Tag Archives: david kopay

Formative books

I think we all had our formative books: those that stayed with us, changed our young outlooks, made us who we are. I certainly did, and they have been on my mind lately.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine l’Engle): a book with a Christian theme, thus considered acceptable kid reading at the psychotic religious school I attended in Colorado. (Heritage Christian School, Fort Collins, CO, 1971-74, still haven’t forgotten you or the sadism. Have a good day.) At that age, I didn’t quite get it, but on a later re-read I did. There is a misfit character in the book named Meg, who is obstinate and emotional and doesn’t quite meet everyone’s lofty expectations. There comes a point where all the children are given gifts, and Meg is told: “Meg, I give you your faults.” Later on, she comes to understand and wield her obstinacy and passion as weapons.

Meg was my inspiration. I realized I would probably go through most of my life agreeing with very few people, constantly pressured to conform and fall into line, ridiculed when I would fail to do so, and never much of a group joiner. Meg also taught me that, as long as I was committed to immunity to peer pressure and okay with its consequences, I would right a few wrongs and get a few things done through simple obstinacy. I’d make a few enemies doing that, and I’d baffle people who would not understand why I cared, but that was why I had to get serious about rejecting peer pressure.

1984 (George Orwell): didn’t really get it in high school, but definitely got it in college. It was one of the texts for my modern European history survey with the late, revered Jon Bridgman, in the book’s actual titular year. At the time, I could see that there was a strong pattern of speech policing and suppression of ideas in academia, though they didn’t torture people for ‘wrong thinking.’ Then I saw that society offered the same thing, increasingly, over the course of my lifetime, though not always in the same direction. I saw mass hysteria and mass conformity, and I saw those become the social rule.

And I realized that no matter who Big Brother might represent in my world, for my own sense of self, I’d better commit to hating him all day long. Otherwise I’d be drawn into the mass conformity, and while a part of me would be happier, the majority of me would know I’d sold out.

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn): and here was the full tale of life in katorga, corrective labor in camps, for those who did not toe the Soviet line. I didn’t know what our best solution was, but from that I knew one potential solution that had an irredeemable flaw. That said, as I studied Russian in high school, Solzhenitsyn was a hero of mine. He had gone ahead with publication knowing what it would cost him personally. He may be Russia’s greatest modern writer. If I was going to despise authoritarianism, Solzhenitsyn showed me why one might.

Veeck as in Wreck (Bill Veeck with Ed Linn): I found my copy of this as a battered spine-split paperback among Gothic novels on the shelves of a house my family rented in northern Colorado when I was seven. The more I learned about Veeck, the more I yearned to have been born in a time when I could just travel to his operation and start picking up litter outside the ballpark until he finally gave me a job. Baseball can be stuffy, and that’s an insult no one ever directed at William Veeck Jr. He put clowns in the base coaching boxes. He invented the exploding scoreboard. Most famously, he sent a little person up to bat. Veeck was what the dictionary people are trying to describe when they seek to define the word ‘rollicking.’ We miss him terribly.

Ball Four (Jim Bouton): another great nonconformist book, for which the author paid the price. Bouton had risen so far as to win two World Series games for the Yankees, back when I was a tot. By the time I was six, he was throwing the knuckleball and trying to stay in the game with an expansion team. Bouton was a freethinker in the most resistant to change of all our sporting cultures, wearing a weird number, throwing a weird pitch, liking hippies and the players’ union, and all that made him somewhat of an outsider even before he wrote this tell-all book about the season. No one credibly tried to say that the book was untrue; the knock on Bouton was that he shouldn’t have written it.

As for me, I found it hilarious, bawdy, and invigorating. I was a teenager living in a small, stupid, brutal logging town, I didn’t fit in and never would, and Bouton was speaking my language. Later in life, when I went back to real baseball and was recovering from a serious injury with a new team, I donned #56–Bouton’s number, the symbol of the nonconformist and the comeback. I even learned to throw a good enough knuck to earn one start and one relief trip to the mound. Without Bouton, I’m not entirely sure I would have made it through my teens as a free adult.

