Tackling football's closet: in his first gay-press interview, former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo gives an insider's view of sports homophobia from the locker room to the Super Bowl and talks for the first time about his partner and their children. (Cover Story).
A round of applause erupts from the publicists, photo assistants, and editors in the room at the end of Tuaolo's unexpected song. His performance has crystallized the many facets of his life into one gem of a moment. Anyone who's met Ezra, as friends call him, knows that there's no contradiction between his crushing opponents for the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings and his crooning romantic messages into the answering machine of his life partner, Mitchell Whefiey, back home in Minneapolis. He's just himself, the man he always knew he'd be when he was growing up in Hawaii, the youngest of eight children in a family of Samoan and French heritage.
"I think that his spirit, what he refers to as his `aloha,' is so big--he's such a warm, gentle, kind person," Wherley says of his partner of 5 1/2 years, "that it's hard to put this loving, compassionate person next to someone who sacks the quarterback for a living. But he is both of those people, and he plays them both very well."
Tuaolo began his coming-out journey after his sixth season in the NFL, when a friend gave him a copy of The David Kopay Story, the autobiography of the first pro footballer to come out, back in 1975. "I saw myself going through the same thing," Tuaolo says of Kopay's story. "I literally just started crying. All that hurt and anxiety came back." The book also made him vow to "take that chance" to find love, and he met Wherley a few months later.
After three more seasons in the NFL--including a trip to Super Bowl XXXIII with the Atlanta Falcons--he retired, nine years of hard hits having taken its toll even on his formidable 6-foot-3, then-285-pound flame. And on his psyche. "He learned to put up a real thick shell," says Wherley. The years of hiding their partnership, he adds mildly, were "sometimes a struggle."
After Tuaolo retired, the couple adopted twin infants, settled into family life in Minneapolis, and started talking about when Tuaolo would come out. Two years later he sits down for his first interview with the gay press at the home of a friend in the Hollywood hills.
Did you think about coming out while you were still in the NFL?
Short answer. Why?
Because, number 1, just speaking for myself, I don't think that the NFL was ready for it. And I don't think the fans would be ready for a gay NFL player who came out while he was still playing. And to tell you the truth, if I would've come out in my early career in the NFL, I don't think I would have had the opportunity to play for nine years. I think my career would have been cut short. And also, I think it would've been dangerous for me.
I've seen fans throw batteries at players just because they're from the other team. So you can imagine what they would do if they knew a player was gay. And football is a lot different from other team sports: It's really physical. It would be easy for somebody to get a shot in.
You mean if just one guy wanted to take you out--There are so many injuries. There are so many people right now who can't walk because of [football injuries]. This is the way I feel--I'm not sure that it would've happened, but I don't think it would've been a pleasant time for me.
The perception many people have is that a main motivating force coaches use on players is questioning their masculinity and questioning their sexuality. Does that happen?
They never questioned my masculinity or anything like that. It was more of a motivational thing--they brought to reality [that football] is a macho sport, and you can't forget what got you there.
They encouraged you to prove that you're a mall.
Yeah, to prove your toughness.
And doesn't that always mean providing that you're a straight man?
I never really thought of it that way. When a coach would coach me, it would be more questioning my will to win, not questioning my manhood or sexuality.
But if you knew you couldn't come out, you must have seen the homophobia within pro football. What do people say in the locker room?
Well, you had your gay stories, and you had your gay jokes. And you had your gay rumors that went around. When l heard that, I would basically bite my tongue, because here I am listening to all this and thinking to myself, If you only knew that the guy you trusted to line up with you on the defensive line was gay. If you only knew, would you say something like that? Not to mention a lot of times I was thinking to myself, I could beat the crap out of this guy! [Laughs] I could beat the crap out of you.
And you put up with that for nine seasons. Your whole career.
Yeah, my whole career. But it wasn't all the time. I think my biggest fear was that I would get found out. The worst time was when I would wake up the next morning [after a game] and read the paper. I would always think, boom: [they're going to print] "Esera Tuaolo: Gay."
You thought it would slip out?
Talk about the pain, the anxiety--the lack of speaking, the lack of everything. It hurt. I lived in fear throughout all those years, fear of getting figured out.
