When Esera Tuaolo publicly came out as gay in 2002, the veteran NFL lineman said he didn't think professional football was ready for an openly gay player.

“People ask me if I think a superstar football player will ever come out during his playing days,” Tuaolo wrote in ESPN the Magazine. “I hate to be negative, but I don’t see it happening. The league just isn’t ready for it, and neither are the fans.”

Nineteen years later, Tuaolo has changed his tune. On this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki,” Tuaolo told me why he thinks the NFL is ready today. The league is much more inclusive, with players of all stripes sticking together and standing up for social change.

“Yes, I do think someone will come out in the near future, but we need to continue the conversations of inclusion, diversity and equality,” he said. “We can’t let down. I think the thing we learned in 2020 is that we’re all in it together, people. There’s no separate group.”

Tuaolo lived a tortured existence as a closeted NFL star. He would be on the verge of an anxiety attack whenever he heard his name blared over the public address system, fearing somebody would out him. While he lived with his partner — and had young twins — he kept his two personas separate. It was an exhausting way to live.

The pain caused Tuaolo to drink heavily each night and pray he would never wake up. It’s astounding he was able to keep it together for nine seasons. Tuaolo made the NFL’s all-rookie team and played in Super Bowl XXXI with the Green Bay Packers. He played for five teams overall from 1991-99, including the Minnesota Vikings.

“Every single day I woke up back then, I walked into the locker room, and transformed myself into someone I wasn’t: a straight man,” he said. “That right there, looking over my shoulder, hearing all the negative things and stuff in the locker room about fags and queers and discriminating women, listening the players talk about who they banged and stuff. Shit, man. Of course, my life is so much better than back then.”

Tuaolo has stayed around the game since coming out. Last weekend, he threw his fourth annual Super Bowl Inclusion Party, sponsored by his anti-bullying organization, Hate Is Wrong (the festivities were virtual this year, of course). The group also hosted a pre-Super Bowl LGBTQ sports panel.

The purpose of the Inclusion Party, Tuaolo says, is to make sure everyone can participate in the Super Bowl festivities. Typical Super Bowl parties feature ludicrously expensive covers and lots of abhorrent objectification. They are an extension of the odious “guy talk” — homophobic slurs, boasting about sexual conquests — that made Tuaolo miserable.

Despite being 6-foot-4 and weighing 300 pounds, he often felt helpless and alone in the locker room.

“I don’t care how big you are,” Tuaolo said. “When you do not have the support, it’s a difficult thing. And not only that, but you could lose your livelihood. I worked so hard to get to the NFL. It’s a hostile environment. It’s hard.”

But the environment is changing. As we’ve chronicled on Outsports, 39 active NFL players have played with an out gay teammate. Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdowns in Super Bowl LV, told our Cyd Zeigler eight years ago he would be cool with a gay teammate.

Tuaolo has seen the shift first-hand. He harkens back to a speech he gave at an NFL rookie symposium in the mid-aughts. During the Q&A, one of the players raised his hand and asked Tuaolo why it was offensive to call someone the f-word if they were, well, “that way.”

Instead of lashing out, Tuaolo explained to the player it was akin to calling a Black person the n-word, or yelling a misogynistic slur at a woman. Afterwards, the other rookies assured Tuaolo they weren’t as ignorant. It was a turning point.

And if that was the environment more than a decade ago, imagine how much it’s changed even since then.

“I looked around the room, and I saw the players looking at this guy and saying, ‘Are you kidding me? What an idiot,’” Tuaolo said. “The other players afterwards came up to me and said, ‘He does not represent us.’ What I say there was, I saw a change. I just knew that things would get better.”

There are still many issues. Casual homophobia remains too prevalent in locker rooms, and the NFL doesn’t include LGBTQ people in its diversity handbook. But if Tuaolo were playing today, he doesn’t think he would need to drink himself to sleep every night.

Maybe he would even come out.

“We’re changing it by players coming out, showing society who we are as a community, which is amazing” he said. “The more education we put out there, the more people that come out, the more stories that Outsports brings out from college to high school players to the pros, it’s adding to that”

Click here to check out this episode of our Outsports podcast, “The Sports Kiki.” You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.