Tackling football's closet

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com November 12 2002 12:00 AM ET

NOTE: The following is a condensed version of the
introduction to
The Advocate’s
coming-out interview with Esera Tuaolo, followed by
outtakes from that interview that were not
published in the print edition of the magazine.
The coming-out Q&A itself is available only in the
print edition of
The Advocate.

It’s
National Coming Out Day, and Esera Tuaolo is wearing his
Atlanta Falcons football jersey, singing the national
anthem in full voice. He has everyone in the Los
Angeles photo studio mesmerized: Here is a man who
spent nine years as a leading tackle in the National
Football League -- a man who’s now only the
third NFL player to come out as gay -- powering
through “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a
passion that could coax the patriot out of even the
most jaded citizen of the queer nation.

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 Wherley,
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.

After Tuaolo
retired 2 1/2 years ago, he and Wherley 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.

The following are
selected outtakes from that interview:

You never talked to anyone about being gay when you
were a teenager. What scared you about it?

I think it was the religion, growing up in the
church.

What faith?
Nondenominational.

But Christian?
Yeah, Christian. So growing up, it was preached
that it was a negative thing and that it was a curse.
So listening to all that stuff, I really got very
fearful.

But since college, even though you were in the
closet in the NFL, you’ve been able to tell a few
people that you’re gay.

Yeah, my close friends. And the people that I do
tell have been wonderful. [They say,] “You
think I’m going to lose a friend over this?
Why? You’re like my brother and I love you.
I’m going to forget about all the things
you’ve done for me?” Stuff like that. They
love me for the person that I am, and that
didn’t change a bit when I told them that I was
gay. And that’s a wonderful feeling.

But while you were in the NFL, you must have spent
a lot of time out there just on your own. When you were
at an away game, staying at some out-of-town
place, did you sneak off to the local gay bar?

No, we never really had time to. Every team that
I played on, we’d always go the day before.
We’d get there in the afternoon in just enough time
to go out to dinner and come back and have [team]
meetings and stuff like that.

You’ve said that you always tried to keep your
head down in the NFL, stay out of the limelight.

I was always an Indian, never a chief, you
know?

It’s hard to be a chief when you’re a
defensive tackle.

And because of the fear and anxiety, I really
did just enough not to get too noticed. I would do
media, but I wouldn’t do a lot of it. I was just
so afraid that I would be outed. I would rush into the
locker room, get ready, and leave, so I
wouldn’t get interviewed or have to deal with any
of that. Because I was just so afraid of— [mimes
fanfare, then laughs
]. I mean, full spread, front
cover.

And now you’re on the cover of The Advocate. At
the same time, over in the November issue of
Playboy, Rams running back Marshall Faulk says,
“I’d have nothing against anybody if they
were gay, but really, I don’t want to know.
I don’t want to know what so-and-so did with his
wife last night, so why would I want to know if
he’s smoking the pole?” But really,
is it possible to be in a locker room and not hear what
the guys are doing with the girls? I mean, there
is locker room talk --

About women? Yeah!

So isn’t it a little disingenuous for a football
player to say he doesn’t want to hear about
people’s sex lives in the locker room when
you hear about it all the time?

Yeah, but this is totally different.
[Laughs] It’s funny that he said that.

“Smoking the pole”?
Where does he come up with that?

I think we’ve reached the point where people
want to make a joke out of it, trying to use humor to
soften the blow of saying, “We don’t
want any gay people here.”

Oh, you mean sugarcoating? Yeah. On
OutSports.com [someone said], “Oh, I have no
problem with gays and lesbians, but my best friend
does.” It’s sugarcoating.

So someone can express his prejudice and still have
people like him.

Yeah.

Tell me about going to the Super Bowl.
It was awesome. I’ll tell you one story:
We had this media day where it was just reporters from
all over the world. Well, this reporter from London or
somewhere, [with] MTV-colored hair -- really flamboyant --
asked me, When I make a tackle do I like to be a top or a
bottom? [Laughs]

And you kept a straight face?
No! Actually, I laughed and giggled.

What was your answer?
Well, if we don’t know, only my husband
will find out!

No, I mean, what was your answer to her?
Oh, I gave her my answer, but I’m not going to
give it to you here.

You took her seriously and gave her a real answer?
Yeah, I gave her a real answer, and she just said,
“Oh!” I guess she thought she was
interviewing somebody that she could make fun of.

By the time you got to the Super Bowl you were
already living with Mitchell. When did you start living together?

In ’98, I think, we moved in
together.

While you were still in the NFL.
Yeah. But we were living together. I was over at
his place. Just to be able to have somebody to hold is
wonderful. And he’s been there through thick
and thin with me.

In raising your two kids, does one of you play good
cop and one bad cop?

No, we do the same. And we’re still
talking about the parenting thing because we’re
from different cultures—I bring to the table what I
think, and he brings to the table what he thinks. But
it’s good.

Do your siblings all still live in Hawaii?
I have a sister who lives in Los Angeles, and a sister
lives with me in Minnesota. My mom goes back and
forth, and the rest of the family is in Hawaii.

What ages are your siblings?
The oldest sibling is 46. I’m [the
youngest, at] 34.