They weren’t all nonconformist, though…

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (Howard Pyle): what many don’t realize is that there’s no single authoritative canon of the Robin Hood legend. To the extent that one takes it as fiction, the story can be what the author desires. Pyle’s treatment is the adventure classic I read until the covers began to fall off, and loved more and more each time. Comedy, good vs. evil, culture and history…just the thing for an early readers.

The Mad Scientists’ Club (Bertrand R. Brinley): kids, when we were young, what happened was the school passed around an Arrow book catalogue, from which we could order whichever books we could convince our parents to fund. It took weeks to receive them, but we did. As I remember, this was one such.

The book is about a group of young nerds with a lot of scientific ambition. It doesn’t set out to be comical; that was part of its genius. It told a good story, but it also told a story of gifted boys having adventures. It would be a mistake to call it ‘young adult,’ because adults are eighteen and over, and this is for teens and pre-teens. It’s worth the effort to hunt up.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain): this produced hilarious results. I loved it, of course, and for the record, the un-PC aspects didn’t imprint racism on my little brain; they showed me how it was back then, without sanitizing. However, my parents were Kansans, and in addition to the Kansas vs. Missouri rivalry that has its roots in eleven years of mutual atrocity and reprisal, there’s the fact that educated Kansans like my parents tend to recoil from the Cletus stereotype. So when I began talking like Tom Sawyer, you can imagine their horror. I didn’t understand the freakout; it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was correct. I guess it’s the same freakout my second grade teacher had when I deliberately misspelled every word on a writing assignment. (Sorry, Mrs. Fulks. That really was disrespectful of me.)

Dune (Frank Herbert): for me, the impact was in the frank way it proposed viewpoints that held water, yet were unpalatable to speak in our own society. “We mustn’t run short of filmbase. How will the people know how well I govern them if I don’t tell them?” In two sentences, gone is the folly that the People are Wise; they are acknowledged as too foolish to discern the truth. The entrenched oligarchy without apologies: what we have, but what we are supposed, even ordered, to insist we do not have, and its ownership class expected to issue the usual pro forma denials. I have only so much patience for certain types of idealism, and Herbert presents a universe with very little.

No, I didn’t see the movie. Whatever movie you are asking about, I haven’t seen it.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (C.S. Forester): it was the first in a long series devoted to a flawed but mostly admirable semi-historical figure during the Age of Sail. It wallowed in British chauvinism while showing up all the weaknesses of the British system. It inspired. It made one wish to be able to say one had walked the decks with roundshot coming in through the side. And while it did so, it taught a great many lessons about leadership. Were it in my power, every midshipman at Annapolis and New London would read and write a paper on the entire series, of which the given title is the first.

The David Kopay Story (David Kopay with Perry Dean Young): growing up, I guess I was as homophobic as the garden variety small-town American boy, but that was already unraveling by my mid-teens. This book would help that process. Kopay, the first NFL figure to come out, was an alum of the dream school that I would later attend. His story filled me with admiration, because he had done two impressive things: he had made an NFL career out of hustle and desire and a little bit of talent, and he had taken a public stand for which there would be consequences.

I understood Kopay immediately: he had never set out to become an activist, though his actions pushed him into that position. Above all, he was a competitor. I would play sports into my mid-forties, always with a couple of ounces of talent and a whole lot of fight (at times arguably too much), and Kopay was among my inspirations.

 

Here’s a valid question that might occur to some in our control-oriented society with its schools like jails and its universal surveillance and its obsession with minor wrongdoings: could my parents have shaped my behavior through the books they provided?

I don’t think so, and here is why: so many of the books did not take. Yeah, I may have started a lamentable speaking habit after reading Tom Sawyer, but it didn’t stick. Treasure Island didn’t turn me into a pirate. The Bible didn’t stay with me long after my liberation from high school. The books that influenced me did so because they resonated with what I already was, even going back to toddlerhood. I read plenty of books that didn’t change me: Helter Skelter, for example, or None Dare Call It Conspiracy. No, I don’t think it has much targetable impact.

