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The Life

October 30, 2002
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ESPN The Magazine

My best games were the worst.

I would get a sack, force a fumble, stuff a play on the goal line. And hours later, in the middle of the night, I'd wake up sweating, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Maybe someone who knows saw that, I'd think to myself. Maybe they'll call the coach, or the owner, or the papers.

Sometimes I'd spend hours lying awake, praying for the anxiety attack to end, hoping my head would stop spinning on top of my banged-up body.

Esera Tuaolo
The pain of living in the closet almost drove Tuaolo to suicide.
By Monday night, the hurt and the panic would change to numb depression. That's when I'd start to drink. Not beer either. Tequila. Whiskey. Into the next day, shot after shot, hoping to get so drunk that after I finished crying alone in my house, I'd pass out and never wake up. Or maybe I'd go out and get loaded at a club, then drive home drunk and wonder if I should just turn the wheel and end it all that way.

The one thing I could never do was talk about it. Never. No one in the NFL wanted to hear it, and if anyone did hear it, that would be the end for me. I'd wind up cut or injured. I was sure that if a GM didn't get rid of me for the sake of team chemistry, another player would intentionally hurt me, to keep up the image.

Because the NFL is a supermacho culture.

It's a place for gladiators. And gladiators aren't supposed to be gay.

Now, after a life of living a lie, I am here to tell the truth. My truth. I am Esera Tuaolo, and for nine years I made my living as a gladiator in the NFL. I was a 280-pound nose tackle who could run a 40 in 4.8. I was voted the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10 in 1989 at Oregon State, and I made the NFL all-rookie team two years later with Green Bay. I played in the Super Bowl, played for five different teams, sang the national anthem at the Pro Bowl and earned the respect of players like Brett Favre and John Randle and Jack Del Rio.

I was all that. And I am a gay man.

I live with a partner, Mitchell, I have loved for six years, and we have beautiful 23-month-old twins -- Mitchell and Michele -- we've adopted and are raising together. Got a house in the suburbs (of Minneapolis) and a lawn and two dogs. I've recorded two pop albums. I'm just your typical gay Samoan ex-nose tackle who'd like to break into show biz.

I'm telling the world now. Make that worlds. I'm telling my story on the cover of The Advocate, to openly acknowledge to the gay community that I want to be a proud part of it. And I'm telling my story in ESPN The Magazine, to reach out to the sports world I left when I retired two years ago and let it know that this is who I am.

I'm not special. I'm no better or worse than any other gay person who has decided to acknowledge the truth. But because I was in the NFL, I have an opportunity to be heard. And now I want to use it.

It's scary. I'm not sure how people will react, especially the people I competed with and against on the football field. But it was scarier wearing a mask. I want to show people how much happier I am now that I've come out, that I'm free. A huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Maybe some kid, athlete or not, will read about me and learn he or she isn't alone. Maybe some fan, gay or not, will read about me and learn something new -- that gay people come from all walks of life, all types of backgrounds, all kinds of jobs. Some of them even play sports at the highest level.


I have always known what I was, even before I knew what gay meant. I grew up poor on a banana plantation in Hawaii, the youngest of eight kids. We went to Pentecostal church with my mother, and that's where I learned how to sing. But from a young age, I knew that I was different. I was attracted to men.

I also liked sports, and I was good. I owe my mom everything. She saw my talent and arranged for me to move to California with an aunt so I could get more exposure. College recruiters noticed me at Don Lugo High in Chino, and in 1987 I chose Oregon State over Arizona, Arizona State and San Diego State.

I loved it at OSU, even though we got crushed all the time. During my college years, I had my first experiences with gay life -- some one-night stands with men -- but I never had any kind of relationship.

I got my first hint of NFL life my junior year, when we played Nebraska. As usual, they had a big, physical, quick offensive line, but I had a great game. Scouts began showing up in Corvallis, and after my senior season, 1990, Green Bay took me in the second round with the 35th pick -- the highest an OSU defensive player had ever been taken.

