Taylor Pool patron and gay rights pioneer David Kopay reflects on his time being a gay athlete

Former NFL player and first openly-gay NFL player David Kopay talks activism and his history with homophobia at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2018. Ava Ciosek/The Occidental

Occidental students may be familiar with Taylor Pool as the home of the college’s swimming and water polo teams, but it also hosts a number of members of the local community during open pool hours. Few will know that one of these guests is David Kopay, a local resident, fan of Occidental and the first NFL player to ever come out as gay.

Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of Outsports.com, (a website dedicated to covering LGBT issues in sports,) highlighted the significance of Kopay’s place in history.

“Dave is the pioneer of out LGBT athletes and the single most important gay man in sports,” Buzinski said.

Kopay frequents Occidental’s campus each week and can be found swimming laps in the pool, eating in the Marketplace or walking his border collie around campus. Kopay explained just how regular his visits are to his favorite swimming spot.

“I’ve been swimming here really regularly, and I mean really regularly, since 2008,” Kopay said, who estimated he’s probably missed about ten of his three swimming days a week during that period.

Kopay played as a running back for a number of teams during his 9-year NFL career, including the San Francisco 49ers (his favorite team to this day), the Washington Redskins (where he was coached by Vince Lombardi) and the Green Bay Packers. As a result of his career, playing a position that endures a lot of contact at a time when concussion awareness was minimal, Kopay admits he does now have issues with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While attempting to recall his time in the NFL, it was actually events that came afterward that stood out more prominently.

“One of the main reasons I really love thinking about my career now is that I was able to speak out when I needed to most,” Kopay said. “When I was probably at my lowest time, when I was probably suicidal, and it gave me real purpose.”

In 1975, three years after retiring from football, Kopay came out in a newspaper interview with The Washington Star, making him the first NFL player in history to do so. Buzinski explained just how significant a moment this was, given that the gay rights movement in the United States had barely started at the time and that this move was a step into uncharted territory.

“He was, for the longest time, the only one, and that’s why it’s so important,” Buzinski said. “It just put a face to gay people that said that we are everywhere.”

Kopay went on to write his autobiography, “The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation,” which became a New York Times bestseller. He has also been invited to speak at a number of different institutions, including Harvard University.

While these opportunities came off the back of Kopay coming out, he explained how a number of doors were slammed in his face because of this decision. Seeking employment following his playing career, Kopay feels he was denied any coaching job in football because of his decision to come out and recalls struggling to even find work selling cars.

“I couldn’t get a job after I spoke out, I couldn’t even get an interview,” Kopay said. “It was terrible.”

Eventually, Kopay would find employment at Linoleum City in Hollywood, selling flooring for his uncle. While this was a long way from the NFL, Kopay recalls how even here he felt he was making a difference in terms of how gay people were viewed, if only among his co-workers.

“They were brought up very homophobic, but once they were working with a guy that was as macho as they were, they could kind of understand that I wasn’t any different,” Kopay said.

David Kopay poses with Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, who was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2014. Photo Courtesy of Jim Buzinski

Through his actions, his book and his story, Buzinski explained how Kopay has made a difference to an enormous amount of people across the world.

Openly gay student-athlete Christopher Rom-Toribio (senior), who played running back for Occidental’s football team for two years, explained how he viewed Kopay’s story.

“It’s a huge moment in history, given that he probably helped a bunch of other closeted athletes in football and other sports gain the courage to come out,” Rom-Toribio said via email. “He also took a huge risk being one of the only gay professional athletes to come out publicly.”

The significance of Kopay coming out and everything he has done since may not be immediately obvious to anyone who might spot him swimming lengths at Occidental, but Kopay said he is very happy to visit this campus and interact with faculty and student body members alike.

While Taylor Pool will shortly give way to the new Townsend Crosthwaite pool, Kopay isn’t going anywhere and is excited for an even better place to swim.

“I’m going to love the new pool,” Kopay said. “I’m going to miss this one though.”