Esera Tuaolo says his best football games were his worst nights.
Making the big play and being in the spotlight would fill the 6-foot-3 defensive lineman with fear. He was afraid that someone from his very private life would hear about his success, and would call the media, his coach, or — worse — his family, to reveal his secret.
The young man from Hawaii became the best defensive lineman in the Pacific-10 Conference at Oregon State, and was voted to the NFL's all-rookie team in 1991, when he played for the Green Bay Packers. But the pressure it brought on him led him to drink too much, to become deeply depressed and to even consider suicide.
It wasn't because of his success. It was because of his secret: Tuaolo is gay.
Two years after retiring from the NFL, the 34-year-old Tuaolo decided he needed to be upfront about his life, and would come out publicly. The effect has been liberating, he says.
"Actually, I feel like a weight's been lifted off my shoulder, but I jumped on the scale this morning and I'm still 310 pounds," Tuaolo said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "It feels wonderful, it feels great."
A Lonely Feeling
It took many painful years for Tuaolo to talk about what he's thrilled to say today.
In his first interview about being gay, which aired Tuesday night on the HBO show Real Sports, the former player was asked if he ever wanted to say to his teammates "Hey guys, I'm gay."
"Oh, many times," said Tuaolo.
But he knew very well that there are no openly gay men in the gladiator culture of the National Football League. Tuaolo played nine years in the NFL as a defensive lineman before retiring two years ago. The whole time, he struggled, often turning to alcohol to ease the pain.
"Many times, when driving 100 miles per hour, I felt as if I could turn that wheel and end it all," Tuaolo said.
The former defensive lineman said thoughts of his mother, who raised two children by herself, and a book by former professional football player Dave Kopay stopped him from making a final escape.
Kopay, who revealed he was gay three years after he retired in 1972, wrote a book about his struggle called the The David Kopay Story.
When Tuaolo read Kopay's book at the urging of his friends, he no longer felt alone.
"My mom saved my life, but David Kopay changed my life," Tuaolo said. "I read the whole book and I just broke down crying because I saw myself," he said.
Proud of Daddy
It took years of living a lie before Tuaolo was ready to "live the truth." There were many small incidents along the way. For instance, when Tuaolo was with his partner, Mitchell, in the supermarket and spotted a reporter or someone he knew from his NFL past, Mitchell would hang a quick right to avoid looking like they were together.
After years of laughing at gay jokes his teammates made, and keeping his pain private, Tuaolo decided to go public with his story. He hopes kids will read about him and realize that gay people come from all walks of life — even the NFL.
However, Tuaolo still feels he would have faced a lot of pain had he come out during his career.
"I really think my career would have ended quickly … I probably would have got hurt out there," Tuaolo said.
Tuaolo says he hopes that his story will help other athletes who might be struggling with coming out.
Now Tuaolo is pursuing music as a career, even appearing in music videos. He and his partner, Mitchell, are raising their adopted twins, Michelle and Mitchell, now 23 months old.
It was the two little ones who helped make his decision to come out of the closet, Tuaolo said. "I can tell you right now that I'm so happy that my kids will know that their father is happy."