Dave Kopay waited nearly 40 years for what he heard from Missouri linebacker Michael Sam at dinner on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
Sam, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year and a unanimous All-American, announced he would reveal on Sunday that he is gay, which could make him the first active gay player in the NFL.
“I’m thrilled for him,” said Kopay, a running back who came out in 1975, three years after his nine-year NFL career ended. “He’s authentic, a vibrant, powerful-looking young man.
“He competes at the highest level, and he certainly has received his share of recognition. Times have changed, man. This is 2014. This is fabulous.”
Kopay met Sam at a dinner party at the home of Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood publicist and gay man who facilitated Sam’s announcement. In addition to Kopay, others at the dinner included gay former major-league baseball player Billy Bean and former NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, who are straight, but have been advocates for gay causes.
Kopay said Sam had no trepidation in coming out, and believes he’ll be accepted by whatever team selects him in the NFL Draft in May.
“His entire (Missouri) team knew the entire year,” Kopay said. “His coach backed him. I hope he can keep his focus and compete, because that’s what he’s got to do. He’s got to compete in a way he’s never competed before.
“If it’s a problem, it’s going to stop being a problem real quick. Period. Because management is not going to stand for it.”
Sam’s acceptance could depend on the climate in the locker room of the team that drafts him.
“If you have leadership in the locker room that is veteran and winning is the ultimate goal, it’s going to be fine,” said veteran offensive tackle Eric Winston, a former Chief who now plays for Arizona. “Unfortunately if you get to an immature, younger team that doesn’t have some leadership and has some bad apples that sometimes steer the opinion of the team, maybe it won’t be.
“Obviously he was liked well enough in Missouri you look at the plays he was making, and you look at the highlight reels of them jumping around together, you can see his teammates cared deeply for him.
“As men in the locker room, as football players and competitors, and wanting to win, that’s really all that should matter.”
While no NFL player has come out as gay while still playing, it generally has been acknowledged that gays have played in the league. Besides Kopay, former Washington tight end Jerry Smith and former Minnesota defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo came out after their careers ended.
“We all know that statistics bore out the fact that there have been gay males in the locker room, and we’ve played next to each other,” Winston said. “There’s been rumors of guys but at the end of the day, if a guy wants to come out and say who he is, that’s great. If he doesn’t, that’s OK, too. It’s a matter of choice.
“It’s a working, open environment. Some teams are closer than others. If he ended up on my team, I would congratulate him, shake his hand, and tell him to get to the quarterback.”
Not everyone agrees. Last week, veteran New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma said in an interview with NFL Networkthat he did not want a gay teammate
“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” said Vilma, a 10-year veteran.
Former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN, believes teams won’t hesitate drafting Sam if they believe he can play.
“Why wouldn’t he be accepted?” Edwards said. “There’s a first for everything. There was a first black head coach we should be past that by now. There’s going to be a lot of talk about it. If you look how the University of Missouri handled it, you have to commend those guys. Why wouldn’t he be accepted in an NFL locker room?
“Teams will look at him as a player, and where he gets drafted will be up to the scouts. The team that drafts him is going to have to understand there will be a media blitz on you Will all the players in the locker room be OK with it? Probably not. There will be a small percentage that is not.
“But for the most part, if the guy is a good football player and can help you win games, that’s all you’re concerned with. Missouri. Your sexual orientation is your sexual orientation. I don’t think guys sit there and worry about that.
“More than anything else, one of the greatest things about football is the locker room. It’s all different nationalities, religious beliefs economic backgrounds. It doesn’t really matter. Football brings guys together.”
Just as it brought Sam and Kopay together over the weekend.
“It’s significant day,” Kopay said. “It’s 39 years since I came out I’m going to be 72, but I’m really 39 in my eyes because that’s the day I came out publicly and really started breathing then.”