OUT OF THE GAME
The London Times
In the macho world of American footbball Esera Tuaolo hid a guilty secret – he was gay. He tells our correspondent of his nine years of fear
When he was 5, growing up in Hawaii, the eighth child of Samoan immigrants, Esera Tuaolo learnt the meaning of the native word mahu. “It meant faggot and it was bad.” The boy stopped playing with his sister's Ken and Barbie dolls, quelled his long-held desire for an EasyBake toy oven and asked his mother for a set of cowboy pistols instead. In Church, he learnt to dread the Sundays when the pastor's wrath fell on the abomination of homosexuality. After these sermons, Esera would spend miserable hours on his knees in the family's banana patch pleading with God to take away the curse he feared was his. At 10, he joined a football team: “I decided I would be bigger, stronger and faster than anyone so they wouldn't know I was gay.”
But this resolve only propelled him to a place more intolerant, more implacable and terrifying than any small rural community of Pentecostal repenters: after winning a football scholarship to Oregon State University, in 1991 at the age of 22, Esera Tuaolo became a defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers.
There are few higher callings in a young American's life than to play in the National Football League. The NFL is the biggest, richest, most passionately partisan sport in the world; the game is war, the players are warriors – strong, virile young supermen making their living by barging, sacking, smashing and overpowering each other. Off the field they are gods, hero worshipped, highly paid, indulged; women throw themselves at their feet. At 21½ stone (136kg) and 6ft 2in (1.88m), determined and brave in combat, Tuaolo was picked early in the draft, which would ensure him good money in his first season – a $300,000 signing fee for a start, undreamed-of riches back then for the boy from the banana fields. His picture was flashed across national TV, excited phone calls flooded in, champagne flowed in his fraternity room. But that night, alone in his bed, Tuaolo lay racked with anxiety, unable to sleep.
Graphic bragging about sexual conquests of women is common in NFL locker rooms, equalled only by vigorous trading of homophobic insults – queer, faggot, fudgepacker. Off the field, almost anything is tolerated – brawling, drinking, wife-beating, womanising, racism . . . only homosexuality is beyond the pale. “If an NFL player was outed as gay,” said a veteran player recently, “he wouldn't be in the game the next Sunday.” Tuaolo agrees: “If my team-mates knew I was gay, I'd have been taken out, hurt, maybe killed,” says Tuaolo.
During his college years Tuaolo had been careful: his only sexual liaisons had been one-night stands back home in Hawaii. But now he panicked: “I thought, what if someone I'd been with sees me on TV or in the newspaper and calls up and says, 'Congratulations Green Bay, you just drafted a gay guy'.”
It was the beginning of nine years of crippling paranoia: living in constant fear of discovery, he drank heavily, partied hard and felt increasingly alone. He hated the deceit yet could trust no one with his secret. He envied his team-mates their girlfriends, marriages and families. Several times he came close to suicide. “It hurt to see players smiling with their families one night and cheating on their wives the next. They treated so lightly what I wanted so badly. Pain pills and alcohol became my closest friends.”
On a lovely limpid afternoon in New York, what remains of the city's heavy snowfall lies in grubby heaps against the edges of Central Park and Esera Tuaolo is in town, staying at the Millennium Hotel with the man he calls his husband, his partner of nearly ten years, Mitchell Wherley. They sit side by side: Tuaolo with brown skin, a broad smile, sprawling, relaxed in jeans and grey T-shirt; Wherley, smaller, pale-skinned, in a designer shirt over white T-shirt, self-contained at one end of the hotel room sofa. They are here to do media interviews to publicise Tuaolo's book, Alone in the Trenches, an account of the wilderness years before he met Wherley, before he quit the NFL, before he outed them both and their two children on national television, before he found the courage to live a truthful life.
The children, five-year-old twins from Samoa, are at home in Minneapolis with Wherley's mother, their doting grandmother; but tomorrow their parents will fly back, pick them up and take them home to their house in the suburbs; the next day Tuaolo will drop them off at pre-school as usual. His mother found the twins on a visit back to her native Samoa. “This young woman was pregnant with them and already had several children she was struggling to feed,” says Tuaolo. It was what he had always dreamed of: “I'd seen the look on the faces of my sisters and brothers when they brought home their first-borns; I wanted that, too.”
Tuaolo's own childhood was no idyll: although he adored his parents, he was routinely sexually abused by an uncle, an aunt was shot in front of him by neighbours during a family lunch party and, after his father died from alcoholism, he was sent to live with his older brother who treated the boy as his personal slave. A football scholarship was an exit pass.
But though the money was good – at one stage Tuaolo was earning more than $1 million a season – the risks were high: players lived with the ever present threat of being dropped for a poor performance or because of injury; the gilded life could disappear in a trice. The joke was that NFL stood for Not For Long. Tuaolo had his share of glory – notably playing for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999 – and of rejection: he played for a total of five teams in his nine-year career.
The closest he came to intimacy in that time was during furtive assignations in Hawaii during the off season; occasionally he dated girls – mainly for show, and he did have two affectionate but non-sexual relationships which he ended when the women began to talk of marriage. There were also encounters of the Brokeback Mountain kind, both with other footballers, both fuelled by alcohol. During his time with the Minnesota Vikings, Tuaolo recognised a deepening attraction between him and another player, Derek. One time, after a heady night's drinking, the two men fell asleep in Derek's bed and Tuaolo woke up in the night to find his friend on top of him. “I sensed an invitation to respond sexually,” says Tuaolo, “that the door had been opened. But I couldn't. I shook him. 'Dude, wake up. Get off me'.” There were further erotically charged moments between the two men but they were never acknowledged and the friendship was soon ended by Derek's suspicious and jealous fiance. On another occasion Tuaolo found himself being kissed by a team-mate, again after a befuddled night sleeping off an excess of alcohol. The guy looked appalled: “I'm not like that,” he said. “F***! You think I am?” exclaimed Tuaolo.