I started all 16 games that season and made the NFL all-rookie team. With the Packers, I became friends with this unknown QB who had the greatest arm I'd ever seen. He was battling Dan Majkowski for the starting job, and one time he came off the field after throwing a pass, and I pulled him over and said, "Dude, you're gonna be the man here." It was Brett Favre. Brett and I hung out a lot; he even invited me to his house in Mississippi and mentioned me in his book. That's the great thing about this game -- I can tell my kids I played with some of the best who ever stepped on that field. But I could never tell Brett, or anyone else, who I really was.

After Mike Holmgren took over as coach my second year, I got released by Green Bay and picked up by the Vikings. By then I'd already begun living my double life. I was so afraid of people finding out I was gay that I never risked being caught during the season. I never went to gay clubs, never tried to meet men on the road. I did the total opposite, going to strip clubs or making a big show of leaving dance clubs with hot women on nights out with teammates. A few times I'd sleep with the women, but usually I'd just take them home and pass out. The important thing was to be seen with the woman, to throw the dogs off the scent. I only expressed my true self in the off-season, when I'd go to Hawaii to be with friends and -- how do I put this? -- find comfort.

  "I'm just your typical gay Samoan ex-nose tackle who would like to break into show business." 

My years with the Vikings, from '92 to '96, were some of my most productive on the field. I played alongside some great players. Jack Del Rio, the linebacker, always appreciated the little things I did, like tying up the guard so he could be free to make the tackle. Henry Thomas was my mentor, showing me the tricks of the trade in defensive line play. John Randle is one of the best players I ever lined up with, and I have some great stories about things he did on the field -- but you couldn't print them. On the outside, it looked like I was always having a good time. "Mr. Aloha," they called me. "Look at Esera," they'd say. "He just did his 20th shot." They didn't see me those days at home, alone, feeling trapped by the game, wishing I didn't play football. Or wishing I was dead.

The only thing that kept me going, on and off the field, was my mom. The only joy I got from football was using it to give something back to her. I could never pay her back for all she did for me. She raised eight kids, and after my father died when I was 10, she had to do it alone. We had no money, but she never let us feel that way. She loved us unconditionally and worked herself to the bone on the farm, harvesting and selling bananas to keep us going. One of the best days of my life was when I bought her a wedding ring. She and my dad could never afford one. Whenever I thought of killing myself, I'd think of her. No matter how low I got, I just couldn't do that to her.


My mom saved my life. And in 1996 a book changed my life. Which is hilarious, because I hadn't read a book since college, and even then it was usually the Cliff's Notes. A friend from Hawaii gave me a copy of The David Kopay Story, about the first NFL player to come out as a homosexual. I started it and didn't put it down until I finished, with tears streaming down my face. I had never heard of him, and couldn't believe it. This was me!

Dave played running back in the NFL for nine seasons in the '60s and '70s, and hid being gay, just like I was doing. He came out a few years after he retired in 1972, and his book helped me to quit hating myself. A few weeks ago, I met Dave for the first time, at a party. It was emotional, man. "For 30 years, I've been alone," he told me. Between the tears, we had so many stories. We were from different eras, but here we were, two NFL lifers talking about the great players we saw, the times we had on the field -- talking about the game. Two players who were also gay, and who came out. Incredible.

The funny thing is, the NFL seemed almost more open toward gays in Kopay's era than in mine. Dave knew which teammates were gay, and knew about other players in the league. He even had relationships with some of them.

My world was different. I know people are going to ask me how many other gay players are out there, or if there's a secret handshake or something. I can honestly say that in nine years in the NFL, my "gaydar" never went off. Nobody ever made a pass at me, or asked me if I was gay, or even hinted about it. I know I can't be the only one, and if gays are 10% of the population, there should be four or five gay players on every team. But other than myself, I don't know of a single one.


Dave's story inspired me so much, I prayed to God and told Him I would keep trying, that I wouldn't give up living. Not long after, I met and fell in love with Mitchell. It was my first real relationship, and I know it's a strong one, because he had to put up with so much. Over the next four years, I got released from the Vikings and moved on to Jacksonville, then to Atlanta and finally to Carolina. When we'd see each other, I was dealing with so much -- from football, to being in a strange city, to the frustration of hiding I was gay -- that I'd take it out on him. But he was always there.

