On the field, defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo pieced together a solid nine-year career in the NFL. Off the field, though, he provided a much greater contribution to the game of football and society as a whole.
With the 35th overall pick of the 1991 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers selected highly-heralded defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo from Oregon State. Coming off a very successful career in college, Tuaolo had much going for him.
There was one thing in his life that he struggled with, though: Tuaolo was gay.
Quickly into his rookie season, Tuaolo showed much promise as the starting nose tackle in the Packers’ 3-4 defense, registering 48 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his initial NFL campaign. Additionally, Tuaolo puts his musical talents to use in Green Bay, as he sang the national anthem prior to the Packers’ Oct. 17, 1991, tilt with the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
Yet, the success didn’t have the impact one would imagine. Rather, much as it did during his college career, it made Tuaolo fearful.
“The dream to succeed in the NFL and achieve all that football had to offer was at times a nightmare,” Tuaolo later said in his book Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL. “I struggled to survive the combative, macho world dominated by a culture that despised who I really am. Had opponents and teammates known I was gay, they would have mocked me the way I heard them ridicule others with sexual slurs.”
With the dismissal of Lindy Infante, Tuaolo’s life became even more uneasy. In Green Bay, the desire of Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren to overhaul the roster and the emergence of fellow ’91 rookie John Jurkovic made Tuaolo expendable. After seeing minimal action in the team’s first four games, he was released midway through the 1992 season.
Tuaolo eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings late in 1992 and stayed on Dennis Green’s roster for four more seasons. However, the pressure to hide who he was nearly becoming too much to bear.
“You thought about killing yourself last year,” Tuaolo recalled in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko. “You even forced open the window in your 15th-story apartment, ready to end the depression and the pain you’ve been treating with alcohol and painkillers. But you didn’t do it. You thought about your mother, alone in Hawaii, and the life you can give her with an NFL career. Green Bay didn’t work out, but there’s a lot of football left to play.”
Tuaolo would eventually discover something that helped turn things around: a copy of the book The David Kopay Story. A few years following his retirement, Kopay – who actually spent his final NFL season with the Packers in 1972 – revealed he was gay in his book that also detailed discriminatory behavior against himself and others within the LGBTQ community.
Tuaolo’s NFL career would last three more seasons with one-year stints in Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Carolina before he stepped away from the game for good. Once out of football, Tuaolo became inspired to come out and “live the truth.” In 2002, he appeared on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and became the third former NFL player to reveal they were gay. In the interview, Tuaolo described how he handled hiding his true identity.
Following the release of his book in 2006, Tuaolo became a national advocate for LGBTQ rights, speaking out against homophobia through his non-profit organization Hate Is Wrong. Additionally, he has put his musical talents to use, appearing on the hit NBC show The Voice in 2017 and singing the national anthem at several sports venues – including at Lambeau Field prior to the Packers’ Sept. 14, 2014, tilt with the Jets.
Though his NFL career may have been a struggle at times, finding and revealing his true self has become something he encourages others to do.
“We are living in different times,” he said in a 2019 interview. “It’s not there 100 percent, but it is much more inclusive, more accepting. So it’s all on them. You come out when you’re ready. Make sure you have the support and a good environment and be ready for yourself to come out. It’s a whole lot better on the other side.”