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A bit part in saving one man’s life

November, 2, 2002

    In this brief difficult life, it is rare that we ever get a chance to help save another person’s life. It is rarer still to have such help acknowledged by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning, America.

    But, such was my few seconds of fame early Wednesday morning when ABC television showed the cover of a book I wrote in 1977 with former NFL running back David Kopay. The book focused on the tortured double life Kopay had been forced to live as the glamorous macho football star who knew in his heart he was homosexual.

    We had to change the names of five people described in the book. One of them was an All-Pro tight end still playing for the Washington Redskins. He would have been fired on the spot if he’d been publicly identified as a homosexual. We noted this up front: “Our work is dedicated to those still trapped in shame and guilt as we once were. We hope for a time when we won’t have to change the names of our friends to protect their lives and jobs, when they won’t have to live in fear of being identified with us or with homosexuality.”

    In the 25 years since our book was published, Kopay and I have both been gratified to witness all kinds of changes not just in attitudes, but also in laws that not only branded us inferior, but illegal. There have been changes every where, it seems, except in the National Football League.

    The NFL is still rigidly promoting pro football players as “super-masculine warriors, no women or sissies allowed.” Everybody knows it’s pure hype, a matter of image and the box office. The old lion of a coach, Vince Lombardi, knew he had gay men playing for him on the Redskins, his own brother was gay. He fired a star Redskins rookie, not because he was gay, but because he had gotten arrested and it was about to become news. The man later had to change his name in order to get a job as a janitor at a Texas school.

    We expected others gay NFL players would follow in the space our book created. But, all these years, David Kopay has stood alone. Not only was he out of the running for a coaching position; he was excluded from any kind of sports job. He has worked, day in and day out, for the last quarter of a century at his uncle’s floor covering business in Los Angeles.

    All of this surely helps to explain why he reacted so emotionally at a recent party when he was introduced to Esera Tuaolo, a young former nose guard with the Green Bay Packers, the Carolina Panthers and three other NFL teams. At 34, Tuaolo was almost half our age. And yet, he, too, had gone through the same agonizing double life Kopay had experienced 30 years before. The two had felt so isolated, alone, they were finally able to shuck all the bad feelings and hug each other and just let it all out with a good long cry. In their football days, they would have died a thousand deaths before expressing such feelings. Excitedly calling me about Tuaolo the past few days, Kopay sounds very much like a proud father—and in so many ways, he is.

    Tuaolo’s rather sensational coming out story began on HBO’s Real Sports show two weeks ago. Lengthy interviews of him and of Kopay were published on ESPN’s magazine this past week; and the great Robert Lipsyte published a story about Tuaolo in last Sunday’s New York Times.

    The youngest of eight children born to a poor Samoan family in Hawaii, Tuaolo became a star football player in high school and at Oregon State. He had a wildly successful rookie year with the Green Bay Packers in 1991, which included 30 solo tackles. In the locker rooms, he was a jolly Mr. Aloha, but otherwise he had no social life at all until he returned home to friends in Hawaii who accepted him as gay.

    Oddly, Tuaolo says “My best games were the worst.” He felt the better he played, the more famous he became, the more likely he’d be exposed as a homosexual and his career, his life, would be ruined. “I would get a sack, force a fumble, stuff a play on the goal line. And hours later, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up sweating, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Maybe someone who knows saw that, I’d think to myself. Maybe they’ll call the coach, or the owner or the papers.”

    Taking refuge in tequila, Tuaolo’s condition worsened to the point his real friends were convinced he was going to kill himself. A gay bar owner in Honolulu gave him a copy of The David Kopay Story. Tuaolo said he hadn’t read a book since college, and then it was only Cliff Notes. But, “I read the whole book and I just broke down crying because I saw myself…Dave’s story inspired me so much, I prayed to God and told Him I would keep trying, that I wouldn’t give up.” Not long after that, he met and fell in love with a man named Mitchell and the two have been a couple for six years now. They also have adopted twins, now 23 months old. Partly because of the children, he felt he could no longer live a lie. “I’m so happy that my kids will know that their father is happy.”

    It is a heart-warming story and I am proud to have played a small part in it.