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Ex-NFL player discusses homophobia in sports, hopes to promote tolerance of homosexuality in future

By Gus Cantwell
On November 28, 2011

  • Former NFL athlete Esera Tuaolo sings the song that saved his life, Sarah McLaughlin's In the Arms of an Angel, during his talk last night in Edwards Auditorium. Teresa Kelly



Growing up in Hawaii along with his parents and eight siblings, then six-year-old Esera Tuaolo witnessed a group of kids beat up a boy because of his perceived homosexuality.

"When I saw that, I saw a little bit of me [in him]," Tuaolo said in front of a few hundred students and community members in the University of Rhode Island's Edwards Auditorium last night. "That was the day I took that kid within me and threw it in the cabinet and shut the door."

Now 43 years old, Tuaolo is a former NFL defensive lineman, a father of two children and an openly gay man. After spending the first 35 years of his life as "an actor," Tuaolo decided to come out on national television after his retirement from football.

"I came out because I wanted to be happy," he said. Tuaolo came to the University of Rhode Island to speak particularly to the university's student-athletes about homophobia in sports and the difficulties of being a gay athlete. Speaking for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender community, he explained that his journey was long and arduous, and his sexuality often got in the way of his successes.

Though he said coming out was one of the toughest events of his life, he is glad he revealed the secret that tore him apart inside.  

"If I felt like this when I was playing, the sky [would have been] the limit," he said.

Tuaolo admitted he often held back during his career for fear that his prominence would cause someone to reveal his homosexuality.  He said this exposure could have alienated him from his teammates.

One particular example occurred during his first season in the NFL. After making a great defensive play, his mind "blanked out" from fear and he could not remember the rest of the game.

"I just remember going home and seeing my friendand having tequila to drink my pain away," he said. "Instead of [being] happy, I got so worried that someone was going to [reveal my sexuality]."

Twelve years removed from his playing days, Tuaolo speaks with athletes across the country to promote awareness and tolerance of homosexuals, as well as the elimination of the words "faggot," "queer," and "homo" as derogatory words.

"I'm doing it for the kids, the ones who don't have a voice," he said.

He explained that players need to be held accountable for their actions, and that coaches should "create a safe environment for [their] players."

During a luncheon earlier in the day, Tuaolo said he wants to make a special connection with the people he speaks to.

"I love to make sure that my audience feels like the victim," he said. He believes doing so is the best way to make people understand the traumas in his life.

Tuaolo reached out to the student-athletes, likening them to celebrities who can use their prominence on campus to promote the awareness of the issue of homosexuality in athletics.

"I know a lot of football players who are gay," he said. "There are athletes at this school that have contacted me that are in the closet."

In retrospect, he believes coming out was one of the best decisions of his life. Prior to his announcement, he suffered from depression and contemplated suicide on numerous occasions.

"I'm thankful for my friends, my family, my children and I'm happy to still be alive," Tuaolo said during the luncheon. "Hopefully when my children go to college, this will be an afterthought."

Though the people of his church turned away from him after his announcement, Tuaolo remains true to his faith. He believes God will love him and others like him unconditionally.

He punctuated his presentation by singing Sarah McLaughlin's "In the Arms of an Angel," a song Tuaolo heard on the radio that he believes saved his life because it gave him the strength and courage to stay alive.

During the hour-long presentation, Tuaolo explained much of his life as well has his hopes for the future. His main message was clear, and his repetition cemented the phrase in the walls of the building.         

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words kill."

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