Former NFL nose tackle comes to CSUMB to talk about being gay in a very masculine sport.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
It was January 31, 1999, Super Bowl XXXIII. The Denver Broncos were one play away from completing their 34-19 thumping of the Atlanta Falcons. John Elway was the ballcarrier on offense. Esera Tuaolo, Atlanta’s nose guard, knew Elway would take a knee to run the clock, make the win official, and retire after the game. It would be Tuaolo’s job to simply reach through the line and touch him first. And the 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound man was petrified.
Around a billion people were watching worldwide. Flashbulb lightening cracked against the Miami, Florida sky. After eight years in the NFL, the spectacle was nothing new to Tuaolo, but he had worked hard to stay out of the limelight. It was safer that way.
Now Tuaolo feared his face and name would be splattered across TV sets and newspapers, nailed to the last play of the superstar quarterback’s career.
The inevitable loss was irrelevant. Tuaolo just didn’t want to be recognized from one of his late nights with random lovers he’d picked up in gay bars around the nation. If that happened, he thought, it would ruin a classy conclusion for Elway’s storybook career. Instead the moment would be all about the sex.
In his 2006 book Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL—which he discusses Tuesday at CSU Monterey Bay—Tuaolo recalls that night. He feared the headlines if anyone recognized him: “Gay Man Makes Final Tackle in Super Bowl.”
“I would be banished from the NFL fraternity,” he says.
Today, running between meetings in Atlanta, Tuaolo’s a different man, a happier man. But pain and paranoia still manage to seep through the cell phone. “All the hard work, all the sacrifices for getting to that caliber of being in the NFL,” he says, “it would have disappeared.”
Tuaolo didn’t return for another season. While Elway’s career was punctuated by HBO specials and ESPN reels, Tuaolo just disappeared.
“I was tired of that life, of hiding, that stress, ready to take my own life,” he says. “I’d played the public role for a long time: drinking heavily, kissing women in public, going to strip clubs. I did it all to throw off the dogs.”
He spent another three years hiding. In 2002, he stopped. “I didn’t step out of a closet,” Tuaolo says. “I stepped into my truth.”
He was only the third NFL player to ever do so and the first since 1992. Tuaolo says he decided to tell the truth partly because of his children, 6-year-old twins Michelle and Mitchell, whom he adopted at birth with his longtime partner, Mitchell Wherley. “I was tired of hiding. I wanted to do the things other families did,” he says. “I wanted us to walk down the street together, go to school events together, not live behind closed curtains, literally.”
A handful of the thousands of players who shared a field with Tuaolo have reached out a hand of support. “And only half of those were sincere,” he chuckles.
He still spends his days shoving his way through massive barriers. This time, however, he’s battling gay bashing.
“I’ve heard it all: faggot, queer, fudge packer, homo,” he says. “Those words are as offensive as the ‘N word’ or the ‘B word.’ ”
Recent events suggest some headway is being made in the way pro sports treats intolerance. In February, when NBA point guard Tim Hardaway announced, “I hate gay people,” NBA Commissioner David Stern reacted quickly, yanking Hardaway from the NBA All-Star broadcast team and announcing his plan to incorporate education about lifestyle acceptance for rookie players.
The NFL hasn’t been much kinder. Talking about Tuaolo, former NFL receiver Sterling Sharpe told HBO, “Had he come out on a Monday, with Wednesday, Thursday, Friday practices, he’d have never gotten to the other team.” Sharpe later explained why: “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Tuaolo thinks that the demise of homophobia is on the horizon, and he’s ecstatic to be fathering his children and loving his soulmate. “Anytime you can live in your own truth and be honest with yourself, gay or whatever,” he says, “to be free—that free—is amazing.”
He says he still thinks about that Super Bowl game—the lights, the rush, the privilege—but he’s looking through different eyes now. He describes those eyes as “the kind that see the truth.”
ESERA TUAOLO DISCUSSES HIS BOOK, ALONE IN THE TRENCHES, AT 7PM TUESDAY, APRIL 10, AT CSUMB’S WORLD THEATER, SIXTH AVENUE, SEASIDE. FREE. 582-4189.