Although he was out, he kept our relationship secret for me. We'd be in a grocery store in Eden Prairie, where we live, and I'd see an old Vikings teammate; Mitchell would duck into the next aisle and I'd keep going. We'd pretend we didn't know each other.

It was only part of my act. I am still deeply religious, and one of the things that's helped me in my coming-out process has been a prayer chain of my family and friends. But once, I was invited to a Bible study session by some teammates on a team I won't name, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. They spent the whole time ripping homosexuality. The leader told us how he was making sure his kids wouldn't turn out gay. It was hateful. And I was sitting there thinking, Are they really saying this? Because my God is a God of love, and forgiveness, and understanding -- and I answer only to Him. I mean, there's a New Testament, and Jesus died not just for you but for all of us. How can you judge the speck in my eye when you've got a tree growing out of yours?


There were other lies, and as time went on it got harder and harder to keep them up. Mitchell's family owns a business called Spalon Montage. It's a day spa that a lot of the Viking wives go to, and they would hear stories about Mitchell and me from the staff, and rumors started to get around. I was almost afraid to go to the memorial service for Korey Stringer last year. I worried about somebody confronting me. But I went, and I'm glad I did. Korey was such a great, funny guy; I wanted to pay my respects.

Esera Tuaolo
Today, Tuaolo is starting over with his family.
Last summer, though, I finally couldn't take it anymore. Mitchell and I joined his parents on a raft tour of the Grand Canyon. Mitchell's family has been a huge support for us, and they know, just like my family does. (I think a couple of cute grandchildren makes the adjustment easier for everybody.) On the trip, we were with a group of about 20 other people, and someone recognized my name and got excited about floating the canyon with an NFL player. I don't know why, but Mitchell and I just fell into the old act, denying who we were. Like it was automatic. But this time Mitchell's parents were watching. So that's when I decided I was through with the lies. If I do any more acting, it'll have to be on the big screen.


A little over a year ago, as I was weighing my decision, I got a call from an ex-teammate, Craig Sauer, whom I played with on the Super Bowl team in Atlanta. Craig is a Christian, and one of the funniest guys I know. But he was real serious when he called. "I need to ask you something," he said. "I'm hearing rumors, and if the rumors aren't true, I want to be able to answer them." He asked right out, "Are you gay?" And I hesitated. But before I could really think it through, I just said, "Yes."

We had a great conversation after that. I began to feel like I didn't have to run anymore. He said, "I'm not going to lose a friend over this."

It's been like that ever since I made my decision to come out. I've only had support. People in the gay community got wind of it, and out of the blue Rosie O'Donnell called me on my cell phone. "You are not alone," she said. "There are so many people out there who will love you, and you already have your family." It was exactly what I needed at that time. Because like I said, I'm scared. I know this can do a heap of good, but it's all a little overwhelming.


People ask me if I think a superstar football player will ever come out during his playing days. I hate to be negative, but I don't see it happening. The league just isn't ready for it, and neither are the fans. The NFL doesn't even give benefits to same-sex partners. I'd like to be wrong. It would be cool if we could just set a date, and on that day all the players, all the owners, all the coaches, all the owners' and coaches' kids, the fans -- all the people involved in football who are gay -- could just come out all at the same time. Or maybe David Geffen will buy a team, and I can be the coach. I won't hold my breath. All I can do is live in truth. I am doing that now, and I can't tell you how happy I am.

I loved playing football, and I loved being among the best in the world, but I don't miss it. I have my memories and my war stories. I have a cranky Achilles and a bum shoulder and a back that only lets me roll out of bed some mornings. I have an NFC championship ring I won with Atlanta that I wear for special occasions. And I have the No.95 Falcons uniform that I wore in the Super Bowl. I keep it in a box, safely put away, as I move on with whatever God has in store for me next.

From now on, that uniform is the only part of me that stays in a closet.

This story appears in the November 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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