With the support of Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, former NFL lineman Esera Tuaolo took Slippery Rock University students through his journey as a closeted homosexual football player in the NFL Monday night.
The ‘Tackling Homophobia’ event was brought to SRU by the University Program Board and Women’s Studies Program with hopes of bringing awareness of issues to students and inspire them to make a difference, UPB’s vice president of speakers Matan Cohen said.
Tuaolo was a defensive lineman in the NFL for nine seasons and hid his sexuality until he retired in 2002. He struggled to hide his feelings from family, friends and fans and battled suicidal thoughts daily.
“I didn’t feel safe talking with anyone in the NFL,” Tuaolo admitted. “It was a different environment then than it is now. It was difficult to be true to myself.”
Tuaolo brought the audience to tears when he mentioned his journey to the Super Bowl in 1999 with the Atlanta Falcons. Tuaolo was secretly in a relationship at the time, and after the Falcons lost the game he was unable to embrace his boyfriend like his teammates embraced their wives and families. The decision still haunts him and Tuaolo said that every day he wishes he could go back and change what happened.
Tuaolo admitted that keeping his sexuality a secret affected his ability to play football. He felt that if he had been able to be himself he would’ve been a better, more effective player for his team.
“Being gay doesn’t define me,” Tuaolo said. “I’m still an athlete, I’m still a father, I’m still a man and I’m still your best friend. The only thing that separates me from Chris (Kluwe) is who I give my heart to.”
Recently, teams at the NFL Combine asked prospective players questions relating to their sexuality and relationship status.
Tuaolo said that he doesn’t recall being asked these types of questions when he was a prospect, but said he probably would’ve lied if he had been.
Because Kluwe is still an active member of the NFL, he was able to better understand both sides of the issue.
Kluwe mentioned that teams are looking for this information so that they can avoid being blindsided in the future.
“I know why teams do it, but it’s not right,” Kluwe said. “The players coming out are in a very vulnerable position because the NFL is the only place they can get a job with their football skills.”
Kluwe’s support of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community went public in 2012 after he wrote a letter to Maryland delegate Emmett Burns and it went viral. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had announced that he was in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland. Burns then decided to contact the Ravens owner and advise him to keep his athletes quiet about these types of issues and keep them focused on football. When he heard of this, Kluwe was compelled to respond.
“I saw something going on that I wasn’t okay with,” Kluwe said. “My wife was worried that it would distract from football, but I just kept writing. I had no idea my letter would go viral.”
Having Kluwe’s support has meant a lot to the LGBT community, Tuaolo said.
Tuaolo said that having Kluwe be identified as an ally has helped keep hope alive for many children struggling to find support around them.
“He’s not gay, he’s just a supporter,” Tuaolo said. “It’s great for them to see an ally in his position. I can’t express how appreciative I am. He took a bat for me.”
Monday’s presentation was the first time Tuaolo and Kluwe paired up together and they hoped that by combining forces they would relate to a wider range of audience members.
“Maybe a straight person doesn’t identify with Esera,” Kluwe said. “This is powerful because it shows there are people supporting gay athletes.”