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Tackling
football's closet

Tackling
football's closet

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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

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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