Esera Tuaolo struck fear into the hearts of every opposing National Football League quarterback. As one of the best defensive nose tackles in the NFL, it was his job to attack the quarterbacks, and he was excellent at his job.
Looking at him, it is hard to imagine that he could ever fear anyone. At 6 foot three inches tall and a solid, 260-pound wall of muscle, he is quick, aggressive and athletic. But Tuaolo was scared in the NFL – all the time because Esera Tuaolo is gay. Throughout his successful nine year NFL career that culminated in a trip to Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII, he was terrified that if someone discovered his secret he would lose everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
Tuaolo announced he is gay in 2002, only after he retired as a player. His former Green Bay Packers teammate Sterling Sharpe, an all-Pro receiver, confirmed Tuaolo’s worst fears in an interview with HBO’s Real Sports. Bryant Gumbel asked him how he felt about Tuaolo being gay. Sharpe said, “If the guys found out another player was gay on Monday, he wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday,” essentially admitting that a gay player would be gay-bashed by his own teammates. “Question my heart, question my ability, but do not question my machoism,” said Sharpe.
“Sterling just confirmed what I already knew,” said Tuaolo in a telephone interview with BTL from his home in Minneapolis. “We were friends, and I don’t hold it against him. He was just saying it like it is.”
Tuaolo’s new book, “Alone in the Trenches,” chronicles his remarkable rise to the pinnacle of professional sports, all the while hiding his true identity. The first chapter, titled “The Torments of Success,” captures how he struggled with his extraordinary fame and his fear of being found out as a gay man.
“It’s so hard,” said Tuaolo. “We live in a society that is so unaccepting of gays in sports. I look back, now that I’m out, and I see game films and I say, ‘Wow! I was an incredible athlete.’ It just got more difficult, the more I was in the limelight, the more I would pull back. I was afraid that someone would recognize me and it really took a toll on me. Working in such a homophobic environment, I realized it could all be taken away. All the success, my career – everything. And it wasn’t just me who would suffer. I support not only me, but my mom, and my sisters, too.”
One of Tuaolo’s toughest moments came right after the 1999 Super Bowl in which the Denver Broncos defeated his team, the Atlanta Falcons. The team bus returned to their hotel and all the players’ wives and families were out waiting for them. Tuaolo’s life-partner, Mitchell Wherley, was there, but they did not dare approach each other in public.
“It hurt,” said Tuaolo. “Seeing the smiles of the other families, how the players held their wives and being able to be free to be themselves. Here we were in the closet, running in the shadows. Coming off that bus, and seeing all the wives and families come up and hug the players, because that was what we needed. We had just lost a game we should have won. The Super Bowl – something that important, you can’t get that back.”
But since he has come out as a gay professional athlete, he is experiencing a new freedom and joy that he could only dream of before. Wherley and Tuaolo live together with their two adopted children, five-year-old Samoan twins named Mitchell, Jr. and Michelle.
“They are only five, but they are big, like almost eight year olds, and they have a lot of attitude,” said Tuaolo who was able to adopt with Wherley as co-parents under Minnesota law. “To have kids who call us Big Daddy and Little Daddy, it just melts you. I have been waiting for it my whole life and it’s here. I can’t wait to have a bunch of grandkids so I can tell them my ‘war stories.'”
Faith and Family
Family and faith mean everything to Tuaolo. He was born on the island of Oahu, Hawaii as the youngest of eight children in an immigrant Samoan family. They were desperately poor, living in a dirt floor hut on the family’s small banana farm. Esera ran freely on the beautiful sandy beaches of Hawaii, and as he grew bigger and stronger he struggled with his awakening sexuality. He felt it was a burden and a curse. He is a devout Christian and turned to prayer, but at night he would lie awake terrified that God was going to cast him into a lake of fire because of his curse.
“Later in life I came to realize that God loves me the way I am – as a gay man,” said Tuaolo. “I am a Christian, and a Christian has respect for other people.”
Tuaolo said he has lots of issues with NFL players who wear their religiosity on their sleeves, and who even use it to segregate their teams into Christian cliques. Especially when he played for a year with the Jacksonville Jaguars he was turned off by the pompous attitudes of some players in the Champions for Christ group.
“Christianity does not turn me off. The love of God doesn’t turn me off,” said Tuaolo. “The CFC segregation didn’t work for me. I went to a Bible study, and ‘lo and behold’ it was about homosexuality. I was thinking, ‘Is this a sign?’ That was what really turned me off.”
So which team does Tuaolo think will win the Super Bowl in Detroit this weekend?
“I’m rooting for the Steelers,” he said. “[Steelers’ Strong Safety] Troy Polamalu is a distant cousin, so I have to root for his team. We played together as kids. He’s my family, and family sticks together.”
Tuaolo has a burgeoning new career in singing and acting, but he hasn’t ruled out a possible return to the gridiron.
“I’m 36 years old and in the best shape of my life. In fact I’m even better than when I retired, because I’m not banged up. If I got an offer from a Canadian team – maybe. I would sure consider it,” said Tuaolo, who would love to be able to play football in front of his kids.
“The best part of being an ex-NFL star is that my son looks at my jerseys and says, ‘I wanna be a football player like Big Daddy.’ I would definitely play for a few seasons for sure.”
Who knows – Tuaolo may yet become the first out, gay, professional football player in action. If Mitchell, Jr. has any say in the matter, it could happen.