Thank the gods it’s not that easy.

Book review: The David Kopay Story

(This review was originally submitted to Epinions. I am reclaiming my work in edited and updated form.)

So Michael Sam, a linebacker from Missouri with legitimate hopes of being taken in the NFL draft, has come out as gay. He did so knowing that this might impact his opportunity to play at the sport’s highest level. Evidently he had already come out to his college teammates, who respected his confidence and continued to treat him as a teammate.

This takes guts. You know how, when a windshield cracks, it can be repaired provided the crack doesn’t reach the edge? This may be the blow that cracks the glass barrier of discrimination to its edge. While those of us who advocate an end to homophobic discrimination are cheering on Michael Sam, I’d like to remind the world of the man who first struck at the barrier. I have more in common with him than some might realize.

David Kopay was a tough college running back who made it to the professional football ranks through sheer determination and obstinacy, staying there for a decade as a backup and special teams hand. A craggily handsome fellow who ‘came out’ in the mid-1970s while writing The David Kopay Story with Perry Deane Young. And a University of Washington Husky.

David and I, therefore, have walked the same collegiate paths. I’m proud of my alma mater; while no university is perfect, UW (we usually say ‘U-Dub,’ often without the definite article) combines a square mile of carefully landscaped lakeside campus with some of the finest educational tools that exist. As far as I know, it is still the very finest nursing school in the land, and maybe the world. For those with the self-discipline to till them, UW can offer impressively fertile grounds for learning in a rich variety of studies.

We also have good sports teams. But when I think of famous fellow Dawgs who inspire me, the first one that comes to mind is not Football Hall of Famer Hugh McIlhenny. Nor is it legendary quarterback Warren Moon. It is not statesman Warren Magnuson, flying ace and Medal of Honor winner ‘Pappy’ Boyington, activist and decorated veteran Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, newsman Chet Huntley, actors Richard Karn, Dawn Wells, Joel McHale or Patrick Duffy, or civil rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi–though I’d be honored to meet any of them.

No, when I think of fellow alumni whose hands I would like to shake, David Kopay is the first-stringer.

We must remember that this book was first published in 1977. Jimmy Carter was President. The nation was mired in a post-Vietnam funk. The economy was a hot mess. We had begun to make meaningful the civil rights gains of the 1960s. The Cold War was a reality. We were expecting the next war in Europe, possibly soon, and our military was the next thing to a broken force.

The ex-hippies were just starting to be promoted to lower management, but going home and listening to the Beatles and the Stones on vinyl at home, and clinging to their VW microbuses as tokens of a bygone time when ‘all you needed was love.’ We had partied the hearty party of post-WWII prosperity, we were about done throwing up the morning after, and we were mopping up the puke with a throbbing headache and drinking cranberry juice. And telling everyone to turn that damn music down.

The popular perception of male homosexuality in the 1970s was that it was a personal choice, like becoming a Jehovah’s Witness or a disk jockey. Many also saw it as a dangerous perversion, felonious in many states. Family and friends tended to treat it as a major disgrace. Society treated male homosexuality as a rare, contagious, emasculating disease.

In this timeframe, at the finish of a ten-year NFL career, David Kopay let it be public knowledge that he was homosexual. No one else had done this, especially not someone who had spent nearly a generation in men’s locker rooms where he might–omigawd–see other men naked. It sounds stupid now, but remember the times, and you’ll be able to imagine the reaction.

With Young’s able assistance, Kopay tells us the story of his path to ultimately living as an out gay man. The conflicting desires. The intoxicated sexual incidents with friends and fraternity brothers. How hard he tried to be heterosexual, and the ways in which that hurt women who truly cared for him. The cracks and comments from teammates who had no idea how correct they were, and the way Kopay enjoyed hitting them extra hard in practice. The format alternates between Kopay’s narrative and Young’s commenary, and flows well, with no sense of reading a tennis match. (Not that it’s really germane, but the two were never lovers. Of course, if you co-author a book with someone, you might as well be.)

