Esera Tuaolo played college and professional football to pay for his education and get his family out of poverty but his passion is his music.
Gay ex-NFL player is enjoying his pot of gold
The former Waimanalo resident's memoirs detail the hard road to get there
There are people out there who believe a person can be talked into being gay. If so, then a person can also be talked into being a professional football player. It's just that easy. But can a person be talked into becoming a gay professional football player?
"WHO would make the choice to be THAT discriminated against?" wondered Esera Tuaolo, sounding faintly aghast.
Tuaolo should know. The Waimanalo kid, whose decade in the National Football League involved daily displays of the most macho behavior on the planet, is gay -- and perfectly happy that way.
His painful, just-released memoir, "Alone in the Trenches," mostly about the years he spent fearless on the field and trembling in the closet, has been blazing a trail on talk radio across the country, averaging 30 interviews a week.
Tuaolo played for Kailua High School and Oregon State. He was a guard with several NFL teams, retiring in 1999 from the Carolina Panthers, the same year he played in the Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons.
Now living near Minneapolis -- where he and "husband" Mitchell can get a bare minimum of spousal rights, and "we do have some Polynesians up here, they're called frozen ohana!" -- Tuaolo recently returned to Honolulu for book signings.
Returning home, as much as he loves Hawaii, brings up painful memories.
If there were tracks in Waimanalo, the Tuaolos were from the wrong side. Tuaolo had a philandering father, a sweet but apparently clueless mother, a recklessly gay older brother who died of AIDS, an aunt who was shot to death in front of him, one uncle who was a drug dealer and, worst of all, another uncle who sexually abused him cruelly as a child and was later murdered. Tuaolo spent his teen years being pushed toward football because of his innate skill, and guiltily cruising gay bars such as Hula's.
This horrific childhood, related so matter-of-factly in the memoir, demanded a statement of authenticity from the publisher. "Names and identifying details of some characters in this book were changed, which is readily apparent in the reading," responded Genene Murphy of Sourcebooks. "'Alone in the Trenches' is a memoir, which by its very nature is one person's selective set of experiences, observations and opinions; that said, we believe Esera to be truthful."
Esera Tuaolo sang the National Anthem before a game against the Atlanta Falcons in 1998.
Tuaolo's experiences were largely youthful and painful and, to this day, invoke feelings of guilt. "For the longest time I thought (the abuse) was my fault because it was pleasurable. Oprah Winfrey explained it to me: 'The problem is there that you're robbed from feeling loved. These predators rob you from ever learning how to love the right way.'
"My uncle made it like it was a game. But I felt excruciating pain ... the person inside said, 'That isn't right.' Because it hurts, you know? After that all the threats came -- it was just a crazy part of my life; I just prayed to God every single day that it would go away.
"Seeing something so traumatic, like my aunt being shot, when you're a kid, you don't really understand what it is. All you see is chaos, people running around screaming and crying. You don't really understand what death is all about. ... I was able to throw it in the closet and just keep it there and kinda stick myself in that Never Never Land, pretending my life was beautiful, just pretend that on the outside my life was fantastic."
From the outside, it was. Large, agile and clever, Tuaolo excelled on the football field and was steered in that direction, although he knew little of the history of the game. Scholarships and pro-team offers came his way -- the differing locker-room cultures of various NFL teams make for fascinating reading -- and Tuaolo took full advantage of the gift he had been given, knowing that a football career is by nature a brief one, and was able to rescue his mother from poverty.
"It was just finding your talent, finding your niche. All the big kids, they get pushed towards that football way -- and for me, that was it. I heard a lot of homophobia in the locker rooms, but on the flip side, it was also the only way for me to get out and to get a good education and to support my family," said Tuaolo. "So, my love for the game is bittersweet."
Tuaolo also discovered a gift for singing and became in demand as the tackle who could sing the national anthem before the game. All this time, however, he was terrified of being in the spotlight. What if he were recognized by one of his anonymous cruising partners and was outed? He dated women, and closed his eyes and thought of men when he kissed them, and also became a party animal, consuming way too much alcohol.
"Fear started for me when I was a young kid, hearing friends of mine call other kids faggot or that he likes to play with Barbie dolls. I saw a part of me in that kid, because that's what I wanted to do! I wanted to play with Barbie dolls, I wanted an Easy-Bake oven! That's the day I took that child within all of us and threw him in the closet. I had to be bigger and stronger and faster than anybody else so that they wouldn't know that I was gay. I wouldn't be that kid getting beat up, that kid getting rocks thrown at him. Not me. I put on that happy face, I smiled a lot. I was just Mr. Aloha.
"Now they know the true me. I'm not looking for any sympathy or anything like that; I did that book to help people, to encourage and inspire people."
Tuaolo says he knows of no other players who are gay. He was influenced mightily by former NFL player David Kopay's memoir, in which he revealed his sexual identity, but only after Kopay retired from the game.
"I think the percentage (of homosexuals in football) is a lot lower than the national average," mused Tuaolo. "I get thousands of e-mails from people from all over the world, from kids, how my story inspired them to be a football player. If I can do it, if David Kopay can do it, if Martina Navratilova can do it ... It's a wonderful feeling to inspire young athletes to follow their dreams.
"I also get the e-mails that say, 'I could have been like you, but I chose not to because of all the discrimination.' That's heart-wrenching," said Tuaolo sadly. "The leagues push against domestic abuse and alcoholism and drugs, but they need to push respect for different cultures, different sexualities. I do believe there will be a player that will come out in the National Football League someday."
His football career winding down, thanks to an Achilles tendon that kept snapping like a bowstring, Tuaolo entered into a relationship with Mitchell, who urged him to come out of the closet. Although Tuaolo was skittish about the relationship, to the point of nearly sabotaging it, he eventually settled down and outed himself, on his own terms, as publicly as possible, on Bryant Gumbel's "Real Sports" show in 2002.
Reaction was split, he said. "Some sports fans don't care, but there are those callers who say, 'I don't want my NFL watered down by a faggot!' The hate you hear in their voices is just incredible.
"When I came out it was about breaking down stereotypes. The perception of a gay guy in today's society is the pansy who used to get beat up on the playing field. We're not the guy on 'Project Runway'; we're not all Jack on 'Will and Grace.' We come in every shape and size."
Still, the intolerance continues to be either mean-spirited and angry, or goofily misinformed. Both camps often claim God is in their corner.
"I grew up in church, so I know a thing or two about the Bible," said Tuaolo. "Go read the New Testament. It's about love, compassion, forgiveness -- not just for Christians, but for everyone. In Revelations it says, 'Beware of false prophets,' how people will come in the name of God and lead you in the wrong direction, trying to lead you away from the kingdom of heaven.
"Don't they know (gays) are children of God, too? We are lambs of God, just as they are. The hate that comes out of their mouths! They really don't understand it -- there's only one judge and he's not here on Earth."
Despite a heavy rotation of interviews and occasional singing in the Minneapolis clubs, Tuaolo has become a homebody, taking care of the children adopted with Mitchell. "I lucked out. Any relationship, gay or straight, is a difficult thing. We all go though the same problems, the same issues.
"This book was a very hard process, looking back and opening doors that you've shut for all your life. And I discovered there is hope, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Life is a blessing. I have a wonderful husband and we're living the picket-fence life. You know -- two dogs, two kids ... minus the wife!"