Pro Bowl tight end Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS in 1986, never admitted publicly that he was gay. Nor did he tell his teammates, although many of them say they knew his secret and were there for him until the end
This is an article from the Jan. 11, 2016 issue
We WERE ALL STANDING AROUND JERRY'S BED IN THE HOSPITAL," SONNY JURGENSEN SAYS, gazing out a window at his house in Naples, Fla. "It was such a sad thing. He had been so full of life, and now he was melting. Guys who didn't cry, who didn't know how to cry, couldn't stop."
It was the summer of 1986, about five years after the disease that would come to be called AIDS was first reported in the U.S. More than 20,000 people throughout the country had died from the illness, and twice that number had been diagnosed with it, including former Redskins tight end Jerry Smith.
"He was a football player," says Jurgensen, Washington's quarterback from 1964 to '74. "He was one of us." Those words don't look like much on the page, but you should hear Sonny say them.
"We had some 'check-cashers' with the Redskins," Jurgensen says. "You know, guys who made their living playing professional football. Nothing against them, but they weren't football players. They weren't one of us. They weren't Jerry Smith."
Smith, who played for Washington from 1965 to '77, never said how he contracted AIDS—never publicly discussed his sexual orientation, period—and the weeping men surrounding his bed at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., didn't give a damn. "I don't know how many of the players even knew he was gay," says Jurgensen, who was usually among the eight or 10 former teammates who visited Smith on any given day, "but I'll tell you one thing: If they had known, they wouldn't have cared."
The closest Smith came to discussing his lifestyle with Jurgensen was when he turned in his hospital bed and whispered, "Sonny, I never should have gone to Austin."
"I already knew that," the old quarterback says, "because he told Brig Owens the same thing: 'I never should have gone to Texas.'" Smith lived in Austin in the early '80s and owned one of the city's premier gay bars, The Boathouse.
Owens, a defensive back, and Smith were black and white roommates in Washington before Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were in Chicago. Smith didn't reveal his sexuality to Owens, at least not directly. "We talked about it without talking about it," Owens says. Late at night on the road they mostly talked football. "I don't care if you're a starter or a star," Owens says, "there's always that fear of somebody coming along and taking away this thing you love so much. I tried to help Jerry; he tried to help me: You did this in practice today, you should have done that. You have to work harder at this, you have to get better at that. Be stronger, be smarter. Come on!"
One night as they were drifting off to sleep, Smith told Owens, "Now don't forget, tomorrow you have to tackle John Mackey low, not high. Because he'll stiff-arm you with his fist, not his hand. He'll knock you out." Thinking back, Owens says, "I was scared to death."
Owens and Smith had their own fistfights on the practice field. Laughing, Owens says, "Yeah, Jerry and I went rolling in the dirt a couple of times. Somebody remarked, 'These guys are roommates?' Every second you had to know where Jerry and [running back] Larry Brown were on the practice field, because those two would bowl you over just for fun. [Defensive end] Deacon Jones called them 'the worst damn guys I ever played against. Smith comes off the ball so quick it doesn't matter how puny he is. [Smith was 6'3", 208 pounds.] He'll get right in your stomach, and his technique is so good, you can't get rid of him.' That's Deacon Jones talking."
Smith was Uncle Jerry to Owens's two daughters. "We were getting ready to play a game on the West Coast, and it was his mom's birthday," Owens says. "We knew each other's mom's birthdays. Jerry and I, [flanker] Bobby Mitchell, [wideout] Charley Taylor and [running back] A.D. Whitfield went over to the house [in San Lorenzo, Calif.] unannounced and started singing 'Happy Birthday' outside her door. She yelled, 'Who the hell is that?'
"We said, 'It's us! Your kids!'"
Jerry's mother, Laverne, was at his bedside in Silver Spring too. Football players know what defeat looks like. That was the look they saw in Laverne's eyes.
