Nassib First Active NFL Player to Come Out, But Ex-Husky Was Pioneer

Dave Kopay, a UW running back in 1961-63, was the first pro athlete of any sport to reveal he was gay.
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Carl Nassib, a Las Vegas Raiders defensive end, this week became the first active NFL player to come out as gay, a courageous move considering the macho culture of pro football and the potential backlash. 

That's why 15 previous players either didn't disclose their sexual identity until after they left the game or they made it known but didn't earn a spot on a regular-season roster.

While Nassib is to be commended for his actions, Dave Kopay, a former University of Washington running back and Rose Bowl co-captain, still remains the guy who went out there and blocked for everyone else to make any of this possible. 

In 1975 — three years after retiring from the NFL — Kopay became the first pro athlete from any of the three major sports of the NFL, NBA or MLB to publicly reveal he was gay. 

"I left people behind in my life who weren't going to get on with the program or get on with their own bigotry or see how hateful some of their decisions were," Kopay said of his motives. "You have to finally make a stand."

The former Husky came out after reading the opening installment of a series on gay athletes in the Washington Star that was going to be relatively anonymous and he felt it was time to get people thinking real life, and he called the reporter Lynn Rosellini. 

He offered even greater detail about his personal life in the best-selling book "The David Kopay Story," written by Perry Deane Young and released in 1977.

The Dave Kopay Story was a best-seller.

Dave Kopay offered a revealing biography.

Kopay, who played nine NFL seasons for the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and then-named Washington Redskins, shocked the ultra-conservative sporting world with his disclosure. He was castigated by mainstream fans; he was forever hailed as a hero by diversity groups.

A native Californian, Kopay originally played one college football season for Marquette, but he transferred to the UW when the other school dropped football. He lettered as a sophomore punter for the Huskies in 1961, barely played as a junior running back and made a significant breakthrough as a senior starter for a Rose Bowl team, scoring the only touchdown in the UW's 17-7 loss to Illinois in Pasadena.

He signed first with the 49ers and was an NFL player from 1964 to 1972. After retiring from the pros, he was considered a top contender for coaching and scouting positions but snubbed by collegiate and pro teams once he came out as gay. His brother Tony was a former UW player and now an assistant coach, but the Huskies and even the Seahawks distanced themselves from this suddenly controversial person.

In his book, Kopay described with great candor his sexual relationships with a UW fraternity brother, who would die in the Vietnam War, and an NFL teammate he didn't name, but who he later identified as All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS.

Moving home to Los Angeles, he worked in his aunt's Santa Monica flooring store for three-plus decades, often dealing with movie industry designers, many of whom were gay.

In 2007, Kopay left $1 million in an endowment in his name to the University of Washington Q Center, an organization that provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

Along the way he met Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, high-level pro tennis players who disclosed they were lesbians. King told Kopay that his book was of great help to her in coming out. Navratilova noted in kidding fashion that she and Kopay were both of Croatian descent, which she said explained everything.

"She said to me, 'What is it about our nationality? I guess we can't keep our mouth shut,' " he said.

Kopay, 78, today lives in California, where former UW teammates say he's been in poor health in recent years. Yet he remains a cultural pioneer in the sporting world.

"I think it's important for people to know we're everywhere," he said. "If a superstar came out in any of the major sport, it would be 'So what?' after that. As for me, I think I've learned to find peace where I can find it."

Following is a list of NFL players who have come out, made available by outsports.com:

Appeared in Regular-Season Game

Dave Kopay, RB, 49ers, Lions, Redskins, Saints and Packers, 1964-72.

Jerry Smith, TE, Redskins, 1965-77.

Ray McDonald, RB, Redskins, 1967-68

Roy Simmons, OL, Giants and Redskins, 1979-83.

Jeff Rohrer, LB, Cowboys, 1982-89.

Esera Tuaolo, DT, Packers, Vikings, Jaguars, Falcons and Panthers, 1991-99.

Kwame Harris, OL, 49ers and Raiders, 2003-08.

Ryan O'Callaghan, OL, Patriots and Chiefs, 2006-11.

Ryan Russell, DL, Buccaneers and Cowboys, 2015-17.

Carl Nassib, DE, Browns, Bucs and Raiders, 2016-20.

Attended Training Camp

Wade Davis, WR, Titans, Seahawks and Redskins, 2000-03.

Dorien Bryant, WR, Steelers, 2008.

Martin Jenkins, DB, Seahawks, 1977.

Brad Thorson, OL, Cardinals, 2011.

Michael Sam, DE, Rams and Cowboys, 2014.

Colton Underwood, TE, Chargers, Eagles and Raiders, 2014-16.

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