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30 Moments of Pride: Esera Tuaolo appears in the Super Bowl as a closeted gay player

Esera Tuaolo played in the Super Bowl while closeted and has become a passionate LGBTQ advocate after coming out.

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Esera Tuaolo, former player for the Minnesota Vikings, sings the national anthem before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 23, 2018 in Minneapolis.
Esera Tuaolo, former player for the Minnesota Vikings and four other teams, sings the national anthem before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 23, 2018 in Minneapolis.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

For Pride month, we’ve dedicated each day of June to an individual athlete or coach whose shining moment changed LGBTQ sports.

Today, we revisit Jan. 31, 1999, when Esera Tuaolo played in the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons, three years before he would come out openly as gay.

When Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo entered Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami as a substitute, he was not yet out as a gay man and he did not have a big role in what was a 34-19 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that he was playing on such a big game while closeted terrified him, as he recounts in his 2007 book “Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL.”

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 their superstar quarterback John Elway. 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 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 were 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. ...

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.

Tuaolo has long blown past those fears. In 2002, he came out publicly and in the years since has become a passionate advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people in and out of sports. The past three years he has hosted a Pride inclusion party during Super Bowl Week in the host city.

He might not have a Super Bowl trophy, but he does have a gold medal he won playing on the championship flag football team sponsored by Outsports at the 2006 Gay Games (Cyd and I also played on that team). Never in his wildest dreams that January night in 1999 would Tuaolo have believed he would be so comfortable to one day play in a sporting event with gay in the title.