So when you had that terrific first season with Green Bay, and you got that interception, a bunch of sacks, you made the all-rookie team--I think it was a record that I was the only rookie who started all 16 games.
It was a great year.
Yeah, it was a great year.
And at the same time, on the day after the game you worried that your career would be over--just like that?
Yeah, I'd wonder--that my face would be right on the front cover.
Were you ever able to come out to any of your teammates?
Not even one?
Oh, no. No.
And did you know other gay players?
That was not my experience. I think it would've been easier. At least I could've talked to somebody within the NFL, somebody who would understand what I was going through.
But your experience was the opposite: Sports kept you in the closet.
Yeah. Sports kept me in the closet because the norm is that you can't be gay when you play football. You can't be gay and be the star player.
That's the norm we're trying to break here with your coming-out.
Yeah, that's the norm. A lot of times, when you live in the fear that I did, you learn to block things out and you learn to forget them. You learn to shut that door in your head, and you don't deal with it, especially when you're young. When I was young--I can't speak for anybody else--but for me, that's the way I think I handled things. I just shut the door.
When did you know that you were gay? At what age?
I've always known. I've always had an attraction to the same sec But when I was young I didn't know what it was. I didn't know a name for it And as I grew up and I discovered what it was, I think then I got scared of it. And I went further into the closet with it. I didn't really have anybody to talk to. I grew up in a loving family, but I just didn't know if they would understand.
As a kid in Hawaii, did you ever try and innocently ask somebody what they thought about gay people, just to see their reaction?
Oh, no. [Laughs] No, no, no. When I say I shut the door, I shut the door and I just went on with my life.
But as an adult you've had friends Who've known you're gay. Who was the first person you came out to?
A friend of mine in Hawaii. I think it was in college or high school. But even then, when you tell somebody, [you think,] I know you're my friend, but who are you going to tell? You just think, Did I make the right decision?
Discussions of gays in sports always come back to the locker room. In September, New York Giants rookie Jeremy Shockey talked trash about gay players on Howard Stem's radio program, saying, among other things, "They're going to be in the shower with us, and I don't think that's going to work." What do you think when you hear that?
Well, it confirms what I've said about not being able to come out. I've been in sports and in the locker room since I was young. And it becomes a job. It's like punching in morning and night. In the professional realm, the locker room is all business: You have meetings in there. It's not really the exotic place that people think it is.
It's not the gay male fantasy?
It's real, and it's work. And that's what it was for me: It was just work.
So why are straight guys so worried?
Maybe because of their perception of what a gay person is. They're not really educated as far as knowing somebody [gay]. What I'm doing, I think, is putting a face on the word gay for my family and my friends and for people that don't know, so they'll know me for who I am.
Not just for your family and friends, but for millions--For millions of people.
But with that kind of constant locker-room talk, how did you keep that part of your life inside for so long?
[Pauses] It just seemed that [staying closeted] was part of the whole picture. I saw the opportunity--me playing in the NFL--as the opportunity to help my family and help my mom.
So staying in the closet is not just about "what the guys think." Some of it is about money.
It's about opportunities. It's about money. It's the American dream of every young football athlete to be able to play in the National Football League. And here I was, playing in the National Football League. And once you get there, the other ultimate goal is to go to Super Bowl. I did have some fun too.
Going to the Super Bowl must have been a high.
Yeah, it was a high. It was awesome. The whole goal in the NFL is to get that ring. To get that Super Bowl ring.
The ring you're wearing right now.
This is the '99 Super Bowl [ring]. And I don't wear it all the time!
From your year with the Falcons?
The Atlanta Falcons--we played Denver. When you lose [the Super Bowl], it becomes an NFC championship ring [like this one]. But still--I had no idea it would still be as impressive as this.
I love the fact that at the one Super Bowl you got to, Cher sang the national anthem.
Yes. [Laughs] It was so funny, because I was maybe three feet from her. And k.d. lang was there and a bunch of other people. It was so awesome, because you just want to say, "Oh, I'm a huge fan!" I love Cher. She's awesome. But my all-time favorite--you want to know?
My all-time favorite is Bette Midler.
You are gay!
