Late Friday afternoon, David Kopay watched sun cut through cypress trees at Lands End in San Francisco as the first former NFL player to come out as gay reflected on the past two weeks.
"It's amazing, it really is, and I tell you it's because things are really ready for the truth," Kopay said in a telephone interview. "People are finally getting around to some truths."
The day before University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out Feb. 9, Kopay joined a small group that dined with Sam at the Los Angeles home of publicist Howard Bragman. Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former Baltimore Ravens defensive back Brendon Ayanbadejo attended. Same with Wade Davis, another former NFL player.
Kopay, who lives near Occidental College, advised Sam to focus on training for May's NFL draft and let others deal with the wave of attention that followed the announcement. Forget everything else. Just be intense. Just play football.
Sam smiled in response, Kopay recalled.
Sam, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, participates in this weekend's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The annual event to test and interview hundreds of prospects in advance of May's draft marks his first significant public appearance since the announcement.
"I really get tired of these naysayers in the NFL and the media saying he's going to slip in value because he's speaking the truth," Kopay said. "That's obviously job discrimination right there and he could lose millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The kid can play, you know."
Kopay's nine-year NFL career as a hard-hitting running back ended after the 1972 season. Three years later, he came out.
"In my time, that was the dark ages," Kopay said.
His voice quieted.
A few days after the dinner, Kopay wrote an open letter encouraging Sam published by OutSports.com. The letter took extra time and effort to complete because of creeping cognitive difficulties that sometimes frighten Kopay. But pride in the missive spilled through his words.
"My story has been out there for a long time, but that doesn't diminish from what I've been able to say ... to make the world a little bit better place for folks," Kopay said. "Sometimes I get emotionally tired, but I have such a feeling of joy of being in touch that I just have to continue to do it."
As Sam faces the combine, Kopay plans to watch from afar and, when the surge of attention pulls back, reach out.
"His whole concentration has to be on performance and making a team. He can make a team," Kopay said. "There's a lot of people pulling for him, too."
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