A new documentary from the NFL Network's A Football Life series profiles Jerry Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end who played for the Washington Redskins from 1965-1977 and who, by the time he retired, held the NFL record for most touchdowns by a tight end in the history of the game.
But this outstanding football player harbored a big secret: he was gay. Head coach Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother, demanded a homophobia-free locker room and hinted to Smith that he knew about (and accepted) his sexuality, but not even the legendary Lombardi could insulate him from the crippling societal homophobia of the era. There was just no way he could come out in that environment.
A Football Life delves deeply into Smith's double life as a closeted gay man and a star athlete. On very rare occasions the two intersected, as on the night when Smith went out drinking with teammate David Kopay -- a running back and a fellow closeted gay man -- and the two ended up having sex. Kopay, who came out after retiring from the NFL was interviewed for the film, and his words about that night are heartbreaking.
"I thought this was really good," he said. "At least I was sharing something of myself with someone who's close and understood all that I had been through and understood so much of what we hoped... would come. And that's where we left it -- it never happened again."
Smith's homosexuality became an open secret in August 1986, when he announced that he had contracted AIDS. He was the first professional athlete to announce his diagnosis, but never publicly admitted to being gay. He died just two months later, and in the years since has been largely forgotten.
If you'd like to remember (or learn about) Jerry Smith, the NFL Films documentary about his life is currently streaming on NFL.com. Click here to watch.