also to the others before him and with him, those countless others, who have laid the framework upon which our recent victories were built.
As we stand, we stand on those well-tailored shoulders that have come before, and they, I am quite sure, in their fabulous shoes and their fabulous bras.
JEREMIE ADKINS is an antiques dealer in the Los Angeles/Pasadena area. In an imploding and disposable world of Ikea, he hopes that a true love of all things beautiful and solid and old and lasting might soon be dusted off and rediscovered.