Low self-esteem, anxiety attacks, suicidal thoughts and binge drinking doesn’t sound like the life of your typical NFL football player, particularly one voted to the all-rookie team with the Green Bay Packers. But that was Esera Tuaolo’s reality.
Tuaolo chronicles his hard-knocks life in “Alone in the Tranches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL.” It’s a tale of one man’s struggle to overcome the adversity of his poor, abusive childhood, his rise to NFL stardom and subsequent battle with the depression of living in the closet for nine seasons in one of the world’s most macho arenas.
Tuaolo came out in October 2002 on the HBO series “Real Sports.” It marked the end of a long road toward self-acceptance and happiness.
“My biggest fear about coming out was the safety for my children and husband when I said I was gay on ‘Real Sports,’” he said. “During the process of coming out, my husband and I wanted to do this for our children. When you are in the closet and isolated, you know you’re not alone, but your biggest fear is safety.”
Big Daddy—as he’s known to twins Mitchell and Michele—loves his new out life and the role of father.
“It’s a whole new world for me and my family. It has been incredible the support that we’ve gotten,” he said.
Were it not for his family, Tuaolo—who played for the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons—may never have come out. After being recognized on a rafting trip with his husband Mitchell and husband’s family, he talked about his children and received so much praise for being a single father. The children’s other father, Little Daddy, and grandparents bit their tongues all the way down the Colorado River. It was unbearable to deny them the joy of bragging about Mitchell and Michele.
His coming out marked the end of a saga of fear. “When coaches tell you you’re a faggot when you play poorly, you can’t really share who you are with people,” Tuaolo said. “It’s hard for straight people to realize what we’ve gone through as gay people our whole lives.”
Outwardly, Tuaolo was a friendly teammate, a regular “Mr. Aloha” party guy. Even his close friends didn’t know how much he struggled, how many times he was on the edge of ending it all.
Since coming out, only a handful of is former friends have come forward to proffer support. Most of them have done it through the media, where players have also acknowledged that an out gay man in the NFL would not be welcome. Former teammate Shannon Sharpe said that a guy who came out on Tuesday would not be able to play on Sunday.
“Don Davey [who played with Tuaolo on the Packers] was incredible when I came out,” Tuaolo said. “He’s a good friend of mine. He’s been very genuine. He’s a great guy. A lot came out in newspapers saying they supported me, but don’t know what they would have done if I came out while I was playing.”
With 57 percent of NFL players telling Sports Illustrated they would accept a gay teammate, one might be tempted to think the world is changing, but Tuaolo doubts it.
“It’s very difficult for me to believe that people would accept a gay player after what I went through, but I also understand that they won’t say that in a survey,” he said. “There’s a lot that needs to change in the NFL for it to be a safe place for a player to come out. I’ve been trying to push the NFL and educate them. They are making baby steps forward.”
One of those baby steps is having Tuaolo talk to the rookies at the rookie symposium to educate them on homophobia in sports. He’s also fighting for domestic partner benefits from the NFL.
Tuaolo wonders what his career would have been like without the fear of being recognized by one of the men he had a one-night stand with. Every time he made a big play or sang the “National Anthem” on television, he was stressed to the breaking point.
“The only thing about my NFL career that I regret is that there’s so many times I had to play down or play with anxiety or pain or hurt because I was trying to keep my secret,” he said. “There was so much more to lose. I come from a very poor family. The only thing that kept me going was the smile on my mom’s face when I could give her what she wanted. My 100 percent was 75 percent. I was playing with this huge mountain on my back. It really takes a toll on one’s being. The fear about being outed was so huge. The fear of losing a family member was huge.”
In addition to worries about his sexuality being discovered, Tuaolo had a lot of scars from an abusive childhood. One of his earliest memories is seeing his aunt shot and killed in the family home. He learned to keep secrets early, suffering physical abuse from his older brother and sexual abuse from an uncle.
His life today is a triumph over all of those old wounds, which coming out and telling his story have started to heal. “My life is wonderful now. There’s nothing I can’t handle,” Tuaolo said. “Now that I’m out with my family, living in my truth, it’s incredible. I wonder why I didn’t come out a long time ago, but we all deal with it in our own time.”
Writing his book has been a sort of catharsis for the Hawaii native, who now lives in Minnesota with his husband Mitchell and their twins. “I want my book to be like Dave Kopay’s book was to me. It was a very inspiring tool for me. It gave me hope and possibilities and saved my life. That’s what I hope people find when they read my book. I hope it inspires them, gives them hope,” Tuaolo said. “I don’t see myself as a role model or leader. I see myself as being a servant. I’m just playing the cards God dealt to me. It’s incredible to wake up in the morning and know that I could make a difference in someone’s life by telling my story.”
When Tuaolo isn’t speaking at schools, organizations and corporations about homophobia, he’s enjoying the role of Big Daddy at home and working on an as yet untitled one-man show about his life, which he hopes to tour next year.
“One of my favorite things about being a father is raising these children and giving them all the love they need,” Tuaolo said. “The icing on the cake is that I’ll be able to tell my war stories to my grandchildren. With my children, raising them every single day is an incredible experience. I love to watch them explore and learn.”
To stay in shape, the 6-foot-3 Samoan does a variety of cardio exercises. “I work out every day during the week. Right now, I do aerobics, these cross-train programs they have at my fitness club. I do aerobics with like 70 women and me. They incorporate weights with steps. It’s a fun way to lose weight,” he said. “I play basketball while the kids hang out at the park. I’ve lost 60 pounds in three months.”
He encourages everyone to make their own journey toward coming out. “Be in a safe environment. Get support and be comfortable within yourself,” he said.
Currently, Tuaolo is touring the country talking about his book. To find a book signing near you, visit eseratuaolo.com.