Esera Tuaolo had a nine-year NFL career as a defensive lineman, including five seasons with the Vikings from 1992 to ’96. In 2002, after his football career was over, he came out as gay and in 2006 he released his autobiography, “Alone in the Trenches: My Life As a Gay Man in the NFL.” In light of Missouri’s Michael Sam coming out last week in advance of the NFL draft, the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand caught up with Tuaolo for his thoughts on a number of subjects:
Q Let’s start here with a basic question: What was your reaction when you heard Michael Sam’s news?
A I really didn’t know the kid, but when I Googled him and found out about all his accomplishments, I was absolutely excited for this kid and super proud of his courage to come out and be true to himself. To start off his NFL career with this is absolutely amazing.
Q Did you give any consideration to coming out during your playing career?
A No. Michael, we’re living in different times. It was 20 years ago when I came into the league, and it was not an environment where I could come out. The homophobia and the words and language back then was absolutely ridiculous, and nobody would be held accountable for it. In the last 10 years, it hasn’t been like that. Any time now, when a player or coach lashes out, they are held accountable for their words. If there’s a time that a player should come out, this is the time.
Q Was it tough not to be able to tell anybody on the team — I imagine some of your teammates were close friends?
A Yes, definitely it was tough. You’re living with your secrets. … Not being able to have a relationship and share and introduce my partner to teammates, or take my partner to the holiday parties, any functions we had. Other stuff was hard, but the hardest part was watching things my straight friends on the team took for granted. He couldn’t sit with the wives. He had to sit somewhere different so nobody would find out. What’s so awesome for Michael Sam is that he’s going to be able to do that.
Q Historically speaking, how important is Michael Sam in your mind?
A This is what everyone has been waiting for. When [NBA player] Jason Collins came out, everyone was like, ‘It’s going to have to take a superstar collegiate athlete or superstar NFL player.’ And now we have that. … I don’t care if he gets drafted No. 1 or gets drafted last. He’s going to play in the NFL.
Q Things were great after he told his teammates at Missouri. Do you imagine there still will be roadblocks for him in the NFL as he goes forward?
A To tell the truth, I lived in hell for 35 years of my life. After I came out, nothing could hurt me. With Michael, you see some of the things he went through with his family, he’s been to hell and back. There’s nothing people can do now to me or him that can hurt us. He’ll have obstacles just like anyone, but he’ll face it head-on being himself.
Q Did you personally encounter bad situations in the locker room?
A Yes. It’s crazy because I talk to my hero, Dave Kopay, who came out in the 1970s. He talks about having relationships with other players on the same team. And it was OK. People knew about it. For some reason, we went back into the Stone Ages, where it started mattering because of the language and how people were going to react every single time the subject of homosexuality would come up.
Q Can you define what you think is different in the NFL culture now?
A For the last decade, it’s been a hot topic in politics. It’s been a hot topic in the sports world. People are tired of hate, they are tired of another group disrespecting or degrading another group. And there has been a lot more education out there. … It’s the same with women’s rights. And then civil rights. There’s only so much you can hate on an individual before you start judging with your heart.