My best games were the worst.
I would get a sack, force a fumble, stuff a play on the goal line. And hours later, in the middle of the night, I'd wake up sweating, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Maybe someone who knows saw that, I'd think to myself. Maybe they'll call the coach, or the owner, or the papers.
Sometimes I'd spend hours lying awake, praying for the anxiety attack to end, hoping my head would stop spinning on top of my banged-up body.
The one thing I could never do was talk about it. Never. No one in the NFL wanted to hear it, and if anyone did hear it, that would be the end for me. I'd wind up cut or injured. I was sure that if a GM didn't get rid of me for the sake of team chemistry, another player would intentionally hurt me, to keep up the image.
Because the NFL is a supermacho culture.
It's a place for gladiators. And gladiators aren't supposed to be gay.
Now, after a life of living a lie, I am here to tell the truth. My truth. I am Esera Tuaolo, and for nine years I made my living as a gladiator in the NFL. I was a 280-pound nose tackle who could run a 40 in 4.8. I was voted the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10 in 1989 at Oregon State, and I made the NFL all-rookie team two years later with Green Bay. I played in the Super Bowl, played for five different teams, sang the national anthem at the Pro Bowl and earned the respect of players like Brett Favre and John Randle and Jack Del Rio.
I was all that. And I am a gay man.
I live with a partner, Mitchell, I have loved for six years, and we have beautiful 23-month-old twins -- Mitchell and Michele -- we've adopted and are raising together. Got a house in the suburbs (of Minneapolis) and a lawn and two dogs. I've recorded two pop albums. I'm just your typical gay Samoan ex-nose tackle who'd like to break into show biz.
I'm telling the world now. Make that worlds. I'm telling my story on the cover of The Advocate, to openly acknowledge to the gay community that I want to be a proud part of it. And I'm telling my story in ESPN The Magazine, to reach out to the sports world I left when I retired two years ago and let it know that this is who I am.
I'm not special. I'm no better or worse than any other gay person who has decided to acknowledge the truth. But because I was in the NFL, I have an opportunity to be heard. And now I want to use it.
It's scary. I'm not sure how people will react, especially the people I competed with and against on the football field. But it was scarier wearing a mask. I want to show people how much happier I am now that I've come out, that I'm free. A huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Maybe some kid, athlete or not, will read about me and learn he or she isn't alone. Maybe some fan, gay or not, will read about me and learn something new -- that gay people come from all walks of life, all types of backgrounds, all kinds of jobs. Some of them even play sports at the highest level.
I have always known what I was, even before I knew what gay meant. I grew up poor on a banana plantation in Hawaii, the youngest of eight kids. We went to Pentecostal church with my mother, and that's where I learned how to sing. But from a young age, I knew that I was different. I was attracted to men.
I also liked sports, and I was good. I owe my mom everything. She saw my talent and arranged for me to move to California with an aunt so I could get more exposure. College recruiters noticed me at Don Lugo High in Chino, and in 1987 I chose Oregon State over Arizona, Arizona State and San Diego State.
I loved it at OSU, even though we got crushed all the time. During my college years, I had my first experiences with gay life -- some one-night stands with men -- but I never had any kind of relationship.
I got my first hint of NFL life my junior year, when we played Nebraska. As usual, they had a big, physical, quick offensive line, but I had a great game. Scouts began showing up in Corvallis, and after my senior season, 1990, Green Bay took me in the second round with the 35th pick -- the highest an OSU defensive player had ever been taken.
I started all 16 games that season and made the NFL all-rookie team. With the Packers, I became friends with this unknown QB who had the greatest arm I'd ever seen. He was battling Dan Majkowski for the starting job, and one time he came off the field after throwing a pass, and I pulled him over and said, "Dude, you're gonna be the man here." It was Brett Favre. Brett and I hung out a lot; he even invited me to his house in Mississippi and mentioned me in his book. That's the great thing about this game -- I can tell my kids I played with some of the best who ever stepped on that field. But I could never tell Brett, or anyone else, who I really was.
After Mike Holmgren took over as coach my second year, I got released by Green Bay and picked up by the Vikings. By then I'd already begun living my double life. I was so afraid of people finding out I was gay that I never risked being caught during the season. I never went to gay clubs, never tried to meet men on the road. I did the total opposite, going to strip clubs or making a big show of leaving dance clubs with hot women on nights out with teammates. A few times I'd sleep with the women, but usually I'd just take them home and pass out. The important thing was to be seen with the woman, to throw the dogs off the scent. I only expressed my true self in the off-season, when I'd go to Hawaii to be with friends and -- how do I put this? -- find comfort.
My years with the Vikings, from '92 to '96, were some of my most productive on the field. I played alongside some great players. Jack
Del Rio, the linebacker, always appreciated the little things I did, like tying up the guard so he could be free to make the tackle. Henry Thomas was my mentor, showing me the tricks of the trade in defensive line play. John Randle is one of the best players I ever lined up with, and I have some great stories about things he did on the field -- but you couldn't print them. On the outside, it looked like I was always having a good time. "Mr. Aloha," they called me. "Look at Esera," they'd say. "He just did his 20th shot." They didn't see me those days at home, alone, feeling trapped by the game, wishing I didn't play football. Or wishing I was dead.
A little over a year ago, as I was weighing my decision, I got a call from an ex-teammate, Craig Sauer, whom I played with on the Super Bowl team in Atlanta. Craig is a Christian, and one of the funniest guys I know. But he was real serious when he called. "I need to ask you something," he said. "I'm hearing rumors, and if the rumors aren't true, I want to be able to answer them." He asked right out, "Are you gay?" And I hesitated. But before I could really think it through, I just said, "Yes."
We had a great conversation after that. I began to feel like I didn't have to run anymore. He said, "I'm not going to lose a friend over this."
It's been like that ever since I made my decision to come out. I've only had support. People in the gay community got wind of it, and out of the blue Rosie O'Donnell called me on my cell phone. "You are not alone," she said. "There are so many people out there who will love you, and you already have your family." It was exactly what I needed at that time. Because like I said, I'm scared. I know this can do a heap of good, but it's all a little overwhelming.
People ask me if I think a superstar football player will ever come out during his playing days. I hate to be negative, but I don't see it happening. The league just isn't ready for it, and neither are the fans. The NFL doesn't even give benefits to same-sex partners. I'd like to be wrong. It would be cool if we could just set a date, and on that day all the players, all the owners, all the coaches, all the owners' and coaches' kids, the fans -- all the people involved in football who are gay -- could just come out all at the same time. Or maybe David Geffen will buy a team, and I can be the coach. I won't hold my breath. All I can do is live in truth. I am doing that now, and I can't tell you how happy I am.
I loved playing football, and I loved being among the best in the world, but I don't miss it. I have my memories and my war stories. I have a cranky Achilles and a bum shoulder and a back that only lets me roll out of bed some mornings. I have an NFC championship ring I won with Atlanta that I wear for special occasions. And I have the No.95 Falcons uniform that I wore in the Super Bowl. I keep it in a box, safely put away, as I move on with whatever God has in store for me next.
From now on, that uniform is the only part of me that stays in a closet.
This story appears in the November 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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