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Before Carl Nassib and Michael Sam, there was Esera Tuaolo

The Packers’ second-round pick in 1991 kept his sexuality a secret out of fear of violence. Has his story now come full circle with Carl Nassib?

Esera Tuaolo prepares for the snap

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib sent shockwaves throughout the NFL world on Monday by becoming the first active NFL player to come out as a gay man.

It was a moment many thought was coming, though no one knew when it happen or who it would be. Now that it is here, it is time to reflect on how we got to this point and how everyone can move forward in the fight for not only a more inclusive NFL but a more inclusive world as well.

By publicly coming out and being the first active player to do so, Nassib deserves praise, respect, and support. Hopefully his decision will not only encourage and support others in the league who are concerned about coming out but also young gay men who are afraid to play the game they love out of fear of being excluded, judged, or ostracized simply because of their sexual orientation. Nassib’s announcement this week was a major milestone and here’s hoping it’s the first of many.

While Nassib’s decision was certainly monumental, he represents the next step in football openly accepting members of the LGBTQ+ community; not the first.

Back in 2014, Michael Sam became the first openly gay man drafted by an NFL franchise when the then-St. Louis Rams drafted him in the seventh round of the draft. Sam was released by the Rams and also spent some time on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad before he became the first openly gay player in the Canadian Football League when he joined the Montreal Alouettes in 2015.

Not long after, Sam retired from football due to mental health reasons and has since become an author and motivational speaker.

Many people are familiar with Sam’s story, but he also represents a step in the journey to a more inclusive and diverse NFL. However, there was one player before Sam who truly shattered stereotypes and started blazing a trail for gay men in football and that player was drafted by none other than the Green Bay Packers.

That player was Esera Tuaolo.

The big difference between Sam and Tuaolo was that when Tuaolo was selected by the Packers in the second round of the 1991 draft, no one knew he was gay.

Let’s take a moment to remember how homosexuality was perceived in America 30 years ago. In short, it was mocked, it was vilified, and it was condemned for the most part. The tide was starting to turn a bit as some states including Minnesota, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New Jersey saw either legislatures pass laws or governors sign executive orders banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Still, homosexuality was still frowned upon largely by society. The HIV epidemic began in 1981, 10 years earlier, and it fed a lot of misunderstanding and outright hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community.

In other words, coming out as gay in 1991 often would put a target on your back as an average person, let alone a celebrity like a professional football player.

So Tuaolo kept his sexuality to himself and began his NFL career. He spent two seasons as a Packer, starting all 16 games as a rookie and earning all-rookie honors before playing seven more seasons with four other teams (the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers) before his career ended in 1999. Perhaps the most interesting bit of football-related trivia connected to his career is that Tuaolo was the final person to tackle Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway in his career, during Super Bowl XXXIII when Tuaolo was with the Falcons.

Overall, he had a good career but his impact on the field would pale in comparison to the impact he would have off of it after he retired.

In 2002, three years after his final NFL appearance, Tuaolo came out as gay. He wasn’t the first former NFL player to do so — that was Dave Kopay, who played for Vince Lombardi in Washington and later came out in 1975 — but he became the most visible and perhaps the most impactful.

Tuaolo’s coming out sparked a debate that has yet to be settled almost 20 years later: How will a gay player be accepted in the NFL? Shortly after Tuaolo’s announcement, his former Packers teammate Sterling Sharpe said that gay men would have trouble finding acceptance in the locker room.

“He would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it,” Sharpe said in a 2002 episode of HBO’s Real Sports, and he wasn’t alone in sharing those sentiments.

It was that mindset that led Tuaolo to become, in his words, “an actor.” He heard all the locker room banter in both college and the NFL that was anti-gay, and he knew what revealing his true self would mean to those players. As Tuaolo outlines in his book Alone in the Trenches: My Life as Gay Man in the NFL, his biggest fear was that while his was still playing, someone would expose his secret to the world before he was ready to share it. That fear nearly drove him to suicide, he wrote.

That fear of being exposed is a violation of privacy that terrifies many members of the LGBTQ+ community even today and Tuaolo was living through this, as were others, when many Americans still would not accept homosexuality as legitimate.

Tuaolo overcame those demons after coming out and showing his true self, and he has gone on to become a strong advocate for the LGBT community. He’s worked with the NFL to combat homophobia in their ranks (something that we will see how far they have come with Nassib’s coming out) and is a motivational speaker spreading a message of love, inclusion, and making sure sexual orientation does not hold children or anyone else back from achieving their highest dreams. He is also the executive director of Hate is Wrong, a non-profit that seeks to encourage diversity and combat bullying among children.

In short, sing Nassib’s praises this week as he deserves every single note sung his way, and thank Sam for helping to open the door for Nassib to walk through. Just don’t forget to thank Tuaolo either, who turned on the light in a dark world so that Sam could see that door.