Alone In The Trenches

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Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Player in the NFL
by Esera Tuaolo with John Rosengren
Sourcebooks, 2006
hardcover, $24.95
paperback, $14.95
nonfiction, 281 pages

"Tough, tender and brutally honest, this spiritual yet muscular read is only for people interested in football, love, manhood and the human condition."
--Robert Lipsyte, former New York Times sports columnist

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Esera Tuaolo’s raw talent raised him from the banana ghetto of Hawaii to prominence in the NFL, yet an agonizing secret tormented him. He dared not tell anyone in the testosterone-crazed football world that he was gay. The more successful he became in his nine-year NFL career, which included a trip to the Super Bowl, the more terrified he became of his secret being discovered. A devout Christian, he found no refuge at team prayer meetings, where preachers railed against homosexuality as an abomination. He endured worse slanders in the locker room. His despair nearly ended in suicide.

Esera’s story is rife with heartbreak and, ultimately, hope. A man of deep faith and abundant personality, Mr. Aloha struggles to accept himself in search of his American dream: a family of his own. His candid account takes readers where television cameras cannot go to examine not just the homophobia that dominates the NFL but a moral crisis that confronts our nation.

Readings and Events
Author interview
Reviews & Articles
Readers Say
Table of Contents
Excerpts
Web Links

READINGS AND EVENTS

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Q: What was the genesis of Alone in the Trenches for you?
JR: I was watching a stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” three years ago, right after I had finished writing Blades of Glory and wondering what direction I should take my career, basically searching for the next good idea, when it struck me that gays and lesbians face many of the same issues that African Americans faced at the time Harper Lee wrote her novel. I thought the story of a gay or lesbian in sports would make for a great book, but I didn’t have the specific subject identified.

Q: How did you pair up with Esera?
JR: Hillel Black, my editor at Sourcebooks on Blades of Glory, called me and asked if I was interested in working with Esera. Sourcebooks wanted to do the book, but another writer had walked off the project. I welcomed the chance to work again with Hillel, who is one of the venerable souls of publishing, but I told him I needed to meet Esera first to see if I trusted his motives and whether or not we clicked.

Q: What was that meeting with Esera like?
JR: I liked him instantly, the way most people do. He didn’t earn the nickname “Mr. Aloha” by chance. He’s charming, sincere, compassionate, funny and warm. All that comes across immediately on first impression. When I heard more of his story and that he wanted to write a book to raise awareness, I trusted his motives were in synch with mine. I went back to Hillel and told him to sign me up.

Q: How was it working together?
JR: I felt like I was channeling a 300-pound gay football player. No simple task, but Esera is a terrific storyteller. That made it easy for me as a writer to transcribe his story. He is also amazingly courageous in his honesty, willing to sacrifice his ego in favor of telling the truth about his experience. I think readers will instantly relate to him as a result. As a devout Christian, he does a great job in relating how he came to terms with his faith and his orientation, especially in light of the persecution that the religious right--and even mainstream--continues to throw at gays and lesbians. I cried at times when we were together, hearing about his pain, and I laughed heartily at the funnier incidents from his past. As a football fan, I was fascinated by the insights he provided that aren’t visible when watching the game on television. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Esera. Most significantly, we developed a deep bond, for which I’m grateful.

Q: What are your hopes for Alone in the Trenches?
JR: I know this may sound schmaltzy, but I believe Esera’s story has the potential to change people’s hearts and minds. While working with Esera, I had in mind the Republicans that I love and kept thinking that if they could only walk around in a gay person’s skin--to paraphrase Atticus Finch--they might understand that person and not want to pass laws that keep him from committing himself to the man he loves or from adopting children. Esera gives them that chance.

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REVIEWS & ARTICLES

Look for "Alone in the Trenches" in the April 2006 issue of Out magazine

People Magazine, March 2006

London Times, February 2006

Nerve.com, February 2006

Outsports.com, February 2006

'Brokeback' and Sports
How a Movie Captured the Essence of Being a Closeted Jock

(Note: This article contains "spoilers" from the film)

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.”

Those words were spoken by Heath Ledger’s closeted character Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain.” They also could be spoken by closeted athletes everywhere.

