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Ex-Player: NFL Not Ready for Gays

October 31, 2002

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NEW YORK (AP) _ On too many desperate nights in a life of lies as a gay player in the NFL, Esera Tuaolo drank himself to sleep, hoping he wouldn’t wake up.

There were times when he sped away from nightclubs, hating the pretense _ the smiling Mr. Aloha, hugging and kissing the ladies in a grand show _ thinking as he drove crazily at 100 mph that he could end his torment so easily just by turning the wheel.

Those days are over now that he’s come out, telling his story, he says, ``so I can live in my truth.″

The mammoth, 34-year-old former defensive lineman wants people to accept him for who is and to accept his family in the suburbs of Minneapolis _ partner Mitchell Wherley and their 23-month-old twins, Mitchell and Michele, adopted from Tuaolo’s native Samoa when they were a week old.

``It’s a quest for happiness,″ he said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. ``I want my children to know when they grow up that their father is comfortable with who he is and we don’t have anything to hide. It’s like a mountain was lifted off my shoulders when I came out. But then I jumped on the scale this morning and I’m still 310 pounds.″

Tuaolo’s coming out tour of TV shows, newspapers and magazines, two years after retiring from a nine-year career, is more than a personal liberation. He wants to ``put a face on the gay football player, break stereotypes and make people talk.″ He encourages other gay athletes to reveal themselves when they’re ready, though he cautions active NFL players to stay in the closet.

``I really don’t think they should come out,″ he said. ``I don’t think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player.″

Coming out is a tough, deeply personal decision that involves risks for any athlete, especially in team sports. Tuaolo feared that if he had done it while playing he would have been cut and blackballed or become a target for cheap shots on the field, from teammates and opponents.

None of his former teammates have called him since he came out a few days ago on HBO’s ``Real Sports.″ Sterling Sharpe, a teammate with Green Bay, told the show that if Tuaolo had come out while playing, ``he would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it.″

Virtually every part of society has accepted homosexuality but there is not one openly gay player in pro football, basketball, baseball or hockey. Nothing has changed in those sports even 25 years after Dave Kopay chronicled his life as a gay NFL running back in the 1960s and early ’70s.

As ridiculous and antiquated as it may seem, Tuaolo said, most coaches and players still believe that a gay player would jeopardize team unity and undermine the macho image of the gladiator.

``For those who are still playing in the NFL and struggling with their sexuality, I understand their pain and I understand why,″ Tuaolo said. ``I never had any opportunity to think that I could come out.″

Tuaolo heard the usual locker room jokes about gays, the comments equating weakness with homosexuality, and he would bite his lip and retreat deeper into the closet. To thwart suspicions that he was gay, he acted like the straight jocks, going to strip clubs, parties, making sure somebody saw him kissing women or leaving with them.

``Inside, it hurt,″ he said. ``It was a lot of show.″

Tuaolo had homosexual feelings as long as he can remember, even as far back as 5, when he was attracted to boys. He had his first gay affairs when he was in college, but was afraid to develop a steady relationship until 1997, when a friend in Hawaii gave him Kopay’s book.

``I broke down,″ Tuaolo said. ``I saw myself. It helped me make a decision that I didn’t want to live in fear like that. This wasn’t a lifestyle for me, it was a life, my life.″

He was playing for Minnesota at the time, and later that year he met and fell in love with Wherley, two years older and the owner of day spas with his family in Minneapolis.

Tuaolo had friends everywhere he played _ Green Bay, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Carolina _ but none that he felt comfortable confiding in. He cut off friendships when he moved from one team to another and his play suffered at times, he said, because of his anxiety.

After retiring two years ago, Tuaolo deepened his relationship with Wherley by adopting the twins with him. This past July they all went on a rafting trip, along with his parents, and they found themselves lying to strangers to perpetuate their secret.

``It was very ugly,″ Tuaolo said.

Tuaolo decided it was time to come out, to end the lies.

``Now I’m so happy because the thing that I’ve been living with, that gave me the sleepless nights, the trembling, the hurt, the drunkenness, the suicidal stuff, it’s lifted,″ he said. ``I’m not Mr. Aloha with something to hide anymore. I have a big smile now and I really mean it.″


Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org