Friend: Gay Redskins TE Jerry Smith coped with 'horrendous existence'

11:12 AM, Jan 22, 2014   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- If you grew up near the Washington Beltway, you're likely familiar with former Redskin Jerry Smith. Your age probably determines whether your first memory of Smith is that of a record-setting tight end or a man who died of AIDS at age 43 in 1986.

But if you've never heard of Smith at all, NFL Films is featuring his story for its Emmy-nominated series, A Football Life, and the documentary will premiere Tuesday night on NFL Network at 9 p.m. ET.

Smith, a two-time Pro Bowler who played from 1965 to 1977, retired with the most touchdown catches in league history for a tight end (60). He was able to achieve notoriety on the field despite the challenges he encountered off it.

Jerry Smith was gay.

"He was living in real fear," says Smith's friend, David Mixner, who is also homosexual, "and really alone and terrified that he was gonna lose everything."

Mixner adds: "It's real important not to look back on this with 2013 eyes. This was a horrendous existence."

No openly gay player has played in the league, though several have discussed their orientation upon retirement. Smith's brother, Ed, says Jerry Smith didn't reveal his homosexuality to teammates.

But some were cognizant of Smith's secret while others suspected it.

"If people knew, they probably didnt talk about it," says former Redskins defensive back Brig Owens, who was also Smith's roommate. "There was that fear, because you didn't want someone to take away something you loved.

"He knew I was aware."

So was running back Dave Kopay, who came out of the closet after his career ended in 1972. He also wrote an autobiography and talked about a sexual encounter with Smith, though Kopay used an alias for his ex-teammate. But Smith, who always guarded his private life, would never speak to Kopay again.

Former Redskins interviewed by NFL Films all laud Smith as an ideal teammate.

Hall of Fame wideout Charley Taylor even suggests Washington had a reputation as a haven for gay players, and that there might have been as many as a dozen on the roster at one point.

"We didn't worry about that," said Taylor, a friend of Smith's and teammate going back to their days at Arizona State in the 1960s.

But Mixner says it wasn't that simple, especially in that era. He contends that though some players might not have cared about Smith's private life, others would have oppressed him and ensured he lost his job had he come out.

Smith loved playing for Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother and demanded an atmosphere of tolerance in the locker room. Smith was also a favorite of subsequent coach George Allen, even though he reduced Smith's role as a receiver and used him more as a blocker.

The closest Smith ever came to revealing himself was in a story for The Wasington Star. But he insisted on being quoted anonymously and refused to be identified by his position or as a member of the Redskins.

In retirement, Smith contracted AIDS, a virtual death sentence in the 1980s. He discussed his battle with the disease in The Washington Post but wouldn't reveal how he contracted it.

He died in 1986, nine years after his final NFL game.

Smith is a member of the team's ring of honor and still shares Washington's record for most TD catches in a season (12).

"As soon as he retired, then the whispers started," says Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell. "Then we were aware of his persuasion, but we treated him like we did everybody else because he was one of us."

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