“Brokeback Mountain,” the movie that it seems everyone is talking about, is first set in 1963 when Ennis meets Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). The two Wyoming cowboys fall in love, but it’s a love that can never be fully realized. It ends in 1983. But as far as sports go, the movie could be set in 2006 and be just as relevant.

When it comes to sports, especially for elite male athletes in bigtime sports who happen to be gay, Brokeback’s themes of yearning, fear and forbidden love resonate strongly. We have come a long way in the acceptance of gays in society, but sports still remain the final closet and the door is still firmly shut.

As I watched “Brokeback Mountain,” much of the time with a lump in my throat, I flashed to contemporary sports and wondered how many closeted jocks were living their own version of Ennis and Jack.

It is still an amazing statistic -- There has never been a male athlete from a major pro team sport (NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball) who has come out while playing. The same is true of elite jocks at major college programs. We know they’re out there (no one disputes this), but they remain as closeted as Ennis.

'I Cried'

“I am 29 years old and still in the closet and hiding who I truly am,” read one post on the Internet Movie Database, a major resource for film lovers. “I grew up in a small town where I was a star athlete, prom king in high school -- the All-American boy so to speak. I cannot come out to my family or friends for reasons of maybe losing all of them as well as my job.

“I once had a very special love in my life; he is dead now. He took his own life when he was only 23. He could not accept himself or could not trust others to accept who he was. I don't blame him for killing himself, I blame society! I miss him and there is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. I am trying to hold back the tears as I write this. We met in college and our story is very similar to the one in this movie as well.

“…When this movie finished, I walked to my car, drove down a dark alleyway, locked the doors and did what any other tough young cowboy did -- I cried. Some days I'm just barely hanging on but movies like this want to make me keep fighting. Thank you, “Brokeback Mountain.”

Athletes who have come out after their careers have ended have stories that are universal. The paranoia and fear of being discovered while competing. The ruses to convince teammates, coaches and family that they’re 100% heterosexual. The feeling that their performance on the field suffered because of the great psychic strain of being found out. It’s similar to when Ennis tells Jack a harrowing story of witnessing the aftermath of a gay rancher being killed when he was a young boy.

To Ennis, the stakes are too great to be open about who he is and who he loves, and gay athletes feel those same strains. They may not fear being lynched, but there is still physical fear nonetheless.

The Locker Room

Esera Tuaolo played nine years in the NFL as a defensive tackle, a tough position in a brutal game. He told me that when he saw "Brokeback Mountain," "I started bawling my eyes out because I saw so many similarities to my life. I just started feeling everything again and at some parts I just had to close my eyes. It's a very touching movie."

Tuaolo was in the closet the whole time as a player and in his searing, moving and honest upcoming book, “Alone in the Trenches,” (I have read an advance copy) he eloquently describes the trauma he endured trying to keep his secret.

“While I was with the [Minnesota] Vikings,” Tuaolo writes, “a rumor broke out that the Dallas Cowboys’ superstar quarterback Troy Aikman was gay. He’s not, but the rumor spread. The day I heard that, I walked into the locker room, panicked and afraid. I didn’t know what to expect, wasn’t sure what I would have to endure.”

Tuaolo was not out, yet he feared every day that someone might have spotted him in the rare times he frequented a gay bar, implausible as that might seem. He continues:

“Some of the players started saying nasty, graphic things about Troy and his sexual habits. I was going along with it, laughing with the others. The talk turned to speculation about other players. My stomach knotted. I hoped no one would point the finger at me.

“One of the tight ends on our team at the time was a cocky guy that others picked on -- they knew they could get a reaction out of him. [Defensive lineman] John Randle said to him, ‘You must be gay.’ The tight end freaked out. He attacked Randle. A brawl broke out in the locker room.

“These two big guys threw blows at one another. Everybody else tried to break it up, including me. … I felt the adrenaline surge of the fight. I also felt tremendous pain. That could have been me getting teased and in a fight. I was thinking, I am in such a fucked-up nightmare. I wish I could wake up.”

Countering the Rumors

Aikman’s story is illuminating. Rumors that he was gay surfaced in 1990s as he was leading the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles. They spread wide, even in the days before the Internet, and one account had his coach Barry Switzer making the allegation.

