Eighteen years ago, when Esera Tuaolo was a backup defensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers under head coach George Seifert, he shared his dream for what retirement would look like:
“When football is over, I’m going to get very serious about music,” the Hawaii native told the Observer in October of 1999, during his one and only season in Charlotte. “Hopefully, I’ll sign with a big label and go on from there. That’s the dream of every artist.”
That December, Tuaolo’s season was cut short when he suffered a torn thigh muscle, and not long afterward, he announced he would retire after nine years in the NFL.
The music thing never took off, though, and his life was sent down a different path when, in 2002, he became just the third former NFL player to come out as a gay man. He published an autobiography, “Alone in the Trenches,” in 2006; since then, he’s been an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, a sought-after public speaker and the leader of an anti-bullying program.
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But those dreams of breaking big as a singer? Eighteen years after he hung up his cleats, Tuaolo is suddenly closer to achieving them than ever.
On Monday night, NBC aired his successful audition on reality-singing competition series “The Voice,” which featured the 49-year-old big man belting out a rousing cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” that had judges Jennifer Hudson and Blake Shelton spinning in their chairs.
Tuaolo called us Wednesday morning from Minnesota to talk about why he chose that particular song, how singing the national anthem in front of 100,000 people compares to trying out for “The Voice,” and – speaking of the national anthem – what he thinks of the protests that have been taking place around the league.
Q. How did it feel to see those chairs spin around?
A. It was definitely a confirmation that I belonged there, that I owned the moment. All I could think about was my kids – my daughter and my son – who were there watching me. (Tuaolo has 16-year-old twins, Michele and Mitchell.) And also my mom ... just wishing that she was there. My mom’s 83 years old; she’ll be 84 this Friday. She couldn’t travel because of health issues. But it was amazing to have Jennifer Hudson and Blake Shelton turn around.
Q. Any special reason why you picked that particular song?
A. Yeah, definitely. When I heard the song for the first time, I basically broke down and cried. People can interpret songs and art in different ways, but for me, the life that I lived as a closeted gay man in the NFL ... there were many times when I didn’t want to get up, to rise up. So I chose that song not only because I love it and I love Andra Day and I thought it was a perfect fit for my voice, but it was the true meaning behind it. It really empowered me.
Q. Is it true that you don’t have any formal voice training, that you don’t play any instruments, and can’t read music?
A. Yeah. Well, I play the ukelele, but I only know like three chords that kind of get me through everything. But yeah, I wasn’t trained growing up. I came from a very poor family, so we couldn’t afford voice lessons. But when you’re in Hawaii, music is everywhere. Everywhere. Wherever you go, people are singing, people are playing the ukelele, guitars.
Q. So when did you first start singing?
A. When I was like 4 years old. My mom and my dad taught me a song called “God Bless My Daddy,” and they had me sing it for guests that would come over. ... But I think it was in college when people really started telling me I had a good voice. I was always singing (around the team). I was either doing something from Luther Vandross or some Hawaiian song. So our trainer (at Oregon State) – who was also the trainer for the basketball team – said, “Hey, why don’t you sing the national anthem at a basketball game?” Jokingly, I said, “Hey, if you get me the gig, I definitely would do it” – thinking that he would not do it. He came back to me the next day and said, “You’re on for this Friday.” I was like, “What!?” ... I remember when they announced my name and the (crowd) went silent, you could hear a pin drop. My legs started shaking, until I got that first note out. As soon as I got that first note out, it just all came through.
Q. Then it just grew from there?
A. Yeah. ... I was Mr. Aloha – that’s the nickname people started giving me, because I was always happy. I was always smiling. But a lot of times people didn’t realize the reason why I was smiling all the time was just to hide this crippling secret that I had. Music made me happy, so that’s one of the reasons why I sang a lot, to cover up all the pain that I was going through, all the depression that I was facing during that time in my life. But now I get to sing without any of those things holding me down, and when I smile, I really mean it. It feels amazing to be in this situation on “The Voice.” It’s like the Super Bowl. (Tuaolo played in Super Bowl XXXIII as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 1998.) When you walk out onto that field, you know that you have arrived. That’s the same feeling I had when I was standing on that stage.
Q. What do you remember most fondly about playing with the Panthers or living in Charlotte?
A. Charlotte was one of the first places I got introduced to P.F. Chang’s. (Laughing.) I was there every day after practice. But seriously, the guys that I played with there were amazing. One of my favorite all-time linebackers, Kevin Greene, was on the team. I remember watching him with San Francisco and him just dominating. And Nate Newton – who I played against when he was with the Cowboys – he was there. George Seifert was the coach; he had just come from San Francisco, and it was cool to play under him. I really had a great time there.
Q. You got hurt in December of that season, but you actually came back and sang the national anthem before the game against New Orleans. And then that same week, you sang the anthem at a Charlotte Hornets game. How do experiences like those compare to “The Voice”?
A. I’ve sung the national anthem in front of a hundred thousand people, and that didn’t come close to preparing me for what happened the other night. I mean, being in front of that tremendously small crowd, having the judges and the pressure of waiting for them turn around, that was a lot tougher than me singing in front of a hundred thousand people in a stadium. Much more nerve-racking.
Q. Can you estimate how many times you’ve done the anthem before sporting events?
A. Oh my gosh, I did it my rookie year (with Green Bay), I did it for every single team that I played for (also Minnesota and Jacksonville). I’ve sung the national anthem probably 15 to 20 times.
Q. And so I’ve got to ask, given your status as both a former NFL guy and also a national anthem guy, what thoughts have you had in the past several days as you’ve watched players engaging in protests on the field during the anthem?
A. I’m definitely all for it, the freedom of speech. That’s why we live in America, to be able to voice your opinion. ... But it also depends on, for me, what are you protesting for? What is the meaning behind it? Is it just rebelling against what the president said, or does it have a really true meaning? ... But having had to struggle a little bit because of me being a part of the LGBT community, I totally get and understand why some of the players took a knee.
Q. And back to “The Voice” to wrap up: Are you in this to win this, or do you just want to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts?
A. I’m in it to win it. When I go and speak around the country and I do my anti-bullying program, “Hate in Any Form Is Wrong,” one of the things I tell these kids is: You need to try everything, ’cause you never know what you’re good at. But if you try it, be in it to win it. Do it a hundred percent. Because then you have more passion for it.