Jerry Smith (American football)

Last updated

Jerry Smith
No. 87
Position: Tight end
Personal information
Born:(1943-07-19)July 19, 1943
Eugene, Oregon, U.S.
Died:October 15, 1986(1986-10-15) (aged 43)
Silver Spring, Maryland
Height:6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight:208 lb (94 kg)
Career information
High school: San Lorenzo (CA)
College: Arizona State
NFL Draft: 1965  / Round:  9  / Pick: 118
AFL Draft: 1965  / Round:  18  / Pick: 141
(by the Kansas City Chiefs) [1]
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Receiving yards:5,496
Player stats at  ·  PFR

Gerald Thomas Smith (July 19, 1943 – October 15, 1986) was a professional American football tight end for the National Football League's Washington Redskins for 13 seasons, from 1965 through 1977. [2] By the time he retired, he held the NFL record for most career touchdowns by a tight end. [3] A 2014 documentary from the NFL Network's A Football Life series profiles his career, as well as his "double life as a closeted gay man and a star athlete." [3]


Professional career

Selected in the ninth round (118th overall) of the 1965 NFL Draft out of Arizona State, [4] - where his team mates included Charley Taylor, and his college friends included David Mixner - Smith was also drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 18th round of the 1965 AFL Draft. [5]

Smith developed his Redskins career as a running and catching tight end under head coaches Bill McPeak, Otto Graham and most memorably under Vince Lombardi, who had a positive approach to gay players. After Lombardi's death, under George Allen his role changed to mainly blocking, leading the team to Super Bowl VII at the end of the 1972 season. In the fourth quarter with the Redskins trailing the Miami Dolphins, quarterback Billy Kilmer tried a pass to Smith who was running across the end zone, but the ball hit the goal post. Although the Redskins lost the game 14-7, Sports Illustrated called Smith "an outstanding receiver among tight ends, with the ability to break open for a long gain."

In 1976 the Redskins signed the larger and faster Jean Fugett, who Smith helped and assisted in his integration to the team. In the same year, he was quietly approached by Washington Star journalist Lynn Rosellini with regards her series of gay sports people. Smith contributed on the understanding that neither his name, team or position were revealed. Rosellini opened her article with a description of Smith's hands, which led former team mate Dave Kopay to recognize the player as Smith, and hence lead to Kopay telephoning Rosellini and becoming the first former football player to come out two days later.

Despite his skills having diminished, coach Allen kept bringing Smith back into the Redskins roster due to his work ethic. Smith made one catch in 1977, and spent the 1978 season on the injured list. Smith caught 421 passes, including 60 touchdowns, a career record for tight ends at the time. His record held for 27 years, beaten by Shannon Sharpe on November 16, 2003. [6] Smith was named All-Pro twice and held several NFL records that stood for years. In 2011, the Professional Football Researchers Association named Smith to the PRFA Hall of Very Good Class of 2011 [7]

In 1971, as a part of a USO tour in association with the NFL, Smith, along with other stars John Brown, Butch Byrd, Fred Hoaglin, George Kunz, and Tom Woodeshick, visited and signed autographs for wounded military personnel in Vietnam.

From 1967 to 1970, Smith was a full time starter for the Redskins. He missed several games in 1971 to injury, but was back as a full time starter the following season, and would be until his final season in 1977. During his career, Smith made several all-pro times. [8]

Coming out

After officially retiring at the end of the 1978 season, Smith quietly came out as gay to a few family members. This allowed him to explain why he moved to Austin, Texas, where he co-owned the gay bar "The Boathouse" - a decision he later regretted.

Smith moved back to the support of his family in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1986, where looking thinner and coughing, he was diagnosed at the Holy Cross Hospital with HIV. After discussing the matter with his family and friends, he contacted Washington Post journalist George Solomon - the ground rule being that they did not discuss how he got the disease - with the resultant front page article published on August 7, 1986. He was subsequently visited and supported by all of his former team mates and coaches.


Smith died of AIDS at age 43 on October 15, 1986, at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. [2] [6] [9] He was the first former professional athlete to die of the disease. [3] Although he acknowledged that he had AIDS, he never publicly acknowledged he was gay. [3] At a funeral attended by all of his former team mates and coaches - some of whom also acted as coffin bearers - Smith was buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring.

Head coach Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother, demanded a homophobia-free locker room but "not even the legendary Lombardi could insulate him from the crippling societal homophobia of the era." [3] Shortly before he died, Smith said: "Every important thing a man searches for in his life, I found in Coach Lombardi. He made us men." [6]

Smith's sexuality was confirmed after his death by former teammate pro NFL football player David Kopay, who had come out years earlier. [3] Kopay referred to a sexual encounter with Smith, using an alias for him, in his autobiography. After the book's publication, Smith never spoke to Kopay again. [6] The Redskins logo, along with Smith's uniform number 87, was part of the AIDS quilt.