LYING IN HIS HOSPITAL BED, almost 10 years retired, the 43-year-old Smith still held the NFL record for most touchdowns by a tight end (60). He had outscored Mackey (38), Jackie Smith (40) and Mike Ditka (43). He held that record for 27 years—27 years—until Shannon Sharpe tacked on just two (62) and joined Mackey, Jackie Smith and Ditka in the Hall of Fame. Jerry Smith is not in the Hall despite his touchdown total.
Along with Mitchell and Taylor, Smith made up the best receiving corps in the NFL. "I never played with a better tight end than Jerry Smith," says former All-Pro running back Calvin Hill, a teammate of Ditka's in Dallas and Ozzie Newsome's in Cleveland. "When I got to Washington, I could see there was an element of trust in that locker room, and he was a very important part of it."
"Jerry was a pro," Jurgensen says. "He was always where you expected him to be. I think of him going across the middle, sliding down to catch the ball—diving under the wave. The only one who consistently stopped him was [strong safety] Kenny Houston, in practice every day. Jerry would say, 'I've just got to find a way to beat him, Sonny. Give me an option, will you?'"
"Covering Jerry at practice made me the safety I was," says Houston, a 10-time Pro Bowler in two leagues, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a safety on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. "He was the best pattern-running tight end I ever saw."
"Jerry was a team guy," adds Billy Kilmer, the other Redskins quarterback in the early 1970s. "[He was] a good, kind, nice man and a great football player. Wonderful hands. If I'd say, 'Do you have time after practice to catch a few?' he'd say, 'As long as you want.' All I remember about the Super Bowl [VII] is, Jerry was wide-open in the end zone and I hit the goalpost."
Len Hauss, the Redskins' center and captain at the time, says, "Most receivers, when they hit the ground, the ball comes right out. But the ground seemed to help Jerry. He had those gnarly fingers, like mine." Talons.
Smith and Hauss had weight concerns in common, too. "For the Thursday weigh-ins," Hauss says, "the underweight guys like Jerry and me wore sweat clothes. I tied a 2½-pound weight to each leg. He hid his under his arms. The big guys stepped on the scale in just their jockstraps. The big guys didn't even eat supper the day before weigh-in. That's why there weren't any meetings of the 5 O'Clock Club on Wednesdays." The 5 O'Clock Club was a society of Redskins who met after practice to have a few beers and talk over this thing they loved so much.
It fell to George Allen, Smith's last head coach, to select the Redskins' all-time team for the 50th anniversary of the franchise, the year Smith died. "The easiest position for me to pick of all 22 is tight end," Allen said. "Jerry Smith will be my all-time Redskins tight end. And this AIDS thing has nothing to do with it. He has it hands-down. He was an undersized tight end who could block."
A reporter asked Allen if he knew Smith was gay. "Heck, yeah," Allen said. "He was one of the happiest guys on the team."
SMITH'S FAVORITE COACH WAS Vince Lombardi, who took the 1969 Redskins to their first winning season since '55 and then died of cancer. Almost nobody knew that Lombardi had a gay brother, Harold, and an uncharacteristically sentimental attachment to the cause of gay rights.
On his deathbed Smith said, haltingly, "Every important thing a man searches for in his life, I found in Coach Lombardi. He made us men." Because none of the old teammates around him could speak, everyone nodded.
He had said the same thing the day Lombardi died. "Hearing him say it again," says Owens, "reminded me of when Jerry and I went to visit Coach in the hospital. He told us, 'A football player is like a spoke in a wheel, and every spoke is very important to the balance of the wheel, the team. Continue, just continue. Try to be great athletes, but don't forget to be great friends. Teammates, above all, and leaders.' Jerry and I were in training camp when we got the word Lombardi died. God."
At any mention of Smith's sexuality now, his former teammates start out by saying they didn't know back then, but in the next few minutes it becomes clear they did. "Did I know?" Jurgensen says. "I did not know for a long time, but I found out. Going to Joe Blair's house one night at midnight—Jerry was staying with Joe at the time—I walked in and thought, Whoa. You couldn't go into Joe Blair's house and not know."
