Lives of three U of I stars unfolded very differently

An All-American who played in the NFL. A newspaper editor who advised a governor. A student body president who became a U.S. senator. All were U of I stars haunted by whispers. The whispers ruined two of them.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comDecember 30, 2007 

From left to right, Ray McDonald, Chris Smith and Larry Craig

Three men who came of age at the University of Idaho in the 1960s looked ready to take on the world.

The first was a two-time All-America running back and first-round NFL draft pick. The second edited the college newspaper and was a gifted speechwriter. The third was student body president and a nationally honored orator who aspired to high office.

Beyond talent and ambition, they had this in common: They were haunted by the worst slur that could be aimed at a man of their time - that they were homosexual.

Vandal fullback Ray McDonald led the nation in rushing in 1966 and was the first pick of the Washington Redskins in 1967. But he didn't survive taunting by teammates and coaches, or an allegation he had sex with a man in public. He left the NFL after two seasons. McDonald shielded his family from the truth until his final days. He died at 48, of complications related to AIDS.

Argonaut editor Chris Smith became a top campaign aide and Gov. John Evans' speechwriter. But Smith's decision to come out as a gay man in the 1970s cost him his job and sent him on a long downward slide. He died broke and alone at 47, also of AIDS-related causes.

Student body president Larry Craig spent a career denying he was gay and reached his goal, the U.S. Senate. But at 62, a policeman's allegation that Craig solicited sex in an airport men's restroom forced him to retire. Craig will never again face the voters he's spent 25 years assuring he is straight.

McDonald, Smith and Craig chose different paths through the thicket of hostility to homosexuality. Their stories illustrate where we came from as a culture, and, perhaps, suggest a lesson about where we're headed. Finally, understanding what Larry Craig saw happen to his contemporaries helps explain how he responded to any hint he was gay.

'Thunder' Ray starred at Caldwell, then U of I

Ray McDonald was born May 7, 1944, in McKinney, Texas, a segregated suburb of Dallas. In 1961, he followed his football coach to Caldwell High School in Idaho. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he played two years at Caldwell, earning All-America honors. He also was state high hurdles champion, ran the 100 in 10 seconds and was center on the basketball team. He played piano and sang in the choir.

McDonald was the lone black player at Caldwell, but senior quarterback Dyke Nally always had his back. Sometimes, when he heard a defender hurl racist catcalls, Nally would change the play at the line of scrimmage. He'd hand McDonald the ball and watch the big fullback rumble over the mouthy opponent.

But McDonald remained humble. "I couldn't have made all the honors without the help of you and the ball club," McDonald wrote in a full-page entry in Nally's 1963 yearbook.

"People always compared Ray to Jimmy Brown, who also wore No. 32," said Nally, who remained friends with McDonald until his death in 1993. "He was so unbelievable."

Nally went on to play football at Boise Junior College with a guy named Butch Otter, now Idaho's governor and Nally's boss in his job as superintendent of the State Liquor Dispensary.

McDonald became a national star, leading the Vandals in rushing and scoring in 1964, 1965 and 1966. His 1,329 yards led the nation in 1966, and he still holds the U of I career record for rushing per game, 133 yards.

In 1967, McDonald signed a three-year $100,000 guaranteed contract with the Redskins. He bought his mother a three-bedroom brick home in Texas, replacing a three-room shotgun house.

Returning to Moscow in 1968 to complete his degree and attend graduation, he drove the gift he gave himself, a turquoise Oldsmobile Toronado with a white convertible top.

Big men on campus with big ambitions

Like McDonald, Craig entered the U of I in 1963, and made his name as a top student, debater and orator who became national vice president of the Future Farmers of America.

Chris Smith was born March 10, 1948, in Nampa. He arrived in Moscow in 1966 from Borah High School in Boise. He and Craig were fraternity men. Smith organized a new chapter of Alpha Kappa Lambda and became president. Craig was president of Delta Chi.

Craig aspired to elected office, while Smith sought to advise the powerful. Drawn to politics, they built a friendship. "It was kind of an odd one," Craig said in May. "It was a bit of a Mutt-and-Jeff. He was a liberal Democrat, I was a conservative Republican. He ran the newspaper at the University of Idaho. We oftentimes staged debates and brought kids together."

At The Argonaut, Smith chronicled Craig's rise in student government. Smith was editor in 1967-68, while Craig was student body president.

Craig was straight-laced and kicked drug users out of Delta Chi. Smith was a serious drinker, with protruding ears and a deep voice. He wore tweed, smoked a pipe and affected a pompous tone.

When Smith turned 21 and arrived at Moscow's bars to claim his free drinks, bartenders were stunned: They'd been serving him since he was a freshman.

