“I wanted to kill myself. Many times. Because I felt so alone.”
These are the words of Esera Tuaolo. Nine-year NFL veteran. Morris Trophy winner.
Listed as 6-foot-2, 281 pounds during his playing days, the defensive tackle appears to have kept in shape during retirement. He is still strong, large and intimidating.
Just like an NFL lineman is supposed to be.
And yet, while it looks like he would fit right in at any locker room, Tuaolo felt unwelcome during his career because of his sexual orientation.
To hear the trembling in his voice and see the tears in his eyes as he says those words is enough to make anybody shake in their boots.
But it’s a story that must be told if countless others are to be spared from living in fear as Tuaolo did for so many years.
It must be told if there will be an end to the stigma of homosexuality, not just in sports but beyond.
It must be told in the hopes of saving those who may go that extra step to end the torment like Tuaolo had been tempted to do time and time again.
Tuaolo shared his story on ReOrientation, a three-part TSN series about homophobia in sports, which debuted Wednesday night. The premiere episode also featured Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play, and Chris Kluwe, former NFL punter and advocate for marriage equality. Aaron Ward, TSN analyst and former NHL defenceman, hosts the series and also contributes with his own locker room experiences.
Part 1 of the series focused on language used in the locker room and the effects it can have on closeted teammates. How the use of terms like “gay” and “fag” as a form of derision is harmful. Using who they are as an insult — even if not directed toward them — sends the message that they are not valued. Being themselves is not allowed.
Often times these terms get thrown around even if the offending player doesn’t harbour hate toward gay people. Burke calls this “casual homophobia” — two words that should not be juxtaposed — and says the simplest way to purge this behaviour is through education and empathy.
Be aware these words can harm the very core of a person even if it’s not your intention. There are other terms of contempt one can use.
In an extended version of the Tuaolo interview, the ex-NFLer goes into detail about his experience as a gay professional athlete.
How the fear of being found out crippled his ability to play football.
How teammates violently reacted toward being called homosexual.
How he was afraid to lose his livelihood.
How it drove him to drink.
How he came so close to ending it all.
Tuaolo’s story transcends sports, and the lessons absorbed from a series like ReOrientation apply to aspects of life. Homophobia is not limited to locker rooms. It happens in our homes. It happens in the office. It happens on the street. It happens online.
Sports, however, has the ability to instantly bring the conversation of homophobia to every one of those locations. It also has icons and heroes that can act as the face and voice of those conversations.
Tuaolo was once of those heroes. From 1991-99, he lined up for the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
He played his entire career in the closet.
Does the fact he is gay make him less masculine?
If you need help answering that, just take one good look at him.
UPDATE 1: Here’s Part 2 of the series.
UPDATE 2: Here’s Part 3 of the series.