After a period of time post his death, some of Smith's teammates said they knew he was gay. Brig Owens, a defensive back for the Redskins at the time who also roomed with Smith, said Smith lived in fear, because if people knew he was gay, he'd be done in football. [6] He said Smith was afraid that people would take away something that he loved. Owens was one of the players on the team that knew for sure Smith was gay. Dave Kopay was briefly a teammate of Smith's. Kopay came out in 1972, after his playing career ended. He also wrote an autobiography about having a relationship with a teammate. Even though Kopay used an alias, Smith knew Kopay was talking about him. After the autobiography came out, Smith never spoke to Kopay again. [10] Of all of his teammates, Smith was closer to Owens than perhaps anyone else. Their bond was so tight, Owens' own daughters referred to Smith as 'Uncle Jerry'. Redskins center Len Hauss was another close friend to Smith as well. On one occasion, a player said a word Hauss did not like (most likely a gay slur) and Hauss confronted the player and said he'd better not hear that word in the locker room again - and it never was again. [11]

In 2014, The NFL network aired A Football Life: Jerry Smith. The hour long show was about Smith, his career, and his death from AIDS. Brig Owens was interviewed during commercial breaks. When asked if Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame, Owens replied that Smith would be in the hall already if he was not gay. [6]

See also

Related Research Articles

Super Bowl VII 1973 Edition of the Super Bowl

Super Bowl VII was an American football game between the American Football Conference (AFC) champion Miami Dolphins and the National Football Conference (NFC) champion Washington Redskins to decide the National Football League (NFL) champion for the 1972 season. The Dolphins defeated the Redskins by the score of 14–7, and became the first and still the only team in modern NFL history to complete a perfect undefeated season. They also remain the only Super Bowl champion to win despite having been shut out in the second half of the game. The game was played on January 14, 1973 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, the second time the Super Bowl was played in that city. At kickoff, the temperature was 84 °F (29 °C), making the game the warmest Super Bowl.

Vince Lombardi American football coach

Vincent Thomas Lombardi was an American football coach, and executive in the National Football League (NFL). He is best known as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, where he led the team to three straight and five total NFL Championships in seven years, in addition to winning the first two Super Bowls at the conclusion of the 1966 and 1967 NFL seasons.

Washington Football Team American football team based in the Washington, D.C. area

The Washington Football Team is a professional American football team based in the Washington metropolitan area. Formerly known as the Washington Redskins, the team competes in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the NFC East division. The team plays its home games at FedExField in Landover, Maryland; its headquarters and training facility are in Ashburn, Virginia. The team has played more than 1,000 games and is one of only five in the NFL with more than 600 total victories. It was the first NFL franchise with an official marching band and a fight song, "Hail to the Redskins". Washington is valued at roughly US$4.2 billion according to Forbes, making them the fifth-most valuable franchise in the NFL.

David Marquette Kopay is a former American football running back in the National Football League who in 1975 became one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay.

Sonny Jurgensen American football quarterback

Christian Adolph "Sonny" Jurgensen III is an American former professional football player who was a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL) for the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

Art Monk American football wide receiver

James Arthur Monk is an American former football wide receiver in the National Football League for the Washington Redskins, New York Jets, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Monk was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

Sam Huff American football player

Robert Lee "Sam" Huff is a former professional American football linebacker in the National Football League (NFL) for the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He played college football for the West Virginia Mountaineers football team and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Larry Brown (running back) American football running back for the Washington Redskins

Lawrence Brown Jr. is a former professional American football player in the National Football League (NFL) who played running back for the Washington Redskins from 1969 to 1976.

Chris Cooley Player of American football

Christopher Ken Cooley is a former American football tight end who played for the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL). He played college football for Utah State University, and was drafted by the Redskins in the third round of the 2004 NFL draft.

Jeremy Shockey American football player

Jeremy Charles Shockey is a former American football tight end. He was drafted by the New York Giants 14th overall in the 2002 NFL Draft. He played college football at the University of Miami.

Ben Davidson American football defensive end

Benjamin Earl Franklin Davidson, Jr. was an American football player, a defensive end best known for his play with the Oakland Raiders in the American Football League. Earlier in his career, he was with the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins of the National Football League. He later worked as an actor.

History of the Washington Football Team Sports team history

The Washington Football Team, the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins, has played over 1,000 games. In those games, the club has won five professional American football championships including two NFL Championships and three Super Bowls. The franchise has also captured 15 NFL divisional titles and five NFC championships.

