A Gay Football Player, 'Alone in the Trenches' Esera Tuaolo played many years in the National Football League while hiding a secret from teammates: he's gay. He tells Liane Hansen about his memoir of the experience: Alone in the Trenches.

A Gay Football Player, 'Alone in the Trenches'

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No matter how short his career, it's the dream of every football player to make it to the Super Bowl. And in 1999 Esera Tuaolo's dream came true. He was a nose guard for the Atlanta Falcons in the big game against the Denver Broncos. The Broncos won, but Tuaolo had the distinction of making the last play of the game. His new memoir, Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, will be published in March.

When I recently spoke with Tuaolo, he described what it was like to have the chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Mr. ESERA TUAOLO (Former NFL player): It was amazing. For every NFL player, it's a dream. But like the icing on the cake, when you're standing there at the Super Bowl, in the middle of the field, and knowing that millions of people around the world are watching you, it's just one of those incredible feelings. The way I put it is like when you're a child and stuff and when you open up your Christmas present and it's what you wanted.

HANSEN: But millions of people watching you, that icing on the cake had a bitter taste to it.

TUAOLO: Yes, it did. It did. Because I as living this double life. Me having a husband, and not being able to share him. Or me just not being able to truly be who I truly was, a gay NFL player.

HANSEN: Were you afraid that people who knew you as a gay man would recognize you and out you at the time?

TUAOLO: Yes. That was one of the biggest fears that I was living with, is that someone would see me on television and might out me. So everything that I worked so hard for, you know, since I was a little kid, that would be all taken away. Or to support my family. Just because society didn't accept who I truly was.

HANSEN: Was there a thought in your head like, you know, I'm a football player, I can't be gay, football players aren't gay?

Mr. TUAOLO: Oh, most definitely. You know, there's always times in your life where you think you're going through a phase and that, you know, you really can't be, you know, gay. I mean I'm a football player, I'm doing well, what, you know, this, it can't be, I can't be gay. It was very difficult. But there was nobody that I could talk to. Nobody. But you know, another thing, Liane, what football also brought was some way that I could release all my frustrations on the field, you know, everything that I had tensed up, everything that I had, you know, in the back of my spine I could, you know, unleash on someone in a safe way.

HANSEN: What do you think would have happened to you if you had come out while you were playing for the NFL?

Mr. TUAOLO: It wouldn't have been pretty. I think because of society not really accepting homosexuality and hearing all the negative things in the locker room, not only by the players but also by coaches, it wouldn't have been pretty. And you know, Sterling Sharpe, when I came out in 2002, said that I wouldn't have made it, you know, to the next Sunday, meaning somebody on my team would try to hurt me.

With football being such a macho sport, you know, the good ol' boy sports, if I would have came out while I was still playing and been able to, you know, dominate against another player, don't you think something would have happened? I mean the embarrassment of a gay guy, you know, beating up a straight, you know, player, it would have been difficult. It would have been very, very difficult. And I think I would have lost my job. I think I would have got hurt, or maybe killed. I don't know.

HANSEN: You write about a lot of people have a misguided idea of what actually goes on in a professional football locker room.

Mr. TUAOLO: (Laughing) I think when I first came out, a lot of people wanted to bring it into the locker rooms and the showers, you know, like this is such a erotic place and, you know, that you can't function, you know, while I was in the locker room with, you know, a lot of the other athletes or a lot of the other players. But what people don't really realize, the difficultness of making the team through training camp and going through battle with a bunch of your brothers, meaning the players on the team, you become a huge family. And that's what it was for me and a lot of the other players. We became family. Once you made a roster, everyone was family.

HANSEN: Do you think you would have been a better player had you not been carrying around this secret?

Mr. TUAOLO: Most definitely. Most definitely. I tell people it's like having a cold, you know, you have a cold but you still go to work, And that's how it was with me, you know, most of the times. I would have been, you know -- and I only say this because I have facts or things I can back it up with. I've won awards back when I was in high school. I was the Defensive Player of the Year in high school. You know, I won the Morris Trophy, Best Defensive Pac-10, you know, Defensive Line Pac-10 Player. It was just one of those things, you know. Yes, I would have been a better player. But when I got into the NFL, it just got a lot more difficult because there was a lot more that people could take away from me.

HANSEN: Esera Tuaolo's book is called “Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL.” It will be published by Sourcebooks in March. He joined us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Esera, thank you so much.

HANSEN: Oh, thank you for having me.

HANSEN: You can read an excerpt from “Alone in the Trenches” on our Web site, npr.org.

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