Former player says NFL not ready for gays

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

NEW YORK -- On too many desperate nights in a life of lies as a gay player in the NFL, Esera Tuaolo drank himself to sleep, hoping he wouldn't wake up.

There were times when he sped away from nightclubs, hating the pretense -- the smiling Mr. Aloha, hugging and kissing the ladies in a grand show -- thinking as he drove crazily at 100 mph that he could end his torment so easily just by turning the wheel.

Those days are over now that he's come out, telling his story, he says, ''so I can live in my truth.''

The mammoth 34-year-old former defensive lineman wants people to accept him for who is, and to accept his family in the suburbs of Minneapolis -- partner Mitchell Wherley and their 23-month-old twins, Mitchell and Michele, adopted from Tuaolo's native Samoa when they were a week old.

''It's a quest for happiness,'' he said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. ''I want my children to know when they grow up that their father is comfortable with who he is, and we don't have anything to hide.''

Tuaolo's coming-out tour of TV shows, newspapers and magazines -- two years after retiring from a nine-year career -- is more than a personal liberation. He wants to ''put a face on the gay football player, break stereotypes and make people talk.''

He encourages other gay athletes to reveal themselves when they're ready, though he cautions active NFL players to stay in the closet.

''I really don't think they should come out,'' he said. ''I don't think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player.''

Coming out is a tough, deeply personal decision that involves risks for any athlete, especially in team sports. Tuaolo feared that if he had done it while playing, he would have been cut and blackballed or become a target for cheap shots on the field -- from opponents and his teammates.

None of his former teammates has called him since he came out a few days ago on HBO's ''Real Sports.'' Sterling Sharpe, a teammate with Green Bay, told the show that if Tuaolo had come out when he was playing, ''he would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it.''

Virtually every part of society has accepted homosexuality, but there is not one openly gay player in pro football, basketball, baseball or hockey. Nothing has changed in those sports, even 25 years after Dave Kopay chronicled his life as a gay NFL running back in the 1960s and early '70s.

As ridiculous and antiquated as it may seem, Tuaolo said, most coaches and players still believe that a gay player would jeopardize team unity and undermine the macho image of the gladiator.

Tuaolo heard the usual locker room jokes about gays, the comments equating weakness with homosexuality, and he would bite his lip and retreat deeper into the closet. To thwart suspicions that he was gay, he acted like the straight jocks, going to strip clubs, parties, making sure somebody saw him kissing women or leaving with them.

Tuaolo had homosexual feelings as long as he can remember, even as far back as 5, when he was attracted to boys. He had his first gay affairs when he was in college, but he was afraid to develop a steady relationship until 1997, when a friend in Hawaii gave him Kopay's book.

He was playing for Minnesota at the time, and later that year he met and fell in love with Wherley, who was two years older and owned day spas with his family in Minneapolis.

Tuaolo had friends everywhere he played -- Green Bay, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Carolina -- but none that he felt comfortable confiding in. He cut off friendships when he moved from one team to another, and his play suffered at times, he said, because of his anxiety. After retiring two years ago, Tuaolo deepened his relationship with Wherley by adopting the twins with him. This past July, they all went on a rafting trip, along with his parents, and found themselves lying to strangers to perpetuate their secret.

''It was very ugly,'' Tuaolo said.

Tuaolo decided it was time to come out, to end the lies.

''Now I'm so happy, because the thing that I've been living with, that gave me the sleepless nights, the trembling, the hurt, the drunkenness, the suicidal stuff, it's lifted,'' he said. ''I'm not Mr. Aloha with something to hide anymore. I have a big smile now, and I really mean it.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org

CREDIT:AP Photo/Tina Fineberg

CAPTION:Esera Tuaolo poses after an interview Wednesday in New York.

HEAD:Former player says NFL not ready for gays

BYLINE1:By STEVE WILSTEIN

BYLINE2:AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK -- On too many desperate nights in a life of lies as a gay player in the NFL, Esera Tuaolo drank himself to sleep, hoping he wouldn't wake up.

There were times when he sped away from nightclubs, hating the pretense -- the smiling Mr. Aloha, hugging and kissing the ladies in a grand show -- thinking as he drove crazily at 100 mph that he could end his torment so easily just by turning the wheel.

Those days are over now that he's come out, telling his story, he says, ''so I can live in my truth.''

The mammoth 34-year-old former defensive lineman wants people to accept him for who is, and to accept his family in the suburbs of Minneapolis -- partner Mitchell Wherley and their 23-month-old twins, Mitchell and Michele, adopted from Tuaolo's native Samoa when they were a week old.

''It's a quest for happiness,'' he said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. ''I want my children to know when they grow up that their father is comfortable with who he is, and we don't have anything to hide.''

Tuaolo's coming-out tour of TV shows, newspapers and magazines -- two years after retiring from a nine-year career -- is more than a personal liberation. He wants to ''put a face on the gay football player, break stereotypes and make people talk.''

He encourages other gay athletes to reveal themselves when they're ready, though he cautions active NFL players to stay in the closet.

''I really don't think they should come out,'' he said. ''I don't think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player.''

Coming out is a tough, deeply personal decision that involves risks for any athlete, especially in team sports. Tuaolo feared that if he had done it while playing, he would have been cut and blackballed or become a target for cheap shots on the field -- from opponents and his teammates.

None of his former teammates has called him since he came out a few days ago on HBO's ''Real Sports.'' Sterling Sharpe, a teammate with Green Bay, told the show that if Tuaolo had come out when he was playing, ''he would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it.''

Virtually every part of society has accepted homosexuality, but there is not one openly gay player in pro football, basketball, baseball or hockey. Nothing has changed in those sports, even 25 years after Dave Kopay chronicled his life as a gay NFL running back in the 1960s and early '70s.

As ridiculous and antiquated as it may seem, Tuaolo said, most coaches and players still believe that a gay player would jeopardize team unity and undermine the macho image of the gladiator.

Tuaolo heard the usual locker room jokes about gays, the comments equating weakness with homosexuality, and he would bite his lip and retreat deeper into the closet. To thwart suspicions that he was gay, he acted like the straight jocks, going to strip clubs, parties, making sure somebody saw him kissing women or leaving with them.

Tuaolo had homosexual feelings as long as he can remember, even as far back as 5, when he was attracted to boys. He had his first gay affairs when he was in college, but he was afraid to develop a steady relationship until 1997, when a friend in Hawaii gave him Kopay's book.

He was playing for Minnesota at the time, and later that year he met and fell in love with Wherley, who was two years older and owned day spas with his family in Minneapolis.

Tuaolo had friends everywhere he played -- Green Bay, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Carolina -- but none that he felt comfortable confiding in. He cut off friendships when he moved from one team to another, and his play suffered at times, he said, because of his anxiety. After retiring two years ago, Tuaolo deepened his relationship with Wherley by adopting the twins with him. This past July, they all went on a rafting trip, along with his parents, and found themselves lying to strangers to perpetuate their secret.

''It was very ugly,'' Tuaolo said.

Tuaolo decided it was time to come out, to end the lies.

''Now I'm so happy, because the thing that I've been living with, that gave me the sleepless nights, the trembling, the hurt, the drunkenness, the suicidal stuff, it's lifted,'' he said. ''I'm not Mr. Aloha with something to hide anymore. I have a big smile now, and I really mean it.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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