Aikman denied he was gay, but his PR team at the time went through some elaborate lengths to prove his heterosexual bona fides. It seems that every few months Aikman was linked to some actress or another. And in the strangest story I ever read in Sports Illustrated, the author detailed Aikman’s quest for love and how he just couldn’t find the right woman.

Titled “Mr. Lonelyhearts” (Jan. 15, 1996), the story was a 5,417-word personal ad, with a sub-headline that read: “SWM, TALL, HANDSOME, 29, PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER, SEEKS BEAUTIFUL, INTELLIGENT YOUNG WOMAN TO HELP DESIGN DREAM HOUSE AND CREATE FAMILY EQUIVALENT OF AMERICA'S TEAM. MUST LIKE QUIET EVENINGS AT HOME, EITHER CRUISING AMERICA ONLINE OR ADMIRING TROPICAL FISH TANK. MUST SPEND SUNDAYS IN CROWDED STADIUMS ROOTING FOR DALLAS COWBOYS. DISLIKE OF 49ERS AND REDSKINS A PLUS, BUT NOT REQUIRED.”

Aikman, we were told, would spend hours in AOL chat rooms, though it never specified if they were M for W (which was implied) or M for M (which is what I, and many other guys, hoped).

Aikman went on to a successful career in broadcasting, married and has two children. If there was ever any truth to the rumors, I doubt we’ll ever find out. Similarly, in “Brokeback Mountain,” both Jack and Ennis marry and raise kids, this in a time when two men living together simply was not done, especially in Wyoming. Despite Jack’s pleading, Ennis can’t break the grip of the culture of homophobia in which he was raised.

In sports, being labeled gay is perceived as tantamount to career suicide and athletes have gone out of their way to quash any rumor, as the Aikman case illustrates to the extreme. In 2002, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza took the unusual step of declaring his heterosexuality after a blind item appeared in a gossip column saying one of the Mets was gay. Piazza then became linked to beautiful women and got married in 2005 to an actress and former Playmate.

In 2004, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia announced he was not gay after being fingered as such by then teammate Terrell Owens. Garcia then dated two Playboy playmates back-to-back, further enhancing his straight credentials; the fact that Playmate 1 duked it out with Playmate 2 in a bar only got Garcia more attention to the type of relationship he was having.

Love and Death

In “Brokeback Mountain,” the idea of a savage death for men loving men hovers over the film, including a key scene near the end. The sports world is not immune to similar savagery. In 1962, boxer Emile Griffith beat his opponent Benny Paret to death in the ring in Madison Square Garden before a national TV audience. Paret had taunted Griffith for being a “maricon,” Spanish slang for faggot. "He called me a maricon. I knew maricon meant faggot. I wasn’t nobody’s faggot,” Griffith said The slurs drove Griffith to a fury in the ring that ended with Paret slumped over the ropes and lapsing into a coma from which he never recovered.

There is no doubt that Griffith is a homosexual, though he steadfastly denied it for years; he developed a reputation as a lady’s man and once briefly married. A documentary last year about the Paret fight brought Griffith some attention and he offered to ride in New York’s gay pride parade. Griffith was in his prime in the same era when Jack and Ennis first meet in the movie, and Paret and Jack are both killed, in a universal sense, by homophobia.

David Kopay is a sports pioneer, the first NFL player to come out, a year after retiring. He saw “Brokeback Mountain” its first weekend in Los Angeles and told me how blown away and emotionally affected he was, and how the story resonated for him. As he watched Jack and Ennis deal with their love for each other on the screen, Kopay said he thought about his relationship with Jerry Smith, with whom he played with on the Washington Redskins in the early 1970s.

Smith died of AIDS in 1987 while never publicly admitting his homosexuality. To honor Smith’s desire for privacy, Kopay never mentioned him by name in his book, though he was a catalyst in Kopay’s coming out. Smith “was my first major [gay] experience and the first person I thought I could love,” Kopay said Like Ennis and Jack, but for differing reasons, Dave and Jerry’s relationship was stillborn and Kopay sounds wistful when he recalls those days.

At the end of the film, after Jack has died, Ennis is alone with Jack’s shirt and his grief, with no one to share his loss with. It reminded me of a moving passage in Billy Bean’s book “Going the Other Way.”

