Lombardi: A champion of gay rights

Vince Lombardi would have loved Jason Collins, and everything about him. Collins is bright, professional, respectful, team-centric, and proud to be gay. Right in Lombardi's wheelhouse.

Long before it was fashionable, Lombardi was a champion of gay athletes, if only because he was a champion of all athletes, at least those who helped him score more touchdowns than the other guy. It didn't matter if they were white or black, or if they dated men or women or both, or if they dated interracially or not.

"Like the saying goes," Susan Lombardi said by phone, "my father treated them all the same. Like dogs."

Actually, Vincent Thomas Lombardi treated his Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins as anything but. No, winning wasn't everything, or the only thing. In Lombardi's playbook, winning placed a distant second to simple human decency.

In 1969, the year before his death, the only year he coached the Redskins, Lombardi worked with at least five gay men -- three players and two front-office executives, including David Slattery, who would come out in 1993. In his defining biography, "When Pride Still Mattered," author David Maraniss described the scene of Lombardi charging an assistant to work with one of the gay players, a struggling back named Ray McDonald. "And if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood," Lombardi is quoted as saying, "you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."

This was 44 years before Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, made history this week as the first active player among the four major American team sports to publicly reveal he is gay. This was 44 years before a basketball coach at Rutgers University was fired, in part, for degrading players with homophobic slurs, and before another coach was accused of using homophobic slurs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Lombardi's Green Bay.

"My father was way ahead of his time," Susan Lombardi said. "He was discriminated against as a dark-skinned Italian American when he was younger, when 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 whatever their sexual orientation was.

"I think it's great what Jason Collins did, because it's going to open a lot of doors for people. Without a doubt my father would've embraced him, and would've been very proud of him for coming out."

Richard Nicholls, 75-year-old resident of Rohnert Park, Calif., agreed with the thought. For more than four decades Nicholls was partners with Harold Lombardi, Vince's gay brother, who died in 2011 knowing that he had Vince's unconditional love and support.

Nicholls and Harold met in 1970, the year Vince succumbed to cancer at 57. Ultimately Nicholls hoped to get married, but Harold was a devout Catholic, just like Vince. "He was old school," Nicholls said by phone. "He knew the church wouldn't approve."

Nicholls called his longtime partner "Hal," and said he was a private man. "He loved Vin very much, and was very proud of him even though he wasn't much of a football man," Nicholls said. "We once had a conversation where Hal said, 'I appreciate that Vin treats gays so nicely. He probably does it because of me.'"

But Nicholls believes Lombardi, a coach he'd never met, would've been just as supportive of his gay co-workers and players had his brother been straight.

"Through Hal and in what I'd read and seen, Vin was always fair in how he treated everybody," Nicholls said. "I just thought he appeared to be a great man who accepted people at face value for what they were, and didn't judge anybody. He just wanted you to do the job."

That's the way Dave Kopay remembers it, too, as a running back with Lombardi's Redskins. In a 1975 newspaper interview, three years after he retired, Kopay became the first major team-sport athlete to come out as gay.

He never discussed his sexuality with Lombardi, but remains fairly certain the coach knew. Kopay said he had a relationship with Washington's star tight end, Jerry Smith, who never came out but was widely acknowledged to be gay; Smith died of complications from AIDS in 1986.

"Lombardi protected and loved Jerry," Kopay said by phone. The retired running back said he was "absolutely, 100 percent sure" his coach knew that two Redskins executives, including Slattery, were gay "because he was so close to both of them it would've been impossible for Lombardi not to know."

Kopay said he tried to convince Smith that the two of them should come out together. "But back then gay people were almost thought of as deviant," Kopay said. "It was really terrible at the time."

But Lombardi created an atmosphere of inclusion at work, running the ultimate NFL meritocracy. He'd won his five championships in Green Bay, so he arrived as something of a rock star in D.C.

"Supreme Court justices would come out to Saturday morning practices," Kopay said, "just to be around Lombardi. He was something else."

Kopay would write a best-selling book about his experiences as a gay athlete, and he believes the public discourse about his sexuality cost him opportunities in coaching. He received some hate mail. He said the Washington Star, the paper that published his 1975 interview, received a lot more.

Like Jason Collins, Kopay said he was a tough, physical athlete who never shied from contact. In fact, he recalled, "I was so aware of trying to run over people rather than run around them, to prove how tough I was, that it screwed me up and I ended up not playing as much for Lombardi as I thought I would."

And that's quite all right.

"Vince Lombardi had so much humanity, I was just lucky to have been around him," Kopay said. "He would've responded to Jason Collins just like Doc Rivers and these other coaches have. Lombardi would've really been in his corner, let me tell you."

Vince Lombardi Jr. could tell you a thing or three about that. A retired, 71-year-old motivational speaker, Lombardi is a dead ringer for his old man. One day a young Green Bay assistant named Tom Coughlin heard a knock on an office door at the Packers' facility, and looked up to find the very face of the iconic coach staring back at him through a small window.

Coughlin did a double take. It was Vince Lombardi Jr., not a ghost.

The son sounds like the father, too, especially when he speaks of treating everyone with dignity.

"My father had been discriminated against, and his faith was also a major part of his life and something that was reflected in the way he dealt with his players," Vince Jr. said. "With [Jason Collins] coming out, I think my father would've felt, 'I hope I've created an atmosphere in the locker room where this would not be an issue at all. And if you do have an issue, the problem will be yours because my locker room will tolerate nothing but acceptance.'"

Of course, the same was true of Lombardi's locker room in Green Bay, where he wouldn't let his Packers frequent any restaurant, bar or hotel that denied the same services to black players normally offered to white players. And when a black defensive end, Lionel Aldridge, revealed his plans to marry his white girlfriend, Lombardi blessed the union at a time when some around Green Bay, and around the league, were less than enthusiastic about it.

"I take a great deal of pride in the fact that, at a time when this was still cutting-edge stuff, my father was able to see through all of that and treated people as they deserved to be treated," Vince Jr. said. "He saw everyone as equals, and I think having a gay brother was a big factor in his approach."

As he has often seen on film stomping and shouting on the sideline, with spittle flying through his gap-toothed grimace, Lombardi represents the enduring symbol of NFL toughness and manliness. He was the winning coach in the Ice Bowl for a reason.

"He'd call you out in a variety of ways," Vince Jr. said. But even during his coaching prime, in less enlightened times, Vince Sr. would never run down a player with the kind of homophobic slurs still heard around some of today's playing fields.

"That's not one of the ways my father would've done it," Vince Jr. said.

His legacy should find room for his acceptance of all, right next to the titles in Titletown. Vince Lombardi would've turned 100 years old next month. Too bad he wasn't alive this week to congratulate Jason Collins.