To look back on Esera Tuaolo’s career, you might think football was the best thing that ever happened to him. After growing up the son of an illiterate banana farmer in a dirt-floored hut in Hawaii, Tuaolo went on to be drafted into the NFL by the Green Bay Packers in 1991 and became the first rookie in league history to start all 16 games in a season. Tuaolo played with the Minnesota Vikings from 1992 to 96 and played in a Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons.
But off the field, Tuaolo wallowed in depression and loneliness because he felt forced to hide the fact that he was gay. He drank heavily, struggled with anxiety attacks and frequently considered suicide. Tuaolo retired in 2000 to escape the lifestyle, and in 2003 he went on HBO’s Real Sports to make his secret known.
Tualo, who shared his story at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge on Tuesday, March 1, now travels the country speaking on the growing problem of bullying and oppression against gays and lesbians. He cited the examples of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his roommate outed him on the internet, and Justin Aaber, a 15-year-old Anoka High School student who killed himself in his bedroom after experiencing his first year of anti-gay bullying in high school. It is believed at least two of the seven students who committed suicide in the Anoka-Hennepin School District last year were gay.
Tuaolo said his experience began as child when he saw his schoolmates throwing rocks at another boy on the playground. When Tuaolo asked them why, the bullies replied with a derogatory term for gay men and said the boy liked to play with his sister’s dolls. Tuaolo said that introduction to hate led him to hide his feelings and from that day on he became an “actor,” bulking up and affecting an ultra-masculine persona to throw off suspicion.
“I saw this boy being spit on, and I saw that I didn’t want to be that young boy,” Tuaolo said.
Tuaolo was excited to head off to college at Oregon State, where he anticipated a more mature and accepting group of peers.
“But actually it was worse… in the locker room hearing all those things, knowing that they’re talking about you and you couldn’t say anything,” Tuaolo said. “Even though you could beat them up, but you couldn’t say anything.”
In the NFL, the locker room banter was compounded by the fear that Tuaolo’s newfound fame would dredge up someone from his past who might reveal him, leading to alienation and the risk of other players intentionally trying to injure him—including his own teammates.
But Tuaolo, who now lives in Minneapolis with his partner and two children, said after 35 years he’s happy to finally feel like himself. Tuaolo also said regardless of religious convictions or personal views, all people should condemn the mistreatment and bullying brought on by homophobia.
Tuaolo’s presentation for students and faculty came as part of the ARCC’s series of lectures organized by Marcellus Davis, the school’s director of diversity and multicultural affairs. Davis explained the theme of the series this year is interconnectedness. The point of the lectures, according to Davis, is not to force people to agree with a new viewpoint, but to allow them to understand the issues and the people involved. To that end Davis said Tuaolo fit the bill well because he provides a human face to the issue of homophobia, and one not many people expect.
“I think the voice, the size, helped the message become clear,” Davis said.
The lecture series will continue on March 23 with a presentation on how DNA connects people. The lectures are free and open to the public. For more information on the series, call 763-433-1695.