Kopay’s book impacted popular perceptions of athletes similarly to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For many years, the public had practiced voluntary ignorance concerning professional athletes’ humanity. Bouton, another of my great heroes (although it should not be glossed over that Ball Four contains some crude homophobic references that I suspect Bouton regrets today), had made athletes look more human. By coming out, Kopay humanized them in yet another. If part of the population is gay, part of the athlete population will be gay. Kopay’s work destroyed that comfy ability to pretend that wasn’t so.

I find Kopay’s description of his upbringing to ring with truth, which is why I’d recommend it for anyone who wishes to better understand the experience of being gay. Of course he found his early desires and thoughts confusing; he was raised in a very religious home, and there was no manual available in any case to explain that some people happened to prefer same-sex partners. His only clue was that he knew, deep down, that he was more interested in males than females, try as he might to live otherwise. The candor of this self-discovery story, and his coming to terms with it, makes Kopay’s book relevant nearly two generations after its first publication.

By modern standards, his family’s reaction to his coming out would be considered very disappointing. For the 1970s, their reaction was commonplace and mainstream. Kopay lets us see the pain that caused him, the ‘we cannot truly accept you as you are’ hurt that continues to bleed long after. His African American teammates who knew or suspected he was gay were also the most understanding. While the book is explicit, it’s not pornographic. it is more about football than sex, and again, Kopay is straightforward. He was not a big star. He hung on in the pros by sheer force of will. He just wanted to play the game.

That explains another part of the kinship I feel with David Kopay. Armed with moderate athletic talent, he lowered his helmet and charged, pounding his way to a respectable ten-year professional football career. Unlike Kopay, I lacked athletic talent, yet I battled my way to two high school varsity baseball letters, a varsity football letter, and the slightly fear-tinged regard earned by someone lacking a commonsensical regard for his own safety. The only thing that got me any respect was the reckless use of the hardshell helmet against joints, soft parts, and so on. (I once hit a kid hard enough to break one of the steel bolts holding my face mask in place.)

After college, I took up amateur hockey and played it for six years, leaving memories of myself with many; I also played ten years of amateur baseball, making solid contributions to competitive teams (and, I daresay, leaving a few physical calling cards along the basepaths). I refused to accept lack of talent as a disqualifier. I wanted to win, and to do well, and I wanted it bad enough to give all of what little ability I did have. I’ve learned that it’s about 80% what you do with what you have and about 20% what you have to work with. The same ratio held true in college academics, as I learned by underachieving my way through my first two years of school, while others of comparable natural talent made me look rather dumb by comparison.

Kopay set forth to be a collegiate and professional athlete, not an activist. His career was not spectacular, but certainly successful (he was particularly tough on special teams). After that career ended, a challenge far greater than the Rose Bowl came his way. Kopay faced and met that challenge. His account doesn’t dwell on the courage that took; nor should it, because it speaks for itself. Sure, he was afraid; I also would have been. He felt the fear, and did it anyway.

I wish I’d had David Kopay on any or all of my teams. Skills, talents, sexual preference; all secondary considerations. Give me someone who’s honest; give me a comrade; give me someone who wants to win with all his or her heart; give me guts under fire; give me someone who never quits; give me someone who’ll angrily tell me I’m full of it; give me someone who will lead me if I falter, follow me if I lead, and avenge me if I fall.

Let me draft a team loaded with that mentality, and we will make a way.

In the first round of that draft, my team selects David Kopay.

Michael Sam’s step is of similar magnitude. I am glad that today, unlike Kopay’s day, he may look behind him and see not merely a few confidential well-wishers, but a great multitude in which straight allies outnumber those who are gay. This is one of those rare crowds where I feel comfortable. Good luck, Michael.