Bean played Major League Baseball for nine years and came out after retiring in 1999. While in San Diego, Bean was living with another man, in a relationship that was clandestine and which Bean strove mightily to keep that way. His lover became ill and eventually died.

Numb with grief, but still hiding his private life, Bean honored a team commitment on the day of his lover’s death, something inconceivable for a straight athlete who just lost a spouse. “Once in a while, the team issues a statement that a player is excused … to attend to family matters,” Bean recounts in his book. “This had to be one of those situations. There was only one problem: How could I explain that my ‘family matter’ was the AIDS-related death of my male lover with whom I’d been living secretly?”

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it” was Bean’s mantra and Tuaolo’s and that of any closeted athlete. Bean and Tuaolo finally had enough of the hiding and neither has ever regretted coming out. I hope that the movie inspires another mantra for anyone closeted, jock or not. It comes from someone who posted on the official "Brokeback" website: "I have been denying my sexuality for a long time. The movie has inspired me to face my true nature."
—Jim Buzinskib Outsports.com

Brokeback and Esera …

The sequel: Gays in sports

American popular culture has changed dramatically during the past 40 years when it comes to gays and lesbians — once homosexuality was the love that dare not speak its name and now it is a staple of television and film. But when it comes to professional sports, it's still 1963.

That's the year closeted cowboys Jack and Ennis begin their doomed love affair in "Brokeback Mountain," and according to Outsports.com columnist Jim Buzinski, the film — with its themes of yearning, fear and forbidden love — could have been set decades later in a pro sports locker room.

"We have come a long way in the acceptance of gays in society, but sports still remain the final closet and the door is still firmly shut. As I watched 'Brokeback Mountain,' much of the time with a lump in my throat, I flashed to contemporary sports and wondered how many closeted jocks were living their own version of Ennis and Jack," Buzinski writes. "It is still an amazing statistic — there has never been a male athlete from a major pro team sport who has come out while playing. The same is true of elite jocks at major college programs. We know they're out there (no one disputes this), but they remain as closeted as Ennis."

Athletes who came out of the closet after retirement say Buzinski's assessment of the groundbreaking flick that took best dramatic film honors at last week's Golden Gloves is dead-on accurate.

"When I saw the movie, I started bawling in the theater," says Esera Tuaolo, the former NFL defensive tackle who describes his journey out of the closet in "Alone in the Trenches," a memoir set for a March release. "Every emotion, every thing those guys went through in that movie is something I had to go through. I thought about every time I was so depressed I thought about killing myself."

David Kopay, another former NFL player who is now openly gay, says watching "Brokeback Mountain" was watching a replay of his life: "I kept thinking, 'Here we go again,'" Kopay says.

The film has ruffled some feathers in sports circles — Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller yanked the movie from the megaplex he owns in suburban Salt Lake City — but the success of "Brokeback Mountain" may kick off a whole new film genre: the gay sports movie. Author Patricia Nell Warren, a gay activist and one of the first female marathoners, says there's renewed interest in bringing her 1974 novel "The Front Runner" to the big screen.

Paul Newman held the option on the book — the story of a promising Olympian who falls in love with his track coach — in the 1970s. But Newman dropped the project because he couldn't get a screenplay that satisfied his vision of the film. "The country was not in a place were people were thinking about a film like this in 1974," Warren says. "But because of 'Brokeback Mountain' and its box office success (the $14 million film has already grossed $33 million), people are willing to spend the money required for talent and production values. I think people are watching 'Brokeback Mountain' very closely."
—Daily News, The Score, January 22, 2006

Tuaolo, Esera with John Rosengren. Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Player in the NFL. Sourcebooks. Mar. 2006. c.304p. ISBN 1-4022-0505-8.  $24.95. SOC SCI

Simmons, Roy with Damon DiMarco. Out of Bounds: My Life in and Out of the NFL Closet. Carroll & Graf. Feb. 2006. c.288p. ISBN 0-7867-1681-9 [ISBN 978-0-7867-1681-4].   $25.00

Though the world has changed in many ways for gay men, it is still not safe to be an out gay man while an active player in the four major professional sports of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. It's striking how similar these two books on this subject are. Tuaolo, with journalist Rosengren (Blades of Glory) and Simmons, with Dimarco (Tower Stories: The Autobiography of September 11, 2001), have written heartfelt memoirs of their lives in the NFL and their experience of being gay in such a homophobic environment. Both came from very impoverished backgrounds, were found to have athletic talent at a young age, and made significant contributions to their teams. Tuaolo is of Samoan ancestry and Simmons is African American. While playing ball, they each had to manage what to them was a shameful secret; they were constantly profoundly afraid of discovery.

