"Aww, hell no! I don't want any faggots on my team. I know this might not be what people want to hear, but that's a punk. I don't want any faggots in this locker room."
Garrison Hearst, San Francisco 49ers running back, as quoted in the Fresno Bee on October 27, 2002.
Can you blame Esera Tuaolo for staying in the closet?
It's ironic that the National Football League is so homophobic despite its explicit homoerotic imagery. A bunch of sweaty men on a field wearing spandex pants. The goal is to drive through the other team and break the imaginary plane of the end zone. Players congratulate each other with pats on the butt. A play begins when the quarterback grabs the ball from between the center's legs. There is a key position named the tight end.
On the other hand, maybe it's not so ironic after all. I see American football as humans' version of mating rituals in other species. Elk battle for sexual stature by locking horns; modern athletes do it by fighting on the gridiron. The sexual imagery in football is a nod to this primitive urge, not an indication of a desire for gay sex.
A gay football player, however, does not fit into this equation. He's not playing the game to increase his sexual stature. Then why is he there?
See why Garrison Hearst was so upset?
Not that he has a right to be upset ...
Esera Tuaolo is the third admitted homosexual player in NFL history, following Dave Kopay and Roy Simmons. Since the league has been around for more than 75 years as of this writeup, there have certainly been scores of players who were homosexual but who never came out of the closet. Like I said, I can't blame them.
But Tuaolo didn't. In the fall of 2002, Tuaolo (who had retired after a 10-year career) told his story to HBO's Real Sports. It was a gut-wrenching experience to watch this 300-pound former defensive lineman break down and nearly cry as he cannot bear to tell the punch line of a homophobic joke he once heard in the locker room.
Tuaolo grew up in a poor family in Hawaii; his mother ran a banana plantation. He went to college at Oregon State University on an athletic scholarship and was a standout player on a very bad team. The Green Bay Packers drafted Tuaolo in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft.
He never managed to stay in one place too long; Tuaolo's longest run was from 1992-1996 with the Minnesota Vikings. In an article he wrote for ESPN The Magazine, Tuaolo remembers the fears he had after making a sack or otherwise having a great game.
I would get a sack, force a fumble, stuff a play on the goal line. And hours later, in the middle of the night, I'd wake up sweating, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Maybe someone who knows saw that, I'd think to myself. Maybe they'll call the coach, or the owner, or the papers.
Tuaolo, ESPN The Magazine, October 30, 2002
Tuaolo went to bars and strip clubs with his teammates, and when he was on the road he made sure he was seen with women. Sometimes he even slept with them. After the season he'd fly back to Hawaii, meet up with his old friends who knew and accepted his sexual orientation and bask in the anonymity.
As his career wound down, the rumors started going around. (It didn't help that his partner, Mitchell Wherley, owned a spa that many of the Vikings' players' wives used.) Eventually, he began admitting his secret to teammates; in 2002, he decided to come out for good.
Tuaolo's announcement caused a minor media frenzy in sports media circles. Of the players who went on the record, most were supportive of Tuaolo; a few (including Hearst) were not. Many refused to comment, and it is likely that there is a strong level of anti-gay sentiment among NFL players.
Tuaolo lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with Wherley and their two children. He is currently an actor and a singer.
Sources + additional information:
http://espn.go.com/magazine/vol5no23tuaolo.html Tuaolo's ESPN article.
http://www.outsports.com/nfl/20021027eseramain.htm Outsports.com article about Tuaolo.
http://www.outsports.com/nfl/20021027eserasomodisidebar.htm Outsports.com article about Joe Somodi, who helped convince Tuaolo to come out.
http://www.outsports.com/nfl/20021027eserasplayerreax.htm Quotes about Tuaolo from various NFL players.