Last September, Esera Tuaolo had an anxious moment. His twins, Mitchie and Michele, 4, needed a family photo for preschool, and Tuaolo wondered how their classmates in suburban Minneapolis would react to seeing them with him and his longtime partner, salon owner Mitchell Wherley. But not to worry: “The other kids said, ‘You got two dads? Wow, I wish I had two dads,'” recalls Tuaolo, 37. It was a leap of faith for a gay man who, for most of his life, had lived in the closet—never more so than in the nine anxious years he spent in the NFL. With the publication of Alone in the Trenches, Tuaolo is now traveling the country, speaking out about his remarkable journey.
When I was 5, I heard a friend call another friend mahu. I asked what it meant. “Faggot,” he told me in Samoan. Ooh, he likes boys, I thought, That’s bad. Then I thought, Uh-oh.
I never liked playing with stuff other boys wanted to play with. I wanted an Easy-Bake oven. I remember watching G.I. Joe on TV and thinking he was cute. I thought, That might be me.
My parents raised me in an Assembly of God Pentecostal Church. The preacher called homosexuals a “curse.” At night, I would lie awake, terrified that God was going to cast me into the lake of fire.
After Daddy died [in 1978], I moved to Henderson, Nev., to live with my brother Fale. Fale drank. He used drugs. He beat his wife, his kids and me. I lived in fear. Football saved me. I liked away games best because Fale didn’t go to those.
The coaches would call us sissies when we didn’t play well. Teammates teased kids and called them queer bait. People ask, “Why did you stay with football and put up with that?” When you’re young and find something you’re good at, you want to pursue it.
In 1986 he won a scholarship to Oregon State University.
I hung a picture of a girl from home in my room and told people she was my girlfriend. That was my excuse for not dating women, but it wore out. I had to hang out with women and do one-night stands. I felt bad. One day during my junior year, I went to a teammate’s apartment to pick up a class assignment. I was having a bad day. He pulled me close to give me a hug. Suddenly we kissed. It was wonderful, but we separated and stared at each other. [He] said, “I’m not that way.” I said, “You think I’m that way?!” The next morning we pretended nothing had happened.
In 1990 Tuaolo was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
No one hassled me. But every day, I walked into the fear that if I slipped up, said the wrong thing, looked at another naked player too long, I’d get outed.
Some people might see the locker room as an erotic place, but once you make the team, those forty players are brothers. For a paranoid, anxious, depressed guy like me, sex was the last thing on my mind.
I made sure people saw me kiss women. Pain pills and alcohol became my closest friends.
After one night of partying, I came home drunk and depressed. I slammed my fist through the wall. I lived on the 15th floor. I forced open a window. I didn’t jump, but I was convinced life would be easier if I were dead.
Cut from the Packers in his second year, Tuaolo joined the Minnesota Vikings that season. He longed for a “lifetime partner” and a family, but not until 1997 did he meet Mitchell Wherley at a club in Minnesota.
Mitchell was sweet. “I want you to know I would never tell anyone your secret.” The more he comforted me, the more at ease I felt. We talked about everything. Growing up. Football. It felt so good to unleash everything.
A few weeks later Tuaolo came out to his family, who welcomed Mitchell. Facing the NFL with his lover was another matter.
[At the 1999 Super Bowl, where I played with the Atlanta Falcons] I introduced [Mitchell] as my manager and friend. It tore me up.
I blew out my hamstring [the next season]. I was thinking, I can’t lose this man. I was no longer willing to play football at the expense of our relationship. Just like that, I was done.
After I retired, I secured a part in [a community theater] revival of The Most Happy Fella [in Minneapolis, where we were living together]. A retired NFL player doing theatre—anybody should’ve known I was gay.
Mitchell and I had talked about kids. My dream came true with the birth of our adopted twins in November 2000. But it became harder for me to lie about my sexual orientation.
The turning point came during a taped interview with Tuaolo that aired on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel in 2002. For the first time, he publicly acknowledged being gay—feeling a “rush of peace and panic” as he spoke.
The rest of the interview I kept excusing myself to throw up. When they turned off the cameras, Mitchell [and I] embraced. “Great job,” he said. “It’s going to get better.”
The reaction from football players was mixed. [Former teammate] Don Davey called to let me know we were still buddies. Brett Favre’s brother sent me an e-mail saying, “Our family still loves you.” I did not hear from Brett directly, but that’s okay. People process things in their own way.
I wish I had come out while I was playing. [But] it’s hard to imagine any NFL player coming out while guys like [former Packer] Sterling Sharpe are saying his teammates would take out a gay man in practice.
Sometimes, I watch film of myself and think, Damn, I played well. I wish I could have done that more regularly. I was fighting my demons. That held me back.
I hope I can create a world for my son and daughter, whether they are gay or not, where they can reach their full potential. My goal now is to educate people to make that possible.