Well, yeah! [Laughs] I love Bette, I love her music, and I do a lot of her music. I just did a charity event last week, and I did one of her songs.
But back to the Super Bowl--It was awesome.
So you're having this great experience at the Super Bowl. And you couldn't share it with your partner.
No, he was there. But that was another thing too--the hiding.
The Super Bowl was in January 1999, and you had met Mitchell two years before. So he was with you through three seasons in the NFL. That's a lot of hiding.
A lot of hiding. It was sad not being able to introduce him to people. And when we did go to parties or went to the Super Bowl, he was my "music manager" or "best friend" and not my partner. We had to live that type of life. Also, with the stress of the NFL and me being gay, I would come home sometimes grouchy--with a bad attitude--because it was like, I can't do this anymore. And we've had big arguments. But also we've had a blast. He's just wonderful. When I met Mitchell I knew what I was getting into, but I think one of the best feelings right now is just to be able to wake up with somebody.
Where did you two meet?
Well, it's a funny story. I did this promotional thing for a radio station [in Minneapolis] where people would write in and say why they would be the best candidate to get married at McDonald's. [The radio station] would pay for the whole wedding, and part of the promotional package was "And Esera Tuaolo will sing at your wedding!" Mitchell's friend won the contest, and when I went to sing, I noticed him. I was like, Wow, this is a very handsome man. We never exchanged words or anything. The only thing is that we looked at each other.
At a wedding at McDonald's?
Yeah. Three months later, I had a friend who came to visit in Minnesota who was gay, and he wanted to go dancing at a gay club, and I was telling him, "Oh, man, I can't do that," because I was still playing [in the NFL]. So he said, "Don't even worry about it--just blame me!" So we went there, and lo and behold, Mitchell was there with a friend of his, and he was staring at me. I thought, Oh, man, you look so familiar. And my friend from out of town was like, "If you don't f--ing go talk to him, we are out of here!" So Mitchell looked at me one time from across the way, and I pointed at him and I gave him the "Yeah, you, come here."
Yeah, the gesture. He came over and said, "I think I know you. Are you a singer?" And I said, "No." He was like, "Oh, because you look so familiar--you look like this guy that played for the Vikings." And I said, "No, that's not me." He said, "SO what's your name?" [Laughs] I said, "My name's David," and then we started talking. And my heart was just pounding. And I said, "Well, what do we do now?" He went, "Well, I think this is the time where we exchange numbers."
And you did?
Yeah, and when I went home that night, I was really terrified, because this guy just saw me at a gay bar and--
You gave a gay man a fake name and your real phone number.
Oh, my God. I started having an anxiety attack.
But you spoke the next day and found out he had known who you were all the time. And it was OK.
We just sat on the phone and we talked for hours. We met, and it was beautiful because we became friends first. We met on a Sunday for brunch and went back to his house and just kept talking. It just felt right, and I never left his side. I just knew--you know how you just know? Friends always told me, "When you meet somebody, you'll know--you just know." And I just knew. But it also gets better. A week later, he wanted me to meet his parents. And it was like, Wow.
That was quick.
[Laughs] Yeah. So on the way over to his parents', I was like, "You know what, I'm really sorry, but I really want you to get my name right." Because my name in English is [pronounced] Ezra, but the right pronunciation is "uh-SAIR-ah." So on the way over [I said,] "It's like a woman's name--it's like Sarah, but you just put an `uh' in front of it: `uh-Sarah.'" And his face dropped and turned white. And so we went to his parents' house, and he introduced me to his stepfather and his mom, Shelley. And he said, "Mom, this is `uh-[pauses]-sera.'" And his mom's face dropped. I'm wondering, OK ...what's going on here?
What do they know that you don't, right?
They told me this story from when Mitchell was 18, when he first came out. You have to know: His mom's parents had passed away years before. So his mom was driving home one day, and Mitchell had just come out, and there was so much emotion ... She said she looked at her rearview mirror and saw her parents there. So she was driving home, and she was asking them questions, and they were answering. And the last question was, "What about Mitchell? He just came out to me that he is gay--I'm worried about him. I love him." And her mother said to Shelley, "Don't worry about Mitchell--he'll be fine once he meets a Sarah."
