His life after pro football

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Former Green Bay Packer talks of coming out post-NFL

 

April 9, 2014

By Allyson Karnowski

 

With the 2014 Pride Week well underway, keynote speaker and former NFL player Esera Tuaolo will appear at 7 p.m. April 9 in  the University Center Hamilton Room to share his story of being one of only three professional football players to come out as gay.

Sponsored by the PB Poorman PRIDE Resource Center and student organization IMPACT, this year’s Pride Week is highlighted by a role model who has not only been in the NFL but has also appeared on “Oprah,” “The Tyra Banks Show” and has published an autobiography.

Tuaolo, 45, played defensive tackle in the NFL for nine seasons before coming out in 2002 on an interview for HBO’s “Real Sports” show.

In 1991, he began his NFL career with Wisconsin’s own Green Bay Packers.

Tuaolo also played for the Vikings, Jaguars, Panthers and Falcons. Although he said he doesn’t have a favorite team, his favorite year playing was 1999, when he made it to Super Bowl XXXIII with the Falcons.

“It was like putting cake in front of a little kid,” Tuaolo said. “It’s a highlight of any football player’s career.”

Although the team-player enjoyed living out his dreams in the spotlight, there was a hidden part of his life not shown on TV.

During an interview with “People” magazine in 2006, Tuaolo said, “Every day I walked into the fear that if I slipped up, said the wrong thing, looked at a naked player too long, I’d get outed.”

It was barely two decades ago, but Tuaolo said the NFL used to be a “hostile, masculine environment.”  Constantly holding onto a secret drained the pleasure from even his best accomplishments.

Looking back on those challenging years, Tuaolo wished there had been greater acceptance of the gay society that today’s professional athletes receive. He recognized this widespread support, crediting it to cultural education and many more people being true to themselves.

After publicly coming out, he initially received a lot of hate. Tuaolo said there was a lot of support that also came in, but much of what he saw were people condemning him and his family.

As a father of twins, now 13 years old, he said he tried to shelter them from the negativity, staying focused on keeping the family safe and happy.

He said it was difficult to raise his kids “in the closet.” And now, “we feel confident and complete.”

“I had been acting all my life, pretending to be straight. So it was a natural fit,” Tuaolo said.

Tuaolo, now living in Minnesota, has been in several commercials and was recently cast for a TV show pilot set to air in May.

Besides theatre, he said he’s dedicated his energy and focus to traveling the country, speaking on acceptance, homophobia and anti-bulling.

This year’s UW-W Pride Week is drawing attention to anti-bullying.

“We wanted to choose a cause affecting the LGBT community, as well as a wide variety of students,” LGBT coordinator Cindy Konrad said.

The PB Poorman PRIDE resource center has teamed up with the LGBT of Walworth County, donating the proceeds made from the April 3 Zumba/Dance Against Bullying fundraiser to help strengthen student groups, prevent and educate against bullying.

Other Pride Week events included the Ally Open House, a place where LGBT students can meet supportive faculty, staff and other students on campus; and IMPACT’s Taking Pride in History, to learn about the history of LGBT societies.

“Events are open to everybody and relative for everyone,” Konrad said. “This is really a chance for LGBT and allies to celebrate their identities.”

PRIDE intern Sonya King said this Pride Week will be exciting and educating.

“It’s more about education,” King said. “You can’t expect people to understand [the LGBT community] if they’re not educated.”

The four PRIDE interns helped organize several of this week’s events, confident of a great turnout. Having a gay, former NFL player speak on campus will hopefully appeal to wide variety of students.

“No matter what your career is, LGBTs are everywhere,” King said, noticing Tuaolo as a role model, bringing awareness to the LGBT society.

That is exactly the person Tuaolo has always dreamed of becoming, with the gay society not providing a lot of role models. He said he wants to encourage people to be true to themselves in a confident and comfortable way.

“It’s an amazing feeling, getting to that point and saying, ‘I’m gay’ for the first time,” Tuaolo said, excited to speak with UW-W students.

If you have a role model on campus within the LGBT community or allies for their leadership and support, nominations are being requested for the 2013-14 Rainbow Celebration of Excellence awards. All applications and nominations can be found online and due by April 11.