Two former players describe the struggle of growing up closeted in the world of football
From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From July 2013, Robert Klemko profiles Esera Tuaolo and Wade Davis, openly gay ex-players who were in the closet during their time in the NFL...
One day in June, Esera Tuaolo was sorting through boxes of old papers when he discovered a handwritten letter he penned in high school, addressed to his future self. As part of a senior retreat taken by the class of 1986 at Don Antonio Lugo High in Chino, Calif., the exercise was meant to get students thinking about career goals. But Tuaolo’s read like a plea for mercy: “I hope your life is better than what it is today, and that you will be happy.”
Poring over the words as he stood in the garage of his Minneapolis home, the 45-year-old former NFL nosetackle was brought to tears. A second-round pick out of Oregon State in 1991, Tuaolo played nine seasons for the Vikings, Packers, Jaguars, Falcons and Panthers. He kept his homosexuality a secret during his career, and even contemplated suicide. When he came out in 2002, two years after retiring from pro football and 16 years after writing that letter, Tuaolo (pictured top right) finally found the happiness his younger self had been so desperate for. "Having to hide who I was and knowing I would have to hide for a long time, [the letter] wasn’t, ‘I want to be successful,’ ” he says. “It was just, ‘I want to be happy.’ And I am.”
No gay man has ever come out publicly while active in the NFL, but four are known to have done so on their own terms after leaving the game: Tuaolo, David Kopay, Roy Simmons and Wade Davis. The MMQB asked two of these men, Tuaolo and Davis, to write letters to their past selves, sharing what they experienced at various life stages and what they wished they had known along the way.
Tuaolo at 13
When you were six, your friends terrorized a classmate because he liked to play with his sisters’ dolls. They chased him, spit on him and called him a Mahu, Samoan for “faggot.” Your friends had no idea you preferred dolls, too, and you’ve been closeted ever since. You’re always going to hear that word, and the frustration will grow. But next year you’ll discover an outlet: high school football. Upside: You get to hit people! Downside: With success, comes scrutiny.
Davis at 15
First of all, you’re gay. You can’t stop staring at that boy in 10th-grade gym class, and no amount of straight pornography is going to make you stop thinking about him. Dude, you’re focusing on the guy in the videos! Just face it: You’re gay. Now you’re trying to figure out how to hide it, because you’re not ready to come out—and that’s OK. Problem is, you think being a class clown somehow makes you more masculine. It doesn’t. You just look stupid.
You’d like to come out, but there will be a steep price. You’ll never be a blue-chip prospect, and you’ll never play for the Packers or the Vikings. Oregon State won’t offer a scholarship to the gay nosetackle, no matter how big he is.
Tuaolo at 16
You’d like to come out, but there will be a steep price. You’ll never be a blue-chip prospect, and you’ll never play for the Packers or the Vikings. Oregon State won’t offer a scholarship to the gay nosetackle, no matter how big he is. You have to find someone to talk to, someone you can trust. Guess what: Guidance counselors can’t discuss the things you share unless they feel your mother needs to know. Is it worth the risk? Probably not.
Davis at 17
You’ve become a bully because you want to appear masculine, and you hope to focus the collective attention on someone else. It’s cruel. It’s not who you are. You’ll challenge freshmen to perform blindfolded sit-ups, pinning their shoulders down until a teammate’s bare ass is waving in front of them, then letting go of his shoulders as he does the sit-up. It’s hilarious at the time, but the memory will make you cringe when you grow up. You really don’t need to harass people to seem straight. Just be yourself—to an extent.
Tuaolo at 17
The preacher at your Pentecostal church says the Bible condemns homosexuality. Ignore him. In that very same book, there’s an important passage. The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians tells you to “put no confidence in the flesh,” put your trust in God. He made you this way, and he doesn’t make mistakes. Religion will become both a comfort and a cover. You’ll date girls and tell them you’re saving it for marriage. You'll feel bad, but it's what you have to do to survive.
