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Former NFL player talks of life as a closeted gay man

Esera Tuaolo told a Lehigh audience about his double life in the NFL.

Even as a young boy, former NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo knew he was different from the other children.

“When I was growing up, I liked playing with dolls,” he told a recent audience of nearly 100 students in Packard Auditorium. “I wanted that Easy-Bake Oven I couldn’t have.”

The youngest of eight children, growing up dirt-poor on a banana farm in Hawaii, Tuaolo said he made the conscious decision to hide his feelings after watching an effeminate young boy brutalized on the playground.

“I saw a little bit of myself in that child,” Tuaolo said. “I heard the names they were calling him and I knew what they meant. And I saw the hate and rage in the way these kids were treating that little boy. And that was the day I took that little boy inside me, threw him in the closet, and started living that double life.”

Tuaolo grew up to be successful beyond his wildest boyhood dreams. A football star in high school and at Oregon State, the hulking, 300-pounder was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1991, and played for nearly 10 years in the NFL.

He even, he said, had the “bling” to prove it, holding out his right hand to show a massive, diamond-encrusted gold ring that he earned playing for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.

“But this, this is the only ring that matters to me,” he said, pointing to the ring he wears in honor of his committed relationship with Mitchell Werley, a man he met while Tuaolo was still playing professional football. The couple adopted twin daughters and recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.

“Ten years. That’s really like 70 years, that’s like dog years, man,” Tuaolo said. “When you have two queens in the castle, it’s not easy.”

“It felt like getting out of jail”

Tuaolo played in Super Bowl XXXIII with the Atlanta Falcons.

Tuaolo came to Lehigh in mid-April to share his personal story, and hopefully, he said, help others avoid the pain he experienced as a closeted gay man for the first three decades of his life. Despite a more accepting attitude on the part of society, he said there is little room for candor about homosexuality in the world of professional sports.

“In the NFL, you can beat your wife or your girlfriend, you can be on drugs, you can be thrown into jail and you’ll be welcomed back,” he said. “But a gay man….forget it. Not only would you probably lose your job, but someone would hurt you. In the NFL, the worst thing you could do to someone was start a rumor he was gay.”

Tuaolo attempted to hide in the shadows his rookie year, terrified that any fame would prompt someone from his past to out him. But his competitive nature came out on the field, and the young athlete became the object of almost instant attention for his ability to make big plays.

“I remember my first game, playing as a rookie against the Philadelphia Eagles,” he said. “I sacked Randall Cunningham, who was considered untouchable. I grabbed him, pulled him down and did my sack dance. Then I heard my name echo throughout the stadium and almost blacked out. On the way home, I drank two bottles of tequila, I was so nervous. I was fearful someone would notice me, fearful that I’d shine too much.”

His sense of constant dread accompanied him throughout his NFL career, despite his efforts to make a show of his success with women. Any accolade he earned set up a similar reaction.

“I had a constant fear of losing everything,” he said. “I would wake up every single morning and pray to God, saying, ‘Please don’t let me me slip up.’ And to this day, I regret not playing up to my full potential.”

It was only after he left the game, and was so depressed by the strain of living a double life that he was on the brink of suicide, that Tuaolo found the courage “to step into my truth.”

“It was an incredible feeling to get all the lies, the hurt and the anxiety off my back,” he said. “Freedom, that’s what it felt like. It felt like getting out of jail.”

That realization, he said, is why he travels around the country, to lecture to college students and, in particular, athletes.

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d come out when I was still playing,” he said. “I think about the time I lived in fear, all the joy I missed out on, and I want the younger generation to know that it’s okay. And I want all of you to please, treat your brothers and sisters like human beings. That’s all. It’s that simple.”

His lecture was presented by the LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Ally) Programs and Outreach. Following his talk, he autographed copies of his book, Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Monday, April 23, 2007

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