Growing up as a child of the 1980s, watching the Redskins lay the foundation of a dynasty, the sexual orientation of various football players was one of the furthest things from my mind - except perhaps on the rare occasions that they started romances with bombshell actresses whose appearance stirred something in me that I hardly understood, yet enjoyed.
But it was also the era of AIDS, and the outsized effect that horrible disease was having on the gay community. So while, generally speaking, discussions of homosexuality weren’t had among “polite company” - at least in the (admittedly small) circles I traveled in at that point - the sensational arrival of AIDS did have the impact of forcing society to admit gay people existed, and that they were all around us.
I don’t recall exactly what precipitated the conversation - at the time my father certainly wasn't a leading luminary of gay advocacy (he was, and remains more of a “live and let live” type) - but in 1983 or 1984, in talking about the Redskins of yore, among stories of George Allen and Charlie Taylor, my dad mentioned a legendary tight end for the Redskins, who probably didn’t get the recognition he deserved because he was widely thought to be gay.
He was, of course, talking about Jerry Smith, the towheaded pass catcher (and blocker) for Washington from 1965 to 1977. Smith was a two-time Pro Bowler and first team All Pro in 1969, collecting nearly 5,500 receiving yards and 60 TDs for the Redskins over the span of his career. In 1967, his best statistical season, he racked up 849 yards and 12 TDs, a team record that still stands today (it has been tied by others). He posted the tight end TD record that would stand for 26 years after his retirement, until it was eventually broken by Shannon Sharpe in 2003.
I never saw Smith play - I was a toddler when he retired - but in watching some archival footage of Sonny Jurgensen, the narrator referred to Smith as “solidifying his position as the League’s brightest new tight end star.” At 6’3”, 208 lbs, there are several clips of him carrying defenders for extra yardage or going up to grab impressive jump balls in the end zone. The sureness of his hands was often described in poetic terms.
Those who played with Smith were effusive with praise about his abilities as well:
“I never played with a better tight end than Jerry Smith,” [Calvin] Hill said. It might be just the opinion of one guy, but that one guy was someone who ran behind Smith’s blocks and was also a teammate of Ditka and Newsome, two tight ends in the Hall Of Fame.
“He became a go-to guy for me,” [Sonny] Jurgensen told the NFL Network a few years ago. “He was outstanding. When you needed a play to be made, you knew that you could throw the ball to him and some way, somehow, he was going to catch the thing.”
“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.”
But for all Smith’s on-field success, he lived in terror that his secret would come out and destroy his life:
Mixner adds: “It’s real important not to look back on this with 2013 eyes. This was a horrendous existence.”
As for Smith’s life in the closet, [Dave] 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.” [Kopay, himself, came out in 1975]
By several accounts, Smith loved playing for Vince Lombardi, and was fortunate to have done so, as Lombardi had a gay brother - Harold - whose experience had made Lombardi unusually broad-minded on the topic of gay rights at the time and insistent of a culture of tolerance in the locker room.
“Every important thing a man searches for in his life, I found in Coach Lombardi. He made us men.” - Jerry Smith
Nine years after his final NFL game, Smith died of AIDS in 1986, never having publicly come out of the closet.
“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.”
Interestingly, and unknown to me prior to writing this article, apparently Washington had a reputation as being a safe haven for gay players in the 1970s, with Hall of Fame wide receiver Charlie Taylor, speculating that there could have been up to a dozen gay players on the team at the time.
“We didn’t worry about that,” said Taylor, a friend of Smith’s and teammate going back to their days at Arizona State in the 1960s.
Smith’s experience is endlessly fascinating, and well beyond the scope of what I’ve covered here. If you’re interested in the topic, I would highly recommend the video below, which is very well done and illuminating.
And, congrats to Nassib for officially breaking down a barrier that had - for far too long - inhibited the ability of NFL players to live their lives free from fear and condemnation. It’s important to remember he stands on backs of pioneers like Smith, whose life well-lived and trials and tribulations - eventually - made a declaration like Nassib’s broadly accepted and praised.
“I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now but I finally feel comfortable getting it off my chest.”— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 21, 2021
Raiders DL Carl Nassib shared this video to social media and became the first active NFL player to announce he is gay. pic.twitter.com/gGXbZEP3R7
Gabe Ward wrote a brief profile on Smith several years ago, here on Hogs Haven, which can be read here.
Do you think it’s significant that Carl Nassib is the first gay player to come out while still playing in the NFL?
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