Davis at 19
Now that you’re in college, there’s a new target for your abuse: women. They’re “bitches” and “hos” now. You go to strip clubs and have one-night stands because that’s what you think straight guys do. It’s not. Objectifying women actually makes you less of a man. That girl you’ve been dating for a year thinks there’s a future in you, and you know there isn’t. Trust me: Who you are, who you really are, is OK. You’re a well-liked guy—team captain as a junior at Weber State—and your friends love you. They don’t love you because they think you’re a heterosexual. They love you because you’re a good person.
Tuaolo at 20
You’ll have one of many bad days during your junior year. You’ll go to a teammate’s apartment to pick up a school assignment. He’ll give you a hug, and it will seem like he wants to kiss. It’s great at first, but it’s over in a heartbeat. He’ll push away and say, “I’m not that way.” It’s true: He’s married with kids today. Man, it would’ve been sweet to walk with him into the locker room, hand in hand, like, “Hey guys, by the way, we’re dating.” But that’s not happening. Instead, you’ll spend the night wondering if he’s going to out you in the morning. With one mistake, you’ve put the power over your life in his hands. I’ll save you some stress: Don’t kiss him.
Right now, you think there’s nobody who’s experiencing life the way you are, but there are literally thousands of people who are going through the exact same thing.
Davis at 21
Here’s a tip, Wade. Instead of dating girls and cheating on them, go find a gay guy. It’s Utah, so it’s going to be hard, but they’re out there. You don’t have to hook up with him. Just have a conversation. Ask him what his life is like. Ask him what it feels like to kiss another man. Right now, you think there’s nobody who’s experiencing life the way you are, but there are literally thousands of people who are going through the exact same thing.
Tuaolo at 21
You’ll return to Oregon State for your final season to see everyone in the locker room crowded around what you think is the team poster. Only it’s not the team—it’s just a picture of you. You’re upset, you’re angry, and you’re feeling like you’re going to have another anxiety attack. Don’t panic! At the end of the day, no one outs you. But would it be so bad if they did? You’re one of the best players on the team and this will make you better. Can you imagine playing without stress, without blackouts? You don’t have to have a confidant; just be true to yourself. If being true to yourself is coming out, then come out. Whatever the consequences are, you’ll get the full support from the LGBT nation.
Davis at 23
You didn’t make the Titans as an undrafted free agent. That’s OK. The team you’re about to join—NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder—is one of the best and tightest you’ll ever play for. You’ll win a championship, and you’ll spend countless hours with these guys off the field just hanging out. Some nights you’ll sit in a hotel hallway until five in the morning, swapping college stories and talking s---. This is the time. All you have to say is, “Hey guys, I have something really tough to tell you.” The Berlin Thunder are not going to send you home for that. If you’re ever going to be brave enough, these are the guys you’re going to do it with.
Tuaolo at 24
Newsflash: There are enormous gay communities all over the country, even in the cities you’ll visit as a second-round pick of the Packers in ’91. But you know you can’t go. At 6-2, 280 pounds, you’re just too recognizable. You think you’ll have some freedom when you vacation without teammates to Argentina, but the day you check in, you see a billboard advertising a brand of camera. In the picture? Your Packers teammate, Matt Brock, throwing people around. Even in South America you can’t escape the reach of the NFL.
Davis at 24
You just broke up with your boyfriend and you've landed in Barcelona, and, Oh my God, there are shirtless, attractive gay men everywhere. It’s your worst fear. You want to go out to a gay club, but you’re popular on the team and it’s hard to break away from the herd. DO IT. Go out and have those conversations you wanted to have in college. Go out to a gay club. Do all those things that a 24-year-old guy who doesn’t have a partner does. You’re not going to be able to focus on football anyway, so enjoy your youth.