What is your ethnic background?
Samoan and French. When the third-oldest was born, my
parents went from Samoa to Hawaii, and that’s
where we all ended up. It’s a beautiful place.
But the thing that happened to me is that I left the island
and I was able to see other things. I love Hawaii, and
I love the feeling, but I also love the mainland. You
don’t feel like you’re living on a rock. I
think there’s a term, “rock
fever.”

Whose idea was it to move to California when you
were in high school?
I had an aunt who asked my mom if I could come over and
stay with her. [We thought] it would be better for me
as far as education and everything else. I made the
sacrifice, leaving home and leaving my mom. It was a
big decision, but I felt I needed to do it. It’s
funny, but my life’s always been like that.
I’ve always made sacrifices in my life -- you
have to. Everybody should do it if they want to accomplish
their dream or something that they know is out there
for them. You have to have sacrifice in your
life.

Was it even in your mind that it might be a better
launching pad for a football career?
Oh, no. Actually, in Hawaii football was never a
favorite sport of mine! [Laughs] In Hawaii as a
little kid it was really difficult to get to see
games. Back then, you’d have to wake up early
in the morning to watch the games. Now that we have
satellite and cable, it’s a lot easier because
they can delay the game until a later time. But when I
was growing up it was mostly going to the beach:
bodysurfing and surfing and that type of thing.

In high school you did football; you did wrestling;
you did track. How did you end up a tackle? I would
think if you did track, that would mean
you’re fast and that would put you into
another position.

Well, in high school I was a running back and a
linebacker. Then when I got recruited for college, my
Polynesian genes kicked in and I gained some weight,
so I went from a linebacker to [defensive line]. And when
you go to college they make you choose one position, so I
chose defense because I was a little bit better at
that.

All this time you knew you were gay and didn’t
tell anyone. Did you know of any other gay people in
your family?
I did have a cousin who was gay.

What age, relative to you?
A lot older. But we never discussed anything; I never
discussed anything with anybody. I knew that he was,
but it wasn’t like a topic --

You were scared to talk to him.
Yeah, exactly [laughs]. I was scared to
talk to him. I laugh now because I can, but it was
horrible.

And you grew up in a small town?
Waimanalo. It’s in the countryside. But once I
discovered what [being gay] was, I got scared of it
and I went into the closet with it. And that’s
where football started—or sports, I should say. And
that’s where it all got difficult.

Was there anybody you could talk to?
To actually talk to? No, not when I was a young
athlete.

Are you coming out now, in part, to help young
athletes who think they’re all alone? What made
you want to tell your story at this time in your life?

I wanted the opportunity, when I met people, to
know that they wanted to talk to me because of who I
am and not because I’m this ex-NFL player. I
want the opportunity to go with my husband and our kids to
the market and not have to -- when I see somebody that
knows me -- [say,] “Oh, this is my best
friend.” Even though I was out of the limelight as
far as the NFL, I was still living under that shell.
We have a bubble, and we have a circle of friends who
are beautiful people and are really supportive, and we
have family. I want to eliminate [the confines of] that
circle. I want people to know. I want to be Esera to
everyone, and I want to be myself. I want to have a
great life and be happy with my family. If people
disagree with it, at least I will know where they stand. And
I will know where people stand as far as them not
trying to get to know me because I was a football
player.

Now people will want to get to know you because
you’re openly gay.

Well, I’ll be myself then. I will be
myself and not this actor. [I don’t want my
kids to] wonder, How come you don’t hold
Daddy’s hand?
or How come you don’t
show affection with Daddy?

So you look at your kids and think, If I’m
honest with them, I have to be honest with everyone.

Yeah. And also be honest with myself.
They’re a part of everything. I love them so
much.

And Mitchell gets to be completely honest now too,
after all those years of helping to keep your secret.

It hasn’t all been…one thing about
being in the NFL with all the pressure -- we’ve
had our ups and downs. We’ve definitely had our
problems. But he’s been a wonderful person and
a trouper to hang in with me.

This coming-out, did you decide to do it together?
Or did you just say, “You know, it’s time”?

It’s time. But he also knows the
importance of it. We talked about it. [My thinking
was,] Gosh, we’ve got to do this because I just want
to be able to be in the same room with you. I want my
friends to get to know you; I want your friends to get
to know me.

Before we finish, let’s talk a little bit about
your singing. Tell me about singing the national anthem
in front of thousands of people for the first
time, at a basketball game when you were in college.

Oh, my gosh: [When] they announced my name,
things went silent. You could hear a pin drop. I think
everybody was surprised. Wait a minute, this is Esera
Tuaolo singing the national anthem -- what? And
that’s when I started shaking, until I blurted
out the first note, and then it was fine.

Then what happened?
It was like a chain reaction, where people would see me
sing at an event and ask me to sing for their event,
so I did some NBA games. [Then when I sang the
national anthem] in my rookie year in the NFL, it was on
national television, and I didn’t know that, because
I went home that day and my message machine was just
filled with messages: “Oh, my gosh, you sounded
great!” “Oh, my gosh, you gained
weight!” [Laughs] “Oh, you’re
huge, but you sounded great!” All these
messages on my machine.

I saw comparisons of your voice to Aaron Neville’s.
That’s a compliment, because I think he’s
got a beautiful voice.

Is Mitchell involved in your musical career?
He used to work for Prince, and that was the
[musical] connection for us. He introduced me to my
manager now, Jill Willis, who’s an incredible
woman. She also used to manage Prince -- now she manages
Donny Osmond and me! [Laughs]

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