"A Sarah." Wow.
So all his life, since he was 18--he's 36 now--his mom's thinking that he would meet a woman who would change his life or just give him some kind of direction in his life. So when he told her that [my name is] Esera, his mom started crying. When they told me that story--and she hadn't fold a lot of people, but she told Mitchell and her other son [at the time it happened]--it gave me goose bumps. It was like it was meant to be.
When did you come out to your own mother?
After I met Mitchell. I did it on Mother's Day. [Laughs]
Did anybody in your family know?
You told everybody at once?
How was that?
It was good. Of course, every mother's dream is for her son ...but my mom loves me, and she supports me, and she's there for me. Slap on a couple of grandkids and they're all happy! [Laughs]
When did you bring Mitchell home to meet Mom?
I think it was a day after [I came out], a couple of days. And it was awkward. But also it was beautiful because that was one part of the door that I reopened and cleaned out that closet. There was a little tension, but it was really nice. And now my mom loves him and just thinks he's ...that everything's my fault. [Laughs]
And the kids? You decided to adopt after you left the NFL?
It was a private adoption, and yeah, it was after the NFL
How old are your kids now?
Twenty-three months. Twins. A boy and a girl, Mitchell and Michelle. They were a week old [when we adopted them]. It's been wonderful, and the support that we've gotten from our families is just beautiful. Beautiful. I've always wanted to have kids. I had a lot of practice with my nieces and nephews. It's been such a wonderful experience, I recommend it to everybody because it's just a joy every day to wake up. And they're at that age where they're discovering things and speaking, so every word or gesture they make and every facial expression, you just melt. [Laughs]
Tell me about your own childhood. You were born in Hawaii.
Yeah, my family's in Hawaii. I grew up on a plantation--or a banana farm, I should say. I'm the youngest of eight children. Five brothers, three sisters, counting myself. My dad passed away when I was young, so it was my mother who was the rock of the whole family, the backbone.
She had to support the family.
Yeah. She's a remarkable woman. Like I tell everybody, she's the reason for the season. She's the reason why I strive to do better. When I wanted to quit so many times and just hang everything up, I would think about her and think about all of the sacrifices she made as I was growing up. She worked on the farm; we would sell the bananas to the local markets. It was a family farm; it wasn't huge. We didn't grow up rich or anything--we grew up happy. Poor--I don't know if that would be the word because there was so much love going around from my mom that I didn't feel that I was poor.
But early in high school you picked up and moved to California. You moved in with an aunt in Chino.
I felt that in order for me to help my mom someday, I needed to make that change. So I did.
So the move to California was about getting a better education?
The move to California was basically that, and just for change. I can't explain why--it just felt like it had to be done.
Do you think your growing knowledge that you were gay might have had something to do with it?
No, I don't think that had any ... You know, when I was younger--from what I can remember, I think maybe I was 4 or 5 years old--my family used to camp on the beach. And I would sit and just watch the water. I would watch the sunset--that part where the sun is just about to disappear into the horizon--and I would just listen to the water. You're taking me back right now--it was such a beautiful place for me. I would have visions of myself just being somewhere: not in Hawaii but somewhere else. I didn't know what it was at the time, but I was happy and successful. So I guess I always knew that something was going to happen. So when the decision for me to go to California came, I took it.
So how did you discover that you were good at sports?
When I made the switch from Hawaii to California. Me being a bigger person, it was just like I fit that mold of an athlete. I went out for football, and then everything else is history.
You were a defensive tackle in the NFL--your job was to take guys down. But you're not a mean guy.
No, I'm not a mean person. You can thank my mom for that. But as far as when you punch in to go to work you've just got to put that game face on. One of the biggest compliments I get from people is, "I wouldn't have known you were a football player because you're so nice."
Do you think that you're different from the guys that you played with?
I think the only difference is that Fm gay. And I'm sure there are others out there, but I don't know who they are.
Not a lot has changed since you were young. There are still gay and lesbian kids playing sports who feel like they're the only ones. And that's sad.
That is very sad. I think when I was a kid growing up and starting to play sports, it would've been so awesome to just know that there was somebody. I mean, a young athlete who came out. I think it would've eased some of the pain.