"At 18, Chris looked 30," said Marty Peterson, who worked on The Argonaut with Smith and became a lifelong friend. Peterson went on to counsel governors and university presidents; he now works for U of I President Tim White.

Ira Eick, who later commanded a Navy frigate, was Smith's roommate in 1968-69. Smith was voluble and ambitious, Eick said. "He had a sense of himself that he was destined for greatness. He was a very talented and bright guy, but he also was a guy struggling with who he was and where he was going."

In 1970, Smith was press secretary to Tony Park, helping the Democrat win the race for Idaho attorney general.

Despite Smith's professional success, Park recalls Smith's anguish over his private life. "He wasn't a terribly attractive guy. He was a little troll of a guy, a little gnome. And he had this deep, gravelly voice and pontifical tone. It really tickled me the way he was. But he was always talking to me about relationships with women that had been unsuccessful."

Smith also worked on Park's losing 1972 U.S. Senate campaign, for Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus in 1973 and as communications director for Democrat Stan Kress' 1976 and 1978 congressional races.

His most important professional relationship was with John Evans. Smith helped the Democrat win the race for lieutenant governor in 1974, the same year Craig won the first of three two-year terms in the Idaho Senate. In 1977, Evans became governor and hired Smith as his speechwriter.

McDonald was No. 1 pick for Redskins in 1967

The Washington Redskins made Ray McDonald their No. 1 draft choice in 1967, but not before investigating rumors McDonald was gay. Grown to 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds, McDonald ran with punishing power and speed, and Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams wanted him on his team.

In his second NFL game, on Sept. 24, 1967, McDonald led the Redskins to their first win of the year, scoring three touchdowns and gaining 98 yards. That would mark the peak of his NFL career.

Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen hazed McDonald, calling him "fag" and obscene names. Details of McDonald's struggle with the Redskins appear in the best-selling memoir of NFL player David Kopay, America's first openly gay team athlete.

McDonald played in 12 of the 14 games his rookie year, but just one in 1968. In 1969 Vince Lombardi moved from Green Bay to coach the Redskins. Lombardi, who had a gay brother, took an interest in McDonald and ordered his staff to nurture him at training camp.

"I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him - and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground," Lombardi said, according to biographer David Maraniss.

The Redskins cut McDonald in 1969 for complex reasons. One factor was a nagging Achilles tendon injury first suffered as a U of I sophomore. Another was McDonald's resistance to Lombardi's ideas about running the football. And, writes Kopay, there was McDonald's homosexuality - "if for no other reason than the friction it caused between him and the star quarterback Sonny Jurgensen."

Jurgensen and the Redskins did not respond to requests from the Idaho Statesman for comment on this story.

Another factor emerged much later. A 2000 report by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said McDonald had been "arrested for having sex with another man in a public park, an incident that cost him his job with the Redskins."

Kopay, who joined the Redskins shortly after McDonald was cut, confirmed that account. He said three team sources told him McDonald was caught by police having sex in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C.

"That, I think, broke the camel's back," Kopay told the Statesman.

In the 1960s, NFL didn't accept gay football players

U of I star and NFL legend Jerry Kramer also heard about McDonald having "some kind of scrape with the law" regarding gay sex.

Being gay in the NFL was unacceptable, said Kramer, who now lives in Eagle. "A homosexual at that time was a 'fag' or a 'queer' and a whole variety of names that were all derogatory and all meant to be. It would have been awfully hard for him to play at a high level without a lot of grief."

Wayne Walker attended Boise High School before starring at the U of I with Kramer. He now lives in Boise after a Pro Bowl career with the Detroit Lions.

In 1967, Walker said, the Lions were interested in drafting McDonald. The Lions' top scout asked Walker to make inquiries about McDonald's private life. Walker didn't find anything. But the Lions picked running back Mel Farr of UCLA instead, in part because of suspicions about McDonald, Walker said.

"You've got to realize that at that time that was a real stamp - think about it then in the locker room," said Walker.

Joe McCollum, who spent four years as McDonald's U of I lockermate in track and football, never paid attention to the "rumors and snickers."

"It was all in the background, but I didn't care," said McCollum, now a Boise lawyer. "For others, it was something they whispered about."

When McDonald left the NFL, word trickled back that locker-room gossip was a factor. "I really felt bad when I heard that he had the problems later on when he got to the pros," McCollum said.

McDonald had four brothers and two sisters. Of the five boys, four played college ball. One brother, Ed, played for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.

Ed McDonald recalls being razzed once by an older player at North Texas State about his brother being gay. "But I really didn't know what he was talking about. Ray kept me in the dark for a long, long time."