Blair was the team's public relations director, a small bow-tied man who showed up at work occasionally with a blackened eye or barked forehead, looking like Carmen Basilio after 15 rounds with Gene Fullmer. "Totally, totally closeted," Dave Kopay says of Blair. "He got mugged a number of times hiring [male] hookers." (Blair never came out before dying in 1995 at age 72.)
Kopay, a running back, knew about closets. He didn't come out himself until 1975, three years after the end of his NFL career. For much of his time with the 49ers, Lions, Redskins, Saints and Packers, Kopay didn't come out even to himself. He tried many of the classic countermeasures: He entered a minor seminary for a while (before transferring to a regular Catholic high school) and married a stewardess. He didn't want to be gay.
In the 1964 Rose Bowl, Kopay, a running back at Washington, took a pitchout and slammed six yards over the left side of the line to score the first touchdown, upending Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus in the process. Kopay had some nifty moves, but he didn't use them. "I played at 220, 225 pounds," he says in a hillside garden by his house in Los Angeles, "and I looked for people to run over. I didn't want anybody thinking I wasn't tough. Jerry was the same exact way."
Though a backup his entire pro career, known more for blocking than for running, Kopay lasted nine years by making a specialty of special teams, the suicide squads. "He was a good running back," says Hauss, "but unlucky. There was always a more established one playing in front of him."
The night before one training camp opened, after a drinking session with Smith and Blair, Kopay stayed over at Blair's house. "That's the night Jerry and I hooked up," Kopay says. "I went to bed in one of Joe's guest rooms and awoke with Jerry on top of me. Holding him in my arms was an incredible feeling, and I thought, Well, maybe this is good, because I had never really been sexually attracted to him. To have him in bed with me, loving me—admittedly, we were both pretty buzzed—it just meant so much to be sharing something of yourself with someone who actually knew all you'd been through and completely understood all you hoped for. During the night I thought a real relationship was beginning. But by morning, to Jerry, it was over. From then on, to him, it was like it never happened." They continued to talk ("Oh, lord, about everything," Kopay says), but they never touched again.
"Jerry took me to my first gay bar, an underground place in Baltimore—depressing," Kopay says. "Then, in Washington, there was this disco joint by the water, where straights and gays mixed almost equally. So it didn't matter if you were seen. Roy Jefferson [the wide receiver] was there. You probably remember some of the outfits Roy used to wear. [Bell-bottoms, velvet hats, lavender jumpsuits, over-the-shoulder purses.] I thought, He's got to be gay. But Roy was probably the least gay guy who ever lived. He was one of Jerry's pallbearers."
As for Smith's life in the closet, Kopay says, "he was angry, but he couldn't address it in terms of himself, only in terms of others. Jerry understood all the civil rights issues that were being spoken of at the time: The color of one's skin. The content of one's character. But it was always, 'Why can't everyone be judged that way?' Not 'Why can't I be judged that way?' I know Jerry wanted to be himself. He was tortured about it. He was suffocating. But he just didn't know how to be himself."
SMITH AND KOPAY'S acceptance in the locker room wasn't unanimous, however. "We had a protector, Jerry and I," Kopay says. "Len Hauss." The captain.
Hauss was the team's moral compass and arbiter of behavior. He was a Georgia alum who had never had a black teammate until he reached the Redskins—the last NFL team to integrate, in 1962. "That wasn't any adjustment for me," Hauss says, sitting in his house in Jesup, Ga. "I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now: What difference does it make what color a guy is?"
Hauss started at center in Washington's fifth game of his rookie year, 1964, and in the 191 games that followed. Looking at a large photo above his living-room fireplace, he puts names to the few black faces among the '64 Redskins: "Well, you know Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor. Charley was the third-overall draft pick from my class, nine rounds before me. There's John Nisby, one of the starting guards, and Ozzie Clay, a [wide receiver]. We used to say, 'All the way with Ozzie Clay.' Ozzie said it, mostly. Also George Seals, a tackle. A good one. All white coaches, you'll notice. Taylor called me Georgia. I broke Charley of that eventually. Coming from the South, I guess you were expected to be a racist."
