By Rodger Streitmatter
Much has been written about Michael Sam since the defensive lineman from the University of Missouri came out in early February. Sam’s public acknowledgement of his sexuality and the fact that he’s likely to be drafted into the National Football League in May mean that pro football may soon have its first openly gay player.
Some of the all-American player’s biggest challenges are likely to take place in the locker room, where bullying seems to be part of the football culture. And so, I hope Sam lands with a boss who’s the modern-day equivalent of Vince Lombardi.
The legendary coach led his team to the NFL championship an unparalleled six times—the first one was in 1956 and the last in 1967. Lombardi alsoGreen Bay Packers Running back Ray Nitschke and Coach Vince Lombardi at the Ice Bowl in December, 1967 amassed an impressive win-loss record of 96-34-6. On top of all that, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and has the unique honor of having the Super Bowl trophy named in his honor.
Less well known is that Lombardi protected the gay ballplayers on his team.
One athlete who benefited from the coach’s progressive attitude vis-à-vis sexuality was running back Ray McDonald. In 1968, the Washington Redskin was arrested for having sex with another man in public. David Maraniss wrote in his biography of Lombardi that he told his assistants and players, in reference to McDonald: “If I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.”
(Let’s not get too worked up about Lombardi’s choice of the word “manhood.” Hey, that was 45 years . . . and in many ways a different LGBT world . . . ago!)
Another gay player Lombardi watched out for was tight end Jerry Smith, who played for the Redskins from 1965 to 1977. Dave Kopay, the first former NFL player to come out, has been quoted as saying, “Lombardi protected and loved Jerry.”
Observers believe Lombardi’s enlightened attitude stemmed largely from the fact that his brother Harold was gay.
The coach’s daughter has identified another factor that may have played a role.
“He was discriminated against as a dark-skinned Italian American when he was younger,” Susan Lombardi has been quoted as saying. “He felt he was passed up for coaching jobs that he deserved. He felt the pain of discrimination, and so he raised his family to accept everybody, no matter what color they were or what their sexual orientation was.”
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