Richard David Robinson is a former American football player. He played college football at Pennsylvania State University and professionally in the National Football League for the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins. Robinson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.

Bill McPeak American football player and coach

William Patrick McPeak was an American football player and coach in the National Football League (NFL). He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 16th round of the 1948 NFL Draft, playing nine season for them. He also was the head coach of the Washington Redskins and offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins.

Marv Fleming

Marvin Lawrence Fleming is a former professional American football player, a tight end in the National Football League for 12 seasons, seven with the Green Bay Packers and five with the Miami Dolphins. He was a member of five NFL championship teams.

Sherman Smith is a former professional American football running back who played eight seasons for the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers between 1976 and 1983. He was also the running backs coach for the Seattle Seahawks, as well as the former offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins. After his playing days were over, he embarked upon a second career as a football coach, starting in high school, then college, and finally back in the National Football League with the Houston Oilers / Tennessee Titans, the Washington Redskins, and the Seattle Seahawks.

Steven Russell Jordan is a former American football tight end who played in the National Football League (NFL) for the Minnesota Vikings from 1982 to 1994.

Lew Carpenter

Lewis Glen Carpenter was an American football player and coach. He played college football for the University of Arkansas and professionally for ten seasons in the National Football League (NFL) as a halfback and fullback with the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Green Bay Packers. He played on three NFL Championship teams, with Detroit in 1953 and with Green Bay in 1961 and 1962. After his playing career ended, Carpenter spent 31 years as an assistant coach in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings (1964–1966), Atlanta Falcons (1967–1968), Washington Redskins (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1970–1972), Houston Oilers (1970–1974), Green Bay Packers (1975–1985), Detroit Lions (1987–1988), and Philadelphia Eagles (1990–1994). Carpenter also coached the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League of American Football in 1996 and at Southwest Texas State University. He concluded his 47 years of playing and coaching football at the end of the 1996 season. Scientific tests on his brain diagnosed post-mortem that he had an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Homosexuality in American football LGBTQ history in American Football

There has been only one player who has publicly come out as gay or bisexual while being an active player in the National Football League (NFL): Carl Nassib, who revealed himself as gay on June 21, 2021. Six former NFL players have come out publicly after they retired. Michael Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL Draft, and thus became the first publicly gay player drafted in the league, but was released before the start of the regular season. He became the first publicly gay player to play in the Canadian Football League in August 2015.

Modern history of American football

The modern history of American football can be considered to have begun after the 1932 NFL Playoff Game, which was the first American football game to feature hash marks, the legalization of the forward pass anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, and the movement of the goal posts back to the goal line; it was also the first indoor game since 1902. Other innovations to occur in the years after 1932 were the introduction of the AP Poll in 1934, the tapering of the ends of the football in 1934, the awarding of the first Heisman Trophy in 1935, the first NFL draft in 1936 and the first televised game in 1939. Another important event was the American football game at the 1932 Summer Olympics, which combined with a similar demonstration game at the 1933 World's Fair, led to the first College All-Star Game in 1934, which in turn was an important factor in the growth of professional football in the United States. American football's explosion in popularity during the second half of the 20th century can be traced to the 1958 NFL Championship Game, a contest that has been dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played". A rival league to the NFL, the American Football League (AFL), began play in 1960. In 1966, the NFL initiated the AFL–NFL merger between the two leagues. The merger lead to the creation of the Super Bowl, which has become the most watched television event in the United States on an annual basis.


  1. "1965 AFL Draft". Archived from the original on February 25, 2017. Retrieved March 23, 2017.
  2. 1 2 "Jerry Smith loses struggle against AIDS". Free-Lance Star. (Fredericksburg, Virginia). Associated Press. October 16, 1986. p. 11.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 NFL Documentary Profiles Closeted Gay Player
  4. "Redskins tab Briggs 'sleeper' among picks". Free-Lance Star. (Fredericksburg, Virginia). Associated Press. November 30, 1964. p. 8.
  5. "Jerry Smith Stats".
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Miriam Walker-Khan (February 1, 2021). "LGBT+ History Month: Six LGBT+ sportspeople you should know more about". BBC Sport . Retrieved February 1, 2021.
  7. "Hall of Very Good Class of 2011". Archived from the original on September 2, 2018. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  8. "Jerry Smith Stats".
  9. "AIDS kills NFL's Smith". The Bulletin. (Bend, Oregon). UPI. October 16, 1986. p. D3.
  10. "Friend: Gay Redskins TE Jerry Smith coped with 'horrendous existence'".
  11. ""He Was One of Us"".