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Carl Nassib’s coming out makes history for the NFL and the Philadelphia region

“It is absolutely wonderful,” said David Kopay, the first NFL player to come out after retiring. “I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib after a game on Nov. 29, 2020.
Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib after a game on Nov. 29, 2020.Read moreJohn Bazemore / AP

Perched in front of the TV at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., David Kopay couldn’t stop smiling as he watched the news coverage about Carl Nassib, the West Chester native and Penn State alumnus who on Monday became the first openly gay active NFL player.

Kopay, 78, helped make this moment possible when, more than 45 years ago — after he had retired — he came out in a newspaper article, becoming the first NFL player to say publicly he is gay.

“It is absolutely wonderful,” said Kopay. “I couldn’t be more proud of him and couldn’t be more proud of the National Football League because they’re standing up for him.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, he added, “they would’ve kicked me out of the league.”

Nassib’s history-making announcement has continued to reverberate across the country and the region. With a one-minute Instagram video, the 28-year-old singlehandedly created gay visibility in the country’s most popular professional sport, and his statement emphasized the monumental impact that accepting adults can have on young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning. Nassib said he is donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicides in LGBTQ youth, and the NFL announced Tuesday that it was matching his donation.

Since Kopay broke ground in the 1970s, a handful of other NFL players have followed in his footsteps and come out after hanging up their cleats and shoulder pads. In 2014, star Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announced he was gay before being drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. He was cut after training camp and never played in an NFL game. He retired a year later, saying that the months after his public coming out had been exceedingly difficult.

Nassib, meanwhile, has already played five seasons in the league, and signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.

Sam applauded Nassib’s announcement, tweeting Tuesday that “LBGTQ people are more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals, I hope and pray people will take note to this. Thank you again Carl and look forward to seeing you play on the field.”

Fans across the country are showing their appreciation, too: Nassib’s No. 94 was the top-selling NFL jersey in the 24 hours since his announcement, according to Fanatics, the NFL’s official e-commerce partner.

Closer to home, administrators and trustees at Malvern Prep, the private all-boys’ Catholic school where Nassib captained the football and basketball teams and led senior religious retreats, said they “commend” their alumnus.

» READ MORE: Carl Nassib, of West Chester, has flourished at Penn State

“Our community has reacted with enormous pride, positivity, love, and support for our Friar Brother who has shown courage in sharing his truth,” the school said Tuesday in a statement. “Yesterday’s announcement is a gift to our community ... that will undoubtedly do much good. Thank you, Carl, for being true to yourself.”

Dawn Pratt, vice president of the LGBT Equality Alliance of Chester County, called Monday’s announcement “huge,” likening it to Ellen DeGeneres coming out on prime-time TV in 1997.

“It’s very impactful,” she said. “Considering how young he is, I think it’s going to encourage others in high school or college to consider coming out.”

Pratt said she got goose bumps seeing all the support Nassib has received thus far, especially from current and former athletes and coaches in men’s sports, who have not always been accepting of gay athletes. Fellow Penn State star Saquon Barkley tweeted “much respect,” and Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin praised Nassib, vowing to donate $10,000 to the Trevor Project as well.

“Representation matters,” former NBA player Rex Chapman said on MSNBC, “and you can bet your bottom dollar yesterday Carl Nassib saved lives.”

During his nine years in the NFL, Kopay said he still remembers the teammates and coaches, including Vince Lombardi, who privately supported him.

“It was an earth-shaking and terrible thing to go through,” he said, “because everybody hated you, except the people who really knew you and loved you, who didn’t give a damn.”

Decades later, Kopay has been heartened to see the response to Nassib’s announcement, he said, and hopes messages of gratitude and love outnumber any hateful ones.

“It’s been a long journey,” Kopay said. The fact that an active player feels comfortable publicly speaking his truth shows that the landscape is “changing and it’s going to continue to change.”

Kopay is among the many who look forward to watching Nassib “play ball and be himself,” he said, for many seasons to come.