Hauss broke them all of that eventually. "If there was ever someone who should be a captain," Kopay says, "it's Lennie Hauss. He was the leader of the team, and he cared about me, knew about me—somehow. Whether it was from [offensive lineman] Walter Rock, I don't know. I talked freely with Walter and even more freely with his wife, Betty Ann. Lennie just knew a lot about life. He was as caring and loving as he was 'team' and tough, and when Len Hauss made his feelings known, there wasn't anybody in that locker room who was going to stand up against him. He directly challenged a few [players who uttered homophobic slurs behind Smith's and Kopay's backs] and told them to shut their damn mouths."
When this is repeated to Hauss, he shrugs. "Jerry was a great player and a super guy," he says. "Dave was a good guy too, a dependable special-teamer and, as I said, kind of an unlucky position player. Both Smith and Kopay were just as tough as lighter knots." Those are pieces of stove pine that will burn in a rainstorm.
"Neither Jerry nor Dave would back down from anybody," says Hauss. "They didn't need me to take up for them." But he did. "It's just, Don't pick on my teammate, you know?" Hauss continues. "Just because you're bigger and you're a defensive player and you're a loudmouth and you have the ability to be a real butthole, that doesn't mean Paul Laaveg, Terry Hermeling, Walt Rock and I aren't going to stand up for everybody on our offense. Stand up, hell. Jump in."
Hauss heard a word in the locker room one time he didn't like. (He won't say the word, but it was likely faggot.) "I went up to the guy who said it and told him, 'It's all right to call anybody in here an a------ if you want to and if you think you can back it up. But I better never hear that word in here again.'" And he didn't.
In one of the upsets of the century, there were only a few bullies in the Redskins locker room. "I hate bullying," Kilmer says through gritted teeth. "I hate the word bullying. You don't bully anybody. If you do, there'll be a hell of a fight. And there should be."
By Kopay's own account his attendance at the 5 O'Clock Club was spotty. "I wasn't that much of a boozer," he says, "and I guess you might say I wasn't that much of a womanizer, either. But I made a few 5 O'Clock roll calls." Kopay prized fellowship in any case. "I encountered pockets of kindness everywhere I played," he says. "In Detroit, I never talked about [being gay] specifically with [star defensive tackle] Alex Karras and [quarterback] Bill Munson, but those were two guys who I could tell cared about me as a person. At the movies years later, watching Alex play a homosexual in Victor Victoria, I couldn't stop laughing. He didn't know a f------ thing about homosexuality, but he knew a lot about empathy."
After Kopay wrote his 1977 memoir, The Dave Kopay Story (identifying most players by name but calling Smith "Bill Stiles"), Packers demigod Paul Hornung went on Phil Donahue's show to say, "Dave has a right to be who he is. He has a right to his own happiness." But not all of Kopay's memories of Green Bay, his last NFL stop, in '72, were so gratifying. The coach was Dan Devine, who would go on to win a college national championship at Notre Dame. "I went to Coach Devine and told him a dear friend and fraternity brother had been killed in Vietnam, and I wanted to go to the funeral," Kopay says. "And Devine said, 'Well, we need you at practice. You can't go.' I couldn't believe it. Lombardi would have bought me the ticket." Naturally, Kopay did not tell Devine that the deceased was the person he loved most in the world, the man who had been his ideal of toughness as well as his inspiration to play pro football. "My friend kept running away to Vietnam, three times, trying to escape from himself," Kopay says. "I went to the funeral anyway, of course."