Tuaolo at 25
You thought about killing yourself last year. You even forced open the window in your 15th-story apartment, ready to end the depression and the pain you’ve been treating with alcohol and painkillers. But you didn’t do it. You thought about your mother, alone in Hawaii, and the life you can give her with an NFL career. Green Bay didn’t work out, but there’s a lot of football left to play. You’ll land in Minnesota, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Carolina before it’s all over. Guess what: Minnesota is the place to come out. What an amazing player you’ll be, not having to wake up every day hoping nobody finds out. Wake up and free that six-year-old boy who shut himself in the closet.
Davis at 26
You don’t know it yet, but this is the end. This is your last training camp in the NFL, with the Redskins in 2003, and you’ll never play in another game. You’re on the fringe of the roster, and while you’re supposed to be getting better with film study, you’re watching yourself and thinking, Wow, I run gay, or, I’m standing gay, or, Oh my God, I look like such a girl.
This summer you could become the first active player to come out, but if you do, you’ll probably say something stupid and homophobic because you have so much learning to do. You’d f--- it up for a lot of people. The first person who comes out in the NFL has to be ready to have the conversation about what it means to be gay in sports.
It all gets better from here. You’re afraid you’re going to have to stay in the closet your whole life, but you won’t. You’ll live in Harlem and have a partner for nearly a decade. You’re going to be able to do amazing work that affects youth and adults, straight and gay. For now, take a step back and enjoy the fact that you’re playing on the biggest stage on earth doing what you wanted to do. Enjoy that for a second, and enjoy everything else later.
Wade Davis, 35, was cut by the Redskins in training camp and retired in 2003 because of a leg injury. He came out nine years later in media interviews. He says there are numerous NFL players who are semi-open about their sexuality, allowing select teammates to know they’re gay. Davis believes one of the worst things that’s happened to LGBT acceptance in the NFL was former Ravens linebacker and gay rights activist Brendon Ayanbadejo telling media organizations that several players are considering coming out together in solidarity. Says Davis: “I told Brendon this: If I had heard that, I would’ve sprinted back into the closet. The last thing anyone in that position needs is more pressure.” The assistant director of Job Readiness and Academic Enrichment at the Hetrick-Martin institute in New York, Davis is the co-founder of the You Belong initiative, an LGBTQ and straight ally youth sports and leadership program.
Esera Tuaolo retired in 1999 after tearing a hamstring with the Panthers. He came out in 2002 and four years later released an autobiography: Alone in the Trenches: My Life As a Gay Man in the NFL. He met a man named Mitchell Wherley in 1997 at a club in Minnesota, and they adopted twins in 2000. Tuaolo was arrested for domestic violence in 2010 against a boyfriend he met after he and Mitchell had separated. Charges were eventually dropped—Tuaolo explains the arrest as an “overblown misunderstanding”—but he sank into depression when he started losing gigs as a public speaker. Still in Minnesota, Tuaolo is happily dating again and shares responsibility for the twins with his ex. He travels the country speaking about homophobia in sports and anti-bullying.
Nearly three months after former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins became the NBA’s first active player to say he’s gay, The MMQB asked Tuaolo and Wade if they would feel comfortable being open about their sexuality in today’s NFL. They responded by writing open letters to gay players in the league.
Find someone in your personal life, a friend or a family member, whom you can confide in and lean on. There’s going to be much more positive reaction than negative should you come out. If possible, find a teammate or two who will support you during the process. Make sure those guys are with you when you tell the team. Reach out to the position coach or head coach first, so it’s framed in such a way that you’re not seen as trying to create a distraction. This is who you are, and people don’t know how exhausting it is to be in the closet. This can bring you and your teammates together, and you’ll start playing better. I wasn’t ready to do it when I played—I had too much hate to unlearn. I feel like I could have come out in today’s NFL, now that we’re having some of the conversations about what it means to be a gay athlete. I would have reached out to Jason Collins and asked him how his life changed. I would have realized I wasn’t the only one, and I would have seen all of the support for gay athletes. That would have given me more strength and confidence.