D. Orlando Ledbetter - Staff
Thursday, May 11, 2006
In nine years in the NFL, former Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo flew under the league's "gaydar."
After making a big play, tackle or sack, Tuaolo would not do a sack dance or celebrate. The last thing he wanted was his photo flashed across the television screen.
Tuaolo made the final play of the Falcons' only Super Bowl appearance in 1999 when he "touched" a kneeling John Elway. He was terrified. With the game being broadcast worldwide, the last thing he wanted was his face or name on the screen for billions to see.
"You'd be fearful that somebody would 'out' you," Tuaolo said.
About the only thing in Tuaolo's closet these days are his old NFL uniforms, including the No. 95 Falcons jersey he wore in the Super Bowl. He came out in 2002, introducing his partner and the two children they adopted on HBO's "Real Sports."
He also has written a book, "Alone in the Trenches: My life as a gay man in the NFL," and will be in Atlanta today for a book signing at 8 p.m. at Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Midtown.
During his career with Atlanta, Green Bay, Minnesota, Jacksonville and Carolina, Tuaolo went to great lengths to conceal his sexuality. While with the Falcons, Tuaolo would transform into his "Mr. Aloha" happy-go-lucky persona. He'd frequent the clubs in Buckhead and the strip club Magic City for nights of drinking and faking his affection for women.
"That was to throw the scent of the dogs off, so that nobody would know that I was gay," Tuaolo said.
During that year, he actually was in love with his partner, Mitchell Wherley.
"He kind of comforted that part of our lives," Tuaolo said. "But it was very difficult hiding our relationship and hiding who we were. It was hard. It was very hard."
Tuaolo feared that if he came out during his career that he would be intentionally injured, waived or suffer some other worse fate.
By writing about his experiences, Tuaolo hopes other players won't have to follow his path. He's met with league officials to discuss making sexuality issues a part of the NFL's diversity training program.
"I just think that we live in a society that doesn't really accept us for who we are," Tuaolo said. "Every single time the topic of homosexuality would come up, it was never anything positive."
The NFL has addressed the issue of gay tolerance during the past two Gay Pride months, according to league spokesman Greg Aiello. He also noted that Tuaolo spoke to members of the NFL staff in New York two years ago and that the league staff was given a presentation by the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) during Gay Pride Month.
Tuaolo has found support in the gay and lesbian community. A quote from TV talk show host Rosie O'Donnell is featured on his book cover. Also, some of his former teammates have supported him.
"I think Don Davey is one of them who would have accepted me for who I was," Tuaolo said of his former linemate at Jacksonville.
Tuaolo backed up tackles Shane Dronett and Travis Hall during the Falcons' 14-2 season in 1998 and march to the Super Bowl.
"That definitely was one of the greatest years of my whole career, being able to go to the Super Bowl and also playing on a team that was cool," Tuaolo said. "Some of the guys like Chuck Smith have reached out and have been very supportive."
Some of his old friends and drinking buddies, such as Green Bay's Brett Favre, haven't been as forthcoming.
"I think people need to process things in their own way," Tuaolo said. "I didn't come out of the closet to rekindle friendships with old players or anything like that. . . but I will be able to tell my grandchildren that there was one point in time that Brett Favre and I were good friends."
Despite the ease and openness with which he's been greeted, Tuaolo doesn't expect to see an openly gay player in the NFL anytime soon.
"Times are changing," Tuaolo said. "Hopefully before I die, somebody will come out. But it's been very difficult, and one of the reasons is just educating people. I think the NFL needs to do a better job of educating people on sexuality.
"As far as race is concerned, the NFL involves everyone because of all of the people playing together. But as far as sexuality, it's still in the dark ages."