Esera Tuaolo credits the lyrics of Sarah McLachlan with saving his life when he was in the deepest phases of his depression.
Tuaolo, a retired NFL defensive lineman and the third man to publicly acknowledge he was a gay professional football player, sang McLachlan's "In the Arms of an Angel" to break the ice before his speech to a crowd of about 100 people Tuesday night in the Kansas Union.
Tuaolo never told a single teammate in high school, at Oregon State University or on any of the five professional football franchises he played for that he was a gay man.
"It was hell, living that double life," he said. "Knowing what I know now, with all the support there is in the community, I would have come out when I was still playing. It would have been difficult, but I would have."
Tuaolo said his life in the closet caused him to abuse alcohol and live in fear that his secret would be revealed. He described several instances when the publicity he received for his success - he was an honorable mention All-American coming out of college and an early second-round NFL draft pick - caused him to have a nervous breakdown.
On one occasion, Tuaolo said, he saw himself on the season poster for the Oregon State Beavers football team. He said when he got home, he couldn't breathe and fell to the ground in tears. On another instance, after his first NFL game, he drank two bottles of tequila to try to hide from himself. At one point, he even asked God to take his life.
"What kept me going was the love for my mother," he said.
Tuaolo, who has been in a relationship for more than 10 years and has two adopted children, came out of the closet in 2002. Since then, the reaction from the football community has been quiet.
"There's a handful of players who've contacted me, and maybe half of those have been sincere expression of support," he said.
Tuaolo said his goal in speaking about his experience was to promote tolerance and acceptance. That message resonated with Will Dawson, a KU freshman from Detroit.
"I was expecting a normal lecture, but I thought he delivered his message very well," Dawson said.
Megan Brent, sports psychologist for the KU athletic department, went to the lecture to get an idea of how to promote an atmosphere of tolerance among athletes she works with.
"He hit on a lot of important points. I think this helps in knowing how we make this a safer place for those having that experience," Brent said. "It's always amazing when people are willing to share their story so publicly."
Tuaolo, who said he's known that he was "different" since he was 5, said that in order for it to become acceptable for an athlete to come out while still playing, it would have to come from the leadership - from the owners and coaches.
In response to a question from the audience, he lamented the fact that the leaders of the major sports teams at KU - football coach Mark Mangino and men's basketball coach Bill Self - didn't attend his speech.