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A gay football player's life of contradictions

Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, By Esera Tuaolo with John Rosengren, Sourcebooks, 288 pp., $24.95

Sports, done right, is a rough-cut yet unwavering mirror, revealing our finer traits and shortcomings alike. Nowhere is that more true than our modern-day blood sport, pro football. There is no hiding. Unless you're Esera Tuaolo. Unless you're gay.

For gay athletes, past and present, football is a funhouse mirror. Warped reflections distort a gay player's perceptions of who he is, where he fits in. According to former defensive lineman Tuaolo, that altered state runs the gamut, from Pop Warner and high school through big-time college programs and the pro ranks.

Based on statistical probability and hindsight, and given the ex-players who have come forward, there are homosexuals competing in today's NFL. You just don't know who they are, because they won't tell you. Not if they want to keep playing. That's the code. And that, in short, is the focus of Tuaolo's cathartic but flawed memoir , ``Alone in the Trenches. "

Tuaolo's sexual orientation wasn't the only obstacle he faced in his journey from a traumatic childhood on a Hawaiian banana farm to Oregon State University, to the NFL and eventually partnership and fatherhood. The youngest of eight, Tuaolo endured a dysfunctional family, poverty, sexual molestation, religious persecution, and racism. But it was his sexual orientation -- a biological reality, he says -- that forced him to lead his troubling double life. Football star, closet homosexual.

The fear of being ``discovered" became Tuaolo's persistent companion, forcing him into drinking binges, bouts of depression, even thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, it's also a mind-numbing constant throughout his book, the literary equivalent of fingernails across a chalkboard. Which is a shame, because Tuaolo's story is important. If our de facto national sport is discouraging a large segment of athletes from competing, it bears closer inspection.

From the outset, though, Tuaolo seems more interested in telling his story, rather than delving into broader issues. The latter is a much more complex undertaking, requiring more soul-searching, more effort, and perhaps a more attentive co author. The prose is pedestrian at best, melodramatic and cliche-ridden at worst (the single best line -- ``If homosexuality is an abomination, why didn't it make the top ten list of sins?" -- isn't even Tuaolo's, but belongs to comedian Robin Williams). Contextually, Tuaolo leaves far too many questions unanswered, while often stating the obvious. It simply doesn't resonate.

For starters, Tuaolo isn't a very sympathetic character. While his courage to speak out is laudable, this memoir is more confession than cultural examination. He inspires little empathy, because he's always thinking of himself first. He seems to like football more for the wealth and adulation it affords him than for the game itself. In truth, the book is one long exercise in egocentricity. Tuaolo's story (which, not coincidentally, begins with the word ``I" and ends with ``me") is far too focused on the author's angst to accurately reflect on other gay men.

Second, there's a host of contradictions. Tuaolo claims to have his father's ``exploring heart," yet every change in his life is met with panic and foreboding. He accuses others of prejudice and stereotyping but is quick to judge himself. He blames a brother for not being forthcoming about his own homosexuality, but Tuaolo isn't either. He longs for a stable relationship but engages in a series of one-night stands.

Although Tuaolo chides teammates for cheating, saying his mom raised him to be honest, he rationalizes his own lies. That includes deceiving others, such as a woman he dated for two years in his Minnesota Viking days , while living his . ``It was like having a best friend. I enjoyed that," writes Tuaolo. ``She was a virgin, which made it easier for me. She was waiting to get married. We kissed, but there was no pressure to perform sexually."

How convenient. Although contradictions often come with the territory of being a gay man in today's society, Tuaolo's logic in correlating life events with his sexual preference is strained at times, tortured at others.

Last, Tuaolo's haphazard narrative is all over the map, with no regard for chronology. Halfway through the book, well into Tuaolo's professional career, we learn about gay older brother Tua, who ultimately died of AIDS. Tua confessed to his younger sibling while he was in high school, but Tuaolo doesn't share that with the reader until his brother is on his deathbed, six years later. Forty pages later, Tuaolo reveals that an uncle sexually abused him, starting at the age of 6.

These jarring episodes are as confusing as they are stunning.

Whether Tuaolo ever reached his full potential as a football player, or a man, is difficult to assess from this work. However, when it comes to measuring Tuaolo's contribution to the written word, we're allowed to pass judgment. And ``Alone in the Trenches" leaves us wanting.

Brion O'Connor, a freelance writer on the North Shore, can be reached at

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