Packers center Ken Bowman and guard Gale Gillingham were waiting for him on his return. Lying in wait, as Kopay remembers it. Bowman was the man who snapped the ball to Bart Starr on the decisive quarterback keeper in the Ice Bowl. "I don't know what Devine told them," Kopay says, "but Bowman started getting on my case. I looked him square in the eye and said, 'Is there something you want to ask me specifically?' I don't know if I would have come out then or not. I was so mad. But he backed right down."
Bowman says, "I can't remember any of that, but I doubt Devine put us up to it. Gilly and I weren't co-captains, but we acted like it. It would certainly be like us to demand everybody show up and give their all. Our running game that year was second to none: MacArthur Lane, John Brockington. I guess I'd describe Kopay as a good understudy. Never fumbled. Couldn't break off 30 yards for you, but might get you four. I didn't know he was gay until he came out years later—in a book, right? I'd describe him as a football player. Yes, I'd say he was."
"Bowman was tough as nails, don't get me wrong," Kopay says. "But he wasn't a leader in the Len Hauss sense." Kopay has to stop talking for a moment. "Excuse me," he says. "I get to talking, and ... I'm not crying from sadness, I'm crying thinking about Lennie Hauss and Walter Rock and Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, and how there were always a few people who really mattered, who kept Jerry and me going." He has to pause again. Some silences cry out to be filled, even with the obvious.
"Dave," he is told, "nobody chooses heterosexuality or homosexuality. It chooses you."
"Who would choose this?" he says in a whisper. "Who would choose loneliness?"
AFTER KOPAY'S BOOK WAS published, Smith froze him out. "I didn't go to the hospital to see Jerry," Kopay says. "Joe Blair told me not to. I wish I hadn't listened to him."
But poems Kopay and Smith had exchanged years before comforted Kopay, then as now. He says, "I was walking along the beach one day, a sunny winter day in Malibu, until it got too cold down by the water and I veered up toward the cliffs. There was a young fellow sitting there, maybe 16, 17 years old. I looked again, and he was scarred, disfigured. He was writing on a paper bag.
"'What are you doing?' I asked.
"'Oh, I just finished this poem. It's no good.'
"He balled it up and tossed it away. I chased it down. And kept it. I tacked it on my wall. It went:
Over the valleys of lighted tree tops,
The sun is the maker of all that is good.
Here at the edge where living hell stops,
Nature's the ruler, you know that she should.
People create and now they destroy,
A vast contradiction, don't you agree?
Who is to blame and what is the answer?
It's so close, people. It's just you and me.
Love and peace with a smile guide the way,
For all of us a much better day.
But thinking is all right and talking is worse,
The way that is real is the way that is right.
"I showed it to Jerry. A little while later he came back with this:
When you get all you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you king for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.
For it isn't your Father, your Mother, or Wife,
Whose judgment upon you must pass,
But the feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
He's the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he's with you clear up to the end,
And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum,
And think you're a wonderful guy,
But the guy in the glass says you're only a bum
If you can't look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you've cheated the guy in the glass.
—DALE WIMBROW (1895--1954)
"I really, truly loved Jerry," Kopay says. "I didn't necessarily love him in a total way, but I loved him. Still do."
In retirement Smith owned the bar in Austin, ran a construction company in Rockville, Md., and sold mortgages. If he had a long-term relationship with a man, he never spoke of it. Fifty-one days before he died, he telephoned The Washington Post and went public with his disease. Fed intravenously for two months, he weighed less than 150 pounds. "I want people to know how terrible this is," he told the Post's sports editor, George Solomon. "Maybe some good will come of it. Maybe it will help with development and research." He didn't specify how he became infected. "It just happened," he said.
And he didn't say he was gay.
On the table beside his hospital bed was a letter announcing that Smith, who caught 421 passes for 5,496 yards and those 60 touchdowns, would be inducted that fall into the Washington Hall of Stars and have his name etched in the Ring of Fame at RFK Stadium.
"Do you think when the committee finds out [you have AIDS], they'll change their minds?" his mother asked worriedly.
"No," Jerry told her. "I think, like my teammates, they'll understand."