Ed McDonald now says he's convinced homophobia shortened Ray's career. "You've got this guy who's gay or perceived to be gay, and he's in your locker room, over in the corner. Do you pat him on the back or do you pat him on the butt? And then if you do that, what becomes of it? No one wanted him on the team."

Ray told his older brother, Clifford, he'd been ostracized but didn't reveal why. "He just said he couldn't play on the team," Clifford McDonald said. "And he couldn't play for nobody else because he had been blackballed or something of that nature."

After his release, McDonald dabbled in semi-pro ball, but then returned to Texas and worked a series of low-paying jobs. In the mid-1970s, Ray had a boyfriend in Texas, according to Clifford McDonald's wife, Phyllis. That ended when the boyfriend tossed boiling water at Ray, landing him in the hospital. He met a nurse there, and they wound up living together for two years.

"He dated girls, too," said Phyllis McDonald. "Bisexual and gay, to me it's the same thing."

Coming out in the 1970s

Chris Smith finally quit pretending to prefer women.

In the mid-1970s, Tony Park was at Bernie's, a Pocatello bar that watered journalists, politicians, students, railroad workers. And gays.

Park saw Smith, his former press secretary, with another man. "They both told me they were gay and that was their lifestyle now," recalled Park. "I was just stunned."

In March 1977, Smith took a job in Gov. Evans' energy office. A month later, he became a special assistant to Evans, writing speeches and press releases. All was well, until word of his homosexuality reached the governor. As Evans was campaigning for the governor's office in August 1978, Smith was pushed out.

"When it was exposed that Chris was a gay he didn't last long in the office," Evans told the Statesman recently. "He left. He left. As soon as we found out, I think indirectly there was some discussion with him that it wasn't a wise position for him to be in, next to the governor."

Evans downplayed Smith's contributions. "I'm not sure what his role was. It wasn't a very responsible position." Evans said Smith was with him for "just a matter of months" and called Smith a "foot soldier out there."

In fact, Smith worked for Evans for 17 months before he was forced to resign. The 1978 election safely won, Smith was rehired in Evans' energy office.

"Chris continued to write speeches even though he wasn't on the payroll in the governor's office," said Wayne Hart, Smith's supervisor. Hart later became Smith's business partner at the Idaho World newspaper in Idaho City.

The snubs finally got to Smith. "Chris could not talk about his sexuality at the Statehouse," said Judy Cross, who cared for him in the final months of his life. "That was an extreme hurt."

Craig's panic in 1982 fueled decades of rumors

Smith left his state job in 1980, as Larry Craig made his first run for the U.S. House. In 1981, as Craig entered Congress, Smith moved to Portland, a more gay-friendly town.

In July 1982, Craig made what he now calls the mistake of a frightened freshman congressman. Before his name had been mentioned publicly, Craig pre-emptively denied involvement in a scandal alleging sex between members of Congress and underage male pages.

Craig has been hounded by rumors he's gay ever since. "I've lived with that all of my political life," Craig told NBC's Matt Lauer in October.

Craig was re-elected in November 1982, in what proved to be his closest race ever. In July 1983, he married Suzanne Thompson and later adopted her three children.

Smith was working for the speaker of the Oregon House at the time. In 1984, he began publishing the Oregon Gay News. Smith entered a long-term relationship with another Idaho exile. But his partner contracted AIDS and later turned a shotgun on himself.

In November 1988, Craig won his fifth House term and Smith returned to Boise to care for his dying father. Smith decided to finally tell his family he was gay. The result: Sam Smith set out separate flatware for Chris to eat with.

"Dad's first comment to me was, 'I'm about to rewrite the will,'" recalled Smith's younger brother, David. "And I said, 'No, don't. Don't create friction between Chris and me.'"

When Sam Smith died in October 1989, he left his sons about $200,000, split evenly.

Shielding Craig at the Idaho World

In 1990, Craig was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Smith and Wayne Hart bought the Idaho World. Mindful of rumors Craig was gay, Hart pressed Smith to explain why he gave Craig softball coverage. "He said, 'Well, we're good friends, and I have a special relationship with him.'"

Hart said Smith refused to say directly whether Craig was gay. Smith also defended Craig against complaints he was a hypocrite because of his anti-gay politics. "He expressed frustration, but understanding, about Craig's public positions about homosexuality."

Craig emphatically denied rumors that he and Smith were sexually intimate. "Never!" he told the Statesman in May. "I'll say no more than if we stood side-by-side you'd look at it and say, 'That's a very unlikely couple.' And I really mean that, without in any way impugning the person."

