Former NFL Lineman Latest Gay Games Ambassador

Fri. September 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Chicago, IL - Former National Football League player Esera Tuaolo had just come out in November 2002 when the last Gay Games was held in Sydney, Australia.

But since that time Tuaolo has heard enough about the Gay Games that he is determined not to miss the next one in Chicago in 2006. In fact, he has become the latest Gay Games Ambassador promoting the event itself and the Gay Games movement's ideals of "Participation, Inclusion and Personal Best."

"Playing in the National Football League as a gay man has given me strength in areas that I never thought I could make a difference," Tuaolo said. "Now that I am out and proud I have learned that breaking stereotypes is a very important part of moving forward in our fight for equality. That's what the Gay Games are all about -- breaking down stereotypes about athletes in the LGBT community. I'm happy to add my voice to those telling the world that Gay Games participants, whether novice or world class athletes, are your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins."

Tuaolo, a Samoan born in Hawaii, was well liked and respected during his nine NFL years for his sunny disposition and accomplishments on the field. He was a quick, 280-pound (127-kilo) defensive tackle who entered the NFL after having been selected the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10 in 1989 at Oregon State. He was elected to the NFL all-rookie team in 1991 while playing for the Green Bay Packers, spent several years playing for the Minnesota Vikings, and he was on the Atlanta Falcons team that won the National Football Conference title and played in Super Bowl XXXIII in 1998.

But despite what many would consider a successful career, Tuaolo has openly acknowledged the difficulty and pain of being a closeted gay man in the super-macho world of American professional football. He struggled with drinking and depression while hiding his true nature. Even after retiring in 1999, it took him more than three years to begin living openly.

"I am very thankful to those athletes whose inspiring stories have paved the way for a gay athlete like myself," said Tuaolo. "I will always be grateful to David Kopay for writing his story, as it gave me hope and, during some dark moments, the will to live. I only pray that my story is equally inspiring to others." Former NFL running back David Kopay came out in his 1977 autobiography that became a New York Times bestseller.

Since coming out himself, Tuaolo has become a generous spokesperson for the LGBT community, seeking to help young people, gay or straight, learn about life through his experiences. But perhaps the most important speech he has given was just last month when he was invited to talk about being a gay man in sports to nearly 200 NFL employees at league headquarters in New York.

"I have always said that in order for change to happen in the NFL, it needs to come from the top," said Tuaolo. "It took them long enough, but inviting an openly gay NFL alumnus to speak at their office was a huge step for them. I wanted to educate them on the challenges I faced in the NFL, hoping they would take it to heart and include LGBT issues in their diversity program.

"I shared with them not just the inequality that I faced in the NFL but also the inequality that my husband Mitchell and I face as a nine-year committed couple. I showed them a picture of Mitchell's sister-in-law and her family and a picture of our family with our beautiful twins, Mitchell Jr. and Michele. I told them that when I leave this life behind I want my family to receive what is rightfully theirs. The inequality affects not just NFL players but other NFL employees as well."

Living in Minneapolis now with his partner Mitchell Wherley and their children, Tuaolo is close to Chicago and looks forward to appearances there on behalf of Gay Games VII. A gifted singer, he is interested in both the artistic and athletic events traditionally held at the Gay Games and is star struck enough to admit looking forward to meeting fellow Gay Games Ambassadors such as Melissa Etheridge.

"I don't believe sumo wrestling is a part of the Gay Games so I will have to choose another sport," Tuaolo laughed. "Flag football is offered, but there is a huge enough difference between flag and tackle football that I will have a difficult time adjusting. Also, I wouldn't want to have a flashback of sacking Brett Favre and end up taking out someone -- just kidding, of course! I have taken up tennis and since my good friend Billy Bean will be playing tennis I just want to say, 'Bring it on, Billy!'"

Today, Tuaolo is a happy man with plenty of activities to keep him busy.

"People ask me whether playing in the NFL was my dream," Tuaolo said. "My answer is no, I am living my dream, being an out and proud athlete, having a committed relationship, two children, two dogs, and the house with the white picket fence. I have a lot to look forward to, and I can't wait to see everyone at the 2006 Gay Games in beautiful Chicago."