Sixteen years after former Vikings defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo came out as gay, the fear he once had that he'd be an NFL outcast has faded.
Instead, Tuaolo, 49, who played in the league for nine seasons, including five with the Vikings, is preparing to host the first NFL-endorsed "Inclusion Party," sponsored by Adidas, days before the Super Bowl. It's aimed at improving the relationship between the league and the LGBT community.
Tuaolo is one of several former players who came out after retiring. Fear of being ostracized by the NFL and his peers stopped Tuaolo from coming out during his football career.
The party, he says, will mark a huge step forward.
"You know that feeling of breaking down a barrier? That's how I feel right now with the NFL," Tuaolo said during a recent interview at the Pourhouse in downtown Minneapolis, where he will host the event on Wednesday. "I'm praying that by doing this party, that athletes who are in the closet understand and feel more comfortable that the NFL now has jumped on board and supports something like this."
Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's senior vice president of events, said the league knew having Tuaolo host Wednesday's event would be "a unique opportunity."
"We are selective in the events that the NFL contributes to around [the] Super Bowl, but this was an opportunity we knew would be meaningful for the LGBT community and for an NFL legend," O'Reilly said.
In 2002, three years after he retired from the Carolina Panthers, his fifth team, Tuaolo revealed in an interview with HBO's "Real Sports" that he is gay. At the time, he was the third former NFL player to come out publicly. In the interview, he expressed frustration about having had to keep his sexual orientation a secret, and how that led to depression and thoughts of suicide.
"My life was miserable," he said in the interview with HBO. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound former nose guard was afraid players would "try to hurt me because I'm gay."
But during the HBO episode, fans met the family man who with his then-partner, Mitchell, was raising twins, Michele and Mitchell.
Since the era when Tuaolo played, the NFL has worked to change the stereotype that it fosters a culture of homophobia and exclusion.
In 2011, the league added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination and harassment policy guidelines, according to the sports site Outsports. The NFL announced in 2014 that it would have zero tolerance for players' on-field use of insulting language relating to sexual orientation, with violations resulting in 15-yard penalties and potential disciplinary action by the league. And last year, the league launched an internal employee resource group called NFL Pride to support LGBT employees.
Tracy Perlman, senior vice president of football communications and marketing for the NFL, began her career with the league several years before Tuaolo came out. When Tuaolo approached her about having the NFL sponsor an Inclusion Party, Perlman was eager to start the process. "We're so proud of him and want other guys to support him," she said.
Now, Tuaolo says he's never been more at ease. Last fall, he auditioned for NBC's "The Voice" and made it to the playoffs. Tuaolo, who grew up in Hawaii, splits his time between California and Minneapolis. His twins are in high school and his son plays football. In 2006, he wrote "Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL," and testified in favor of same-sex marriage at the Minnesota Legislature.
"Who I am now is the full person," he said. "Who I was back then … was half a person."
Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647