Both stories are captivating, and most readers won't be able to put these books down.  Though co-written with others, they have a conversational style that captures the individual voices of the men as they tell their own stories. Simmons is particularly harrowing in relating his descent into the grimy life of drug addiction. Eventually, with the help of some incredibly loyal friends, he overcame those horrors, even appearing on the Phil Donahue Show, only to go back to his addiction. He writes movingly of his reconnections with his family, even as he reports that his struggle has not ended. Though he, too, had a demon in alcohol, Tuaolo's story ends with him happily attached to a mate and adopted children. Readers interested in sports or gay biography will get their money's worth.
—David Azzolina, Library Journal, January 2006

After impoverished Samoan immigrant Tuaolo attended Oregon State on a football scholarship, he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and then spent nine years in the NFL on five different teams. Yet he was "terrified" during the 1999 Super Bowl, when he was playing for the Atlanta Falcons: "not one teammate, coach or sportswriter knew I was gay.... What if one of those billion people watching recognized me as the stranger he had picked up in a gay bar?"  Tuaolo's intimate description of such fears kicks off this absorbing, first-person account, co-written with journalist Rosengren.
The author looks back with straight-talking honesty, recalling his Oahu childhood on a banana farm, his teen years in the continental U.S. and his introduction to the testosterone-crazed culture of the locker room.
Pages filled with the kind of football lore that only an NFL insider could know are punctuated with Tuaolo's painful dread of discovery. The first player to sing the national anthem and then start an NFL game, Tuaolo now has a new career in musical theater and recordings. His book communicates a warmth and openness that will appeal to both football fans and the gay community.
—Publishers Weekly

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READERS SAY

“My friend Esera—a gentle giant with a heart of gold—bravely confronts the memories of his childhood in a way that emboldens you to do the same. This beautiful book is not only about football but freedom and family. A must read for all. I love this man.”
—Rosie O’Donnell

His story is both painful and hopeful, as Tuaolo emerges in these pages as a complex, intellectually curious, and fascinating individual defined neither by his choice of career nor by his sexual orientation. He is much more than “the gay Samoan nose tackle,” as he jokingly refers to himself.”
—Booklist

“Honesty is always the best policy and Esera is exceptionally honest and revealing in his struggle with his sexual identity. His sincerity is clearly evident and his words will continue to be a great help to so many others.”
—David Kopay, author of The David Kopay Story (1977)

“I have known Esera for a few years, and in that time we have become as close as brothers. However, even I was not prepared for his amazing life story. He spares no one when recounting the difficulties of his childhood, sexual abuse, and being a gay man in the NFL. I am so proud of him for sharing, because I know that his generosity will help many of us in the LGBT community. It is my hope that other former professional athletes, who happen to be gay, will be inspired by his story, and come forward. So once and for all, we can show the world that athletic greatness has nothing to do with sexuality.”
—Billy Bean, former major league baseball player and author of Going the Other Way: Lessons from a life in and out of Major League Baseball

“I was truly moved to read Esera's story told in his own words. While the rest of us were living out our dreams of playing in the NFL, Esera was fighting this internal battle every day of his life in solitude. It was heartbreaking to learn that his secret almost caused him to take his own life on several occasions. What a tragedy that would have been. I am happy that Esera is now able to enjoy what so many of us take for granted: the freedom to be the great person that he is.”
—Don Davey, former NFL player with the Green Bay Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1 Torments of Success
2 God Bless my Daddy
3 Baby Fridge
4 Who’s Esera Tuaolo
5 Killer Beavers
6 Road to the Draft
7 Lombardi’s House
8 A Samoan in Green Bay
9 Mississippi Brawling
10 My Brother Tua
11 If You Make the Team
12 Play through the Pain
13 A McDonald’s Wedding
14 The Past Can Destroy the Future
15 Champions for Christ
16 We’re Going to Miami
17 Super Bowl XXXIII
18 I Can’t Lose this Man
19 That’s the Big Secret

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EXCERPTS

from Chapter 1: The Torments of Success

I settled into my stance for the last play of Super Bowl XXXIII. The field glowed under the lights. Flashbulbs popped around the stadium. We, the Atlanta Falcons, faced the Denver Broncos, led by John Elway, their superstar quarterback. Denver had the ball with a 34-19 lead. I lined up at my usual position, nose guard, across from the Denver center, who was poised to snap the ball to Elway. My knuckles gripped the turf.

