One of the most terrifying moments in the career of Viking nose-guard Esera Tuaolo did not take place on a football field. It happened on a basketball court in early 1990, when Tuaolo was a junior at Oregon State. His assignment before a Beaver game was to sing the national anthem. "I was fine until they announced my name and the whole place went silent," Tuaolo says. "I was shaking until I got the first note out. When you're singing, the first note is like the first hit in a football game. The butterflies go away."
For the next five years, beyond an occasional Star-Spangled Banner—including guest appearances before Minnesota Timberwolf and Portland Trail Blazer games—Tuaolo confined his singing to the shower. But in July he launched his professional career with a gig at a Minneapolis bistro called The Fine Line Music Cafe, an apt setting for an aggressive 6'2", 263-pound sacker. The audience included his mother, Maina, who had flown in from the family's home in Honolulu for the occasion. "I saw her start crying during the first song," says Tuaolo. "She was so proud. All those years of making me sing in church paid off."
Tuaolo describes his style as "eclectic," adding, "I do everything from country to rhythm and blues. Even opera, sometimes. I don't do rap, though."
The fifth-year pro saves his rapping for the playing field. After finishing his career at Oregon State, where he set school records for sacks, tackles for a loss and quarterback pressures, Tuaolo was taken by the Packers in the second round of the 1991 draft. As a rookie he started all 16 games at nosetackle for Green Bay, collecting 3� sacks and intercepting a pass. But four games into the '92 season the Packers released him after signing Keith Millard, and seven weeks later he signed with the Vikings.
When All-Pro Henry Thomas left Minnesota this past off-season to sign with the Lions, Tuaolo was given the starting job, and he has made the most of the opportunity. Going into the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, Tuaolo has racked up 38 tackles, three sacks and three tackles for a loss. In Minnesota's crucial 27-24 win over Green Bay on Nov. 5, which moved the Vikings within two games of the division-leading Bears, Tuaolo recovered a Packer fumble with the score tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter. Earlier in the game he had sacked quarterback Brett Favre, who had been his roommate on the road during his Green Bay days, for an eight-yard loss. "I didn't taunt him," Tuaolo says. "I just did my little dance."
The Vikings' song-and-dance man counts Favre among his best friends. When Tuaolo made an off-season visit to Favre's Mississippi home, the two made a side trip to New Orleans, where Favre introduced Tuaolo to the honky-tonks of Bourbon Street. "In one of them, I was able to get up and sing," Tuaolo says. "It was intimidating."
This fall Tuaolo has been performing regularly at Ivories, a piano bar in suburban Minneapolis. He is also working with local songwriter Rob Rivera on a CD that he hopes to market in Hawaii, Oregon and Minnesota. One of the original songs, Listen to Me, has been made into a video that has been shown on the Black Entertainment Television network. And in March, Tuaolo will be the opening act on a USO tour of Alaska, France and Spain. "You can't play football forever," says Tuaolo, "so I'm going to try to tap into the music industry to get my foot in that second door."
On a recent flight to California, Tuaolo encountered a middle-aged woman who thought he reminded her of someone famous—though not an athlete. "Do you know," said the woman, "that from your profile, you look very much like the young Elvis?" Tuaolo almost felt like breaking into song.