Is that why you're coming out now? What made you decide to go for it?
Personal reasons. To take off this costume. To look in the mirror and see me and not an actor or the label of a football player. Even after [leaving] football, you think things will get better because then you're not in the limelight. But in actuality it didn't I was still living in the closet.
How will this affect your family?
It'll be a plus for my partner and myself and our kids. I want my kids to know that I am comfortable with who I am. Like the other day, I had somebody come over, an old friend of mine, to do some painting in our house, and that person didn't know that I was gay. So Mitchell quickly rushed out to the back porch and had a coffee or something. It was so--I felt horrible. So he knows the importance of this, and I really, truly believe that it's going to help us. We're going to have to start dealing with things together. It's going to help us communicate and deal.
So you'd say that so far, coming out has been a good experience.
Really good. I feel light as a feather, although I'm 350 pounds. [Laughs] No, just kidding--I'm 310. And I feel like I'm light as a feather. It's also because it felt like I've been lugging this whole thing, carrying around my luggage everywhere I went Now I can just throw it away.
I think that's what we're doing. And the thing about it is, it's personal--the freedom within myself, the unburdening of everything that I hid from--but I also know that there's responsibility that comes along with this. And I'm just going to take it day by day and work on it. I'm not an expert on gay issues, but I hope I can bring something to the table.
Are you still pursuing the dream that you know is there for you? Is being out a part of that?
You know, I think, yeah, it is part of it. Because I'm happy. I'm so happy [tears come to his eyes].
It's a great thing. It is such a great thing. I'm just so happy. You know, I have this beautiful family--kids, a wonderful husband. [Pauses] I'm sorry, but you just took me back there. And, yeah, this is part of the whole picture that I saw when I was a little kid. And it feels wonderful.
Related Article: A Viking's Song.
Esera Tuaolo's game plan for a music career
With an EP already recorded, some stellar reviews, and Prince's ex-manager on his side, Esera Tuaolo is ready to turn his musical cameos into a second career.
You started singing publicly at sports events in college, right?
I've always had a passion about [singing], but my first big professional gig was singing the national anthem for basketball games in college. I'm always singing, and one of our trainers, who was the trainer for the basketball team, said, "Why don't you sing the national anthem for one of the games?" It was a great experience.
And you sang at at least one NFL game.
In my rookie year in the NFL, I sang the national anthem for one of our national games--Green Bay against Chicago.
What has been the most memorable response to your singing so far?
After my rookie year I went to stay and train with a friend who was on the team in Fairfax, Va. We went to the Washington Monument and the guy working [the elevator] was an older man, and he was staring at me for the longest time. And then he said, "Oh, gosh, did you sing the national anthem before a football game?" And my friend said, "Yeah, that's him! That's my boy! He sang it!" And the guy said, "You made me cry in front of my family." It was a great feeling, but it was just kind of like, Wow, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you cry or anything. It was wonderful.
You recorded a CD.
A compilation album I did back in '95, called One Man's Island. I was also on [the anthology albums] NFL Country and NFL Jams and got good reviews for that, but I don't think the albums did [laughs].
What kind of music would you like to sing if you're going to record another album?
R&B, adult contemporary.
I've read reviewers who compare your voice to Aaron Neville's.
That's a compliment, because I think he's got a beautiful voice.
So what's next.
I'd like to just get my music out there to the world so they can hear it. I'm also pursuing acting; I've done a couple of musicals. I was the understudy for the Cannibal King in Side Show. I got the opportunity to do the lead a couple of times--more than a couple--and it was such a blast. The Most Happy Fella--I also did that, and a lot of smaller venues in Minnesota. It's so rewarding once you get out there and just do it for the first time. It's wonderful. And the drama-queen stuff comes out!--B.C.S.
For more from this interview with Esera Tualo, and a talk with his partner, go to www.advocate.com
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Steele, Bruce C.|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Nov 26, 2002|
|Previous Article:||The Boston bully: Boston U. chancellor John Silber had a gay son who died of AIDS. So why is he such a dedicated homophobe? (Education).|
|Next Article:||Little George goes to war. (final cut).|