The Broncos’s quarterback took the snap and dropped to his knee to let the clock run out. I touched him first.  When the ball carrier is on the ground, someone on the defense must at least touch him so he’s ruled down. Since I touched Elway, I was credited with the tackle.

A routine play, but it terrified me. And that was not the first time. That game and that play was televised to one billion people around the globe. Someone could have recognized me and blown my cover. In the past, whenever my image appeared on the screen--when I made a big play, sang the national anthem--I lived with the fear that I might be outed. This was January 31, 1999 and at that point, I had been playing for eight years in the NFL . Before that, I had played four years of college football. In all that time, not one teammate, coach or sportswriter knew I was gay.

The National Football League is the number one entertainment in the world, and the Super Bowl is its showcase event. Media from all over—places like Japan and Lebanon, where they don’t even play football—report on the spectacle. The Super Bowl is the biggest event that happens every year in the United States.

What if one of those billion people watching recognized me as the stranger he had picked up in a gay bar? All he had to do was out me to the press, and the story would be all over the headlines: “Gay Man Makes Final Tackle in Super Bowl.” My football career would be finished.

No more Super Bowls, no more Sundays playing ball. No more paychecks, no more financial security. No more locker room banter, no more camaraderie with the guys. I would be banished from the NFL fraternity.

During my nine years in the NFL, I lived that close to the edge of destruction. My success tormented me. The better I did, the more exposure I received. The more exposure, the greater the chance of someone discovering my secret. A secret that a man who plays the most macho of team sports is not supposed to have. The stress nearly killed me.

from Chapter 8: A Samoan in Green Bay

I didn’t play professional football for love of the game. Sure, I enjoyed football. I also enjoyed playing in the NFL. It was fun. Don’t get me wrong, how can you not have fun being in the NFL? It’s just that I battled with demons. I played for the money and the wonderful things I was able to do with that money, like fix up the old family house for my mom. I knew without football, I would go back to nothing. That’s why I stuck with the NFL as long as I could.

It was weird to come from nothing and suddenly have a lot. I would look around my house at the stuff I’d bought--the furniture, the television, the stereo--and think, This is all mine. It didn’t sink in. I kept thinking either I would wake up from a dream and all my stuff would be gone, or someone would come to take it all away.

One of the best moments of my rookie year happened when my mom came to visit me. I took her shopping at an upscale department store. It was a great feeling to know that I could buy her anything in there that she wanted. I spotted the jewelry counter and offered to buy her a nice diamond. She was looking at prices, and I said, “No, Mama, get whatever you want.” Before the NFL, maybe I would’ve gone to Salvation Army to buy her something. I could never have afforded anything in an expensive jewelry department.

She picked out a beautiful ring. Not the most expensive one, but a very nice one. The clerk took it out. Mama slipped it on her finger. She started crying. I started crying. My father had never given her a wedding ring.

Seeing the look on her face--that’s when I knew I could do it. I could put up with all the shit of being a gay man in the NFL. It was a fantastic feeling to know that when Mama asked for money, I could give it to her. One of the best feelings in the world was to be able to give back to my mom after all she had done for me and our family, especially the way she stepped up after Daddy died. She did a great job raising us kids.

from Chapter 9: Mississippi Brawling

I met quarterback Brett Favre at mini camp. In February, the Atlanta Falcons traded him to the Packers for a first round pick. The Falcons had drafted Brett out of the University of Southern Mississippi the year before in the second round, just two picks before the Packers took me. He had played in only two games for the Falcons, didn’t complete any of the five passes he attempted, and was sacked once for an eleven-yard loss. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I didn’t know anything about Brett other than that we were both second-year players—and that he spoke in a Southern drawl.

