Vince Lombardi

This seems like a revelation to just about everyone, but if you’ve read anything about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, it shouldn’t be. He supported gay players.

The story has come out in the wake of Jason Collins’ announcement and LeRoy Butler’s support — the iconic, hard-nosed football coach from another era not tolerating discrimination based on sexual preference.

Before his time, perhaps, but if you know anything about Lombardi, it’s that he didn’t tolerate discrimination of any kind. He created an environment in small-town Green Bay where black players were accepted at a time when they weren’t on many other teams in the NFL. He treated everyone the same and demanded the same from his employees.

“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.”

People have suggested the reason Lombardi was so progressive — other than his own experiences with discrimination — was because his brother Harold was gay.

“Through Hal and in what I’d read and seen, Vin was always fair in how he treated everybody,” said Richard Nicholls, Harold’s longtime partner. “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.”

“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 Lombardi Jr. said. “He saw everyone as equals, and I think having a gay brother was a big factor in his approach.”

There weren’t a lot of gay players in Lombardi’s day and there obviously weren’t any who were openly gay, but there were a few.

Dave Kopay was a running back on the Washington Redskins team Lombardi coached. He didn’t come out until 1975, but had a relationship with teammate Jerry Smith while playing under Lombardi. Another running back on that team, Ray McDonald, was known to be gay as well. In the book “When Pride Still Mattered,” Lombardi is quoted as telling the assistant coaches tasked to work with McDonald, “And if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood,” Lombardi says, “you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.”

In some ways, Lombardi’s legend continues to grow. If you want to read Ian O’Connor’s story, go here.

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