Neither encounter was followed up or spoken of again. “I howled at Brokeback Mountain,” says Tuaolo. “That yearning and that fear. That was me.”
When Mitchell Wherley, the successful owner of several upscale drinking clubs, rang Esera Tuaolo after their first meeting, Tuaolo was so paranoid that he pretended to be someone else. Even when they did get together (“We didn't have sex for ages, we just talked and talked”), Tuaolo was edgy and anxious; they had to live apart for three years while Tuaolo moved around different teams and was jealous and insecure, accusing Wherley of having lovers. By Tuaolo's own account, he was unreasonable and Mitchell was patient. Why did Wherley put up with it?
“Esera was everything I wanted,” he says quietly. “I wasn't about to let him go.” Wherley had grown up teased and ridiculed at school, made to feel different, an outsider. “I didn't know my real dad, I came out early and my stepfather was very homophobic. I didn't relate to a man's world; Esera was a man who could love me as a man. But my imagination stopped at the idea of maybe one day finding a long-term partner; I never dreamed of the whole kids, family in the suburbs thing. I never thought something so rich and full would be available to me. But Esera, he didn't know any better – that was what was so fresh about him. He was like, why not?! He had that whole extended family environment – that was his template. And because he never was part of a gay culture, he couldn't see any limitations.”
Wherley admits that adopting children while they were still in the closet was possibly reckless. “We had this perfect beautiful life behind closed doors. Then as they got older we realised we had to come out for them. We couldn't go on pretending. We both would want to go to the parent-teacher evenings. We owed it to them and our family and friends to stop telling lies. Esera made the decision to quit football.”
After Tuaolo introduced his ready-made family to the nation on the popular Real Sports TV show, more interviews followed, including an appearance on Oprah; people couldn't get enough of his story and a book seemed the logical progression. Don Davey, a former NFL star player, read it and was moved: “While the rest of us were living out our dreams of playing in the NFL, Esera was fighting this internal battle every day of his life in solitude,” he wrote.
It is a tale remarkably free of judgment: “I didn't want to blame or hurt people,” Tuaolo explains. He says he deliberately described his abusive older brother “hitting” him rather than the more accurate “beating”. “Beating is a very strong word,” he says, raising a huge fist in emphasis. Suddenly the big, friendly face crumples, tears well, he buries his head in his hands, overcome. While he struggles, Wherley turns towards him, waiting with quiet, focused compassion for the man he loves to recover his composure.
Since coming out in 2000, Tuaolo has become something of a preacher man, appearing on talk shows and lecture circuits, spreading his counsel of tolerance and inclusivity. He's talked to the ruling body of the NFL, suggesting that sexual orientation should be part of their diversity programme. He hasn't made much headway; it will be a while, he thinks, before a gay NFL player feels able to put his head up above the parapet.
Halfway through our conversation, a friend of Tuaolo's called by; a tall young man with close-cropped fair hair, he sat quietly on the bed during the remainder of the interview, listening intently. When I got up to go, he came with me and, in the lift down to the lobby, told me that he was a well-known professional footballer, and he, too, was gay. He wanted me to know, he said, how incredibly brave Tuaolo had been.
“I saw him on the Oprah show and got in touch,” he said. “You feel so alone in the world. I lie to all my friends and hate it. It was such a relief to be able to talk to Esera; he is a kind of lifeline and a mentor.” In the lobby, we sit down; the young man talks nervously, eagerly, just above a whisper: “You get into sport before you really know about sex or love; then, by the time you know you're definitely gay, you're part of the system, admired, well paid and scared stiff.”
The young man's off-season home is New York, where he feels reasonably anonymous. But recently, waiting by a bus stop with his current boyfriend, a bartender in a gay bar, he was recognised by one of a group of girls partying in a nearby cafe. As they flocked around him, they were joined by a young man, a regular at the bar where the boyfriend worked. “Are you all in this scene then?” somebody asked the tall young man who was by now suffering agonies of apprehension. “Don't be silly,” scoffed the girl who had recognised him in the first place. “He's a footballer.”
Alone in the Trenches extracts
“I suffered a shock in my senior year when I returned from summer vacation. I walked into the locker room and spotted the promotional poster with the team's schedule that would hang all over town – and elsewhere. It said 'Killer Beavers' but instead of the usual team photo there was a picture of just me, with my name. My breath came up short. I felt an instant ache in my gut. Other players would have been happy to see their faces on a poster, but being a gay man I felt paranoia.
That poster would go back to Hawaii. What if one of the one-night stands from Hula's recognised the man he met and realised his name wasn't Kavika? I spent a couple of weeks looking over my shoulder. I was nervous every time I walked into the coaches' room. I feared my coach summoning me in a menacing tone: 'Esera, I need to talk to you'.”
“Life got harder for me each year in the NFL. My dreams of suicide became more frequent . . . my big fear was that I would never find someone to spend my life with. I saw the other players happy with their families. It hurt to see them have what I wanted.
I did more acting during that time. I took home more women. I made sure that people saw me kiss a woman in public. I played the cover-up game harder. Each year when I returned from Hawaii for a new season, I thought, How am I going to do this?”