We hit it off right away. The first questions is always, Where are you from? When he said “Mississippi, “ I told him I’d just seen “Mississippi Burning,” the crime thriller about two FBI agents investigating the murder of civil rights workers in a racially divided Mississippi town. He started laughing. He was from the country down South. I was from the country in Hawaii. We talked about our families. His family was as important to him as mine was to me. We discovered we had common interests.

The first day of practice, we stood on the sidelines, talking and laughing. I was watching the Majik Man, our starting quarterback Don Majkowski, throw the ball on the field. Then the coaches sent Brett in. I had never seen him throw. He threw the ball so hard that his first pass nearly knocked down the receiver. I’d never seen anybody throw the ball that hard.

Brett came back to the sidelines smiling. I said, “Dude, you’re going to be The Man.” He shrugged me off in his aw shucks Southern way. I said, “No, really, you’re going to be The Man.”

Maybe Brett liked me so much because I stroked his ego. Seriously, he was cool about the praise. He was laid back, like me. We became good friends right away.

Off the field, my second season with the Packers was more fun than my first. I had met people like Brett, Dewey Tucker and the rookies. I hung out more with them and other second-year guys, like my Wisconsin buddy, Don Davey.

When we went out, Brett would start buying drinks for everybody after he had a few of his own. This was before Brett started making the big money. The bills would top $1,000. In Green Bay, that’s like spending $10,000 because drinks were only a buck a shot. It’s just the kind of guy Brett was, generous and fun-loving. I used to steal his wallet to save him the expense. He couldn’t buy everyone drinks without his credit cards.

Often, we partied at my townhouse. Brett’s wife Deanna, who was his girlfriend back then, would come over when she was in town. So would Don’s girlfriend and some of the other guys’s girlfriends. We played “quarters” and other beer drinking games.

For awhile, my place became the hangout. I would cook up my famous teriyaki chicken and macaroni salad or rice dishes—all recipes from my mom. When I was a child, I helped her in the kitchen because I was the youngest. Now, I love to cook. I contributed one of Mama’s recipes to the Packers’s cookbook: dishwasher fish. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s really good. You wrap fish—I like salmon—in tinfoil with coconut milk, onions, salt, pepper and a pinch of curry, place it on the rack and run the cycle—without soap, of course. The dishwasher steams the fish. It turns out moist and delicious. The recipe was Mama’s; the idea to steam the packet in the dishwasher was mine. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a dishwasher other than me.

We ate and drank and laughed at Brett’s impersonations. One of his favorites is the lion from the “Wizard of Oz.” “Come on, put ‘em up. Put ‘em up,” Brett would say with his paws out in front of him. I’ve got him doing that on film. He was hilarious.

from Chapter Thirteen: A McDonald’s Wedding

After I had released my “One Man Island” CD, a Minneapolis radio station invited listeners to write an essay that explained why they should be the one to get married at McDonald’s on Valentine’s Day. The radio station not only paid for the wedding, it arranged for Ronald McDonald to stand up for the couple and the Minnesota Vikings’s Esera Tuaolo to sing. I was a little embarrassed by the radio station’s goofy promotion. Doing a gig at a McDonald’s wedding seemed a step below an airport hotel lounge act. I agreed, though, and was glad I did.

I flew to Minneapolis from Hawaii with my two-year-old niece. My mom had brought her to Hawaii for a visit. I was bringing her back to her mom, my sister Tusi. We arrived at 6 a.m. on February 14. The wedding was at 8 a.m.

My friend Paul Jones picked us up and rushed us straight to the McDonald’s. Everyone was dressed in frilly ruffles—they looked like the cast from “Little House on the Prairie.” One guy stood out--a handsome man dressed so stylishly in a sharp suit that he looked like he could be from New York. His friend, the bride, had won the contest. I noticed him right away.

This handsome stranger mesmerized me. My eyes followed him around the room. I wanted to get to know him. Meanwhile, I was trying to look after my niece, who was jetlagged and crying. I felt like a hobo myself, having just stepped off the plane. I kept staring at this handsome stranger who looked like someone I might see in my fantasies.
We traded glances and brief hellos. My heart skipped, but it would be months before I saw him again.

WEB LINKS
www.eseratuaolo.com
www.sourcebooks.com
www.hrc.org

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