Exile from home, family: 'He couldn't be himself'

Ray McDonald was rebuilding his life after football. He returned to Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s and studied music at the University of District of Columbia and Howard University. He got a job as choir director at a junior high school.

But in 1986, his lover stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife, puncturing his lung, according to Clifford McDonald. "It nearly killed him. If he hadn't had the strength to stumble out of house and fall on the curb, he wouldn't have made it."

McDonald spent four months in the hospital and rehab, much of it in Texas with his mother, Bessie. During his treatment, doctors learned McDonald was HIV positive. He returned to Washington, in part to spare his family embarrassment.

"It was sad," said Phyllis McDonald, Ray's sister-in-law. "He couldn't be himself and be accepted. I think things would have been totally different for him if he could have been open. It would have been better for him and the family. He wouldn't have had to move away."

In his final years in Washington, McDonald taught and worked on a doctorate. He went home for Christmases, discreetly visiting gay bars and clubs in Dallas while his brothers hit straight hangouts.

He never told brothers Ed or Clifford he was gay, or introduced his lovers. They never asked. But when he returned to Texas in late 1992 to die, he poured out his heart to Clifford's wife, Phyllis, during an hourlong drive from the airport to McKinney.

"He just opened up and started talking about gay pride," she recalled. "I totally agreed with him that gays should have civil rights. It caught me off guard, but I just listened and made him feel comfortable. I didn't ask questions."

McDonald's health declined swiftly, said brother Clifford. "He deteriorated down to nothing, from 250, 260 pounds down to a skeleton of 110 at his passing, maybe 120."

McDonald asked that his feeding tube be removed. He died May 4, 1993. His obituary says he died of sickle cell anemia. The truth, said Clifford McDonald, is Ray died of complications related to the AIDS virus.

A lonely funeral

Chris Smith also had been diagnosed as HIV positive. By 1994, he'd spent his $100,000 inheritance and was suffering from AIDS-related dementia. "He drank to calm the pain," said Hart, his business partner.

Smith's final days were far removed from the halls of power he'd aspired to at the U of I. Every day meant a fifth of cheap booze and three packs of cigarettes. He would soil himself and not know it.

Smith moved to Boise to live with Judy Cross and her husband, Bob. Smith died March 12, 1995. When he was buried in Idaho City, there were three mourners: Smith's brother and the Crosses.

Judy Cross understands why some gays remain closeted for career reasons. "But that's what Chris found he could not, in good conscience, do."

Generational shift toward gays in public life

At the end of his life, Ray McDonald finally voiced bitterness about the homophobia he faced in the NFL, said Phyllis McDonald. "He was not happy about it."

Park, the former attorney general who gave Chris Smith his first break in politics, laments that sexual orientation has disqualified talented people from high office.

"It's a commentary on the times that our social structure and our political structure require that somebody like that must keep it a deep, dark secret," said Park. "Such a system encourages that kind of hypocrisy."

But former Gov. Evans said he didn't do anything wrong in forcing Smith out in 1978 and says Idaho still isn't ready for homosexuals getting too close to power. "Even though you have to recognize these gays are out there, if I was in that situation again I would not grant that privilege of working on staff in a responsible position. Would Butch Otter be advised to have gays directly on his staff? I don't think so."

Jim McClure sees things differently. The Republican served 24 years in Congress and was Craig's predecessor in the U.S. Senate.

When Craig entered public life, McClure said, it would have been "absolutely impossible" for an openly gay person to aspire to high office.

But times are changing, McClure said, citing his own grandchildren. "It's not an issue for them," he said.

McClure disapproves of homosexuality but has become convinced that "there's a lot more of it than I thought and, therefore, there is a civil rights issue when a large group of citizens in our country have a viewpoint that's different than mine."

Can McClure foresee a day when Idahoans elect an openly gay candidate to Congress?

"Not yet," McClure said. "But just give it another 10 years, then ask that question."

State Rep. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, believes that day is near. "I think it could be done now," said LeFavour, Idaho's first openly gay lawmaker.

LeFavour considered running for Craig's seat herself in 2008. Last month she commissioned a poll to test her prospects. She decided not to run, but not because she believed being gay was a significant handicap.

Sixty-five percent of Idaho voters said they were "much more upset that (Craig) was dishonest with us" than they were that he may be gay. A plurality, 44 percent, said "homosexuality should be discouraged," while 38 percent said it should be accepted.

Said LeFavour: "I think we're rapidly approaching the point where fears that people have long had about having a gay person represent them are going to be outweighed by the advantages other people see in knowing they've got someone to represent them who knows what it's like to face the challenges of being different."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438

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