Many NFL players have trouble figuring out what to do with their lives after their athletic careers end. Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was to end his life, all the better to take his secret to the grave.
O’Callaghan was a gay man who dared not let anyone know about it and who saw a football career as the perfect cover to avoid any questions about his sexuality. That career took the hulking offensive lineman from the University of California to the New England Patriots and then to the Kansas City Chiefs, where a few members of the organization were finally able to help O’Callaghan realize that he could live with his true self.
O’Callaghan had gone so far as to build a cabin outside his home in Kansas City, stock it with guns and write a suicide note, before deciding that he should take a risk on acceptance. Now 33 and out of the NFL since 2011, he recounted his personal and professional journey to Outsports in a feature published Tuesday.
Of the possibility of coming out, O’Callaghan told Cyd Zeigler of Outsports, “All I had ever done was think how bad the reaction would be. It takes a lot more strength to be honest with yourself than it does to lie.”
O’Callaghan grew up in Redding, Calif., a culturally conservative town in the north-central part of the state. While in junior high school, he came to two crucial realizations: He was gay, and no one could ever find out.
Before he left Redding, O’Callaghan also came to realize that his size — he was listed in the NFL at 6-7 and 330 pounds — and competitive nature could help him succeed on the football field. What he could not envision was going any further, once he left the locker room for the final time.
“In high school, football turned into a way to go to college,” he explained. “In college, football was a great cover for being gay. And then I saw the NFL mainly as a way to keep hiding my sexuality and stay alive.”
According to Outsports, O’Callaghan becomes the seventh person to have played in an NFL game and subsequently come out as gay. The previous players were Dave Kopay, Jerry Smith, Ray McDonald, Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo and Kwame Harris, all of whom, as with O’Callaghan, revealed their sexuality after their football careers ended.
In addition, four other players made it as far as NFL training camps, including, in some cases, preseason games. Most notable on that list is Michael Sam, who came out before the 2014 NFL draft, at which he lasted until the final handful of selections despite a stellar career at Missouri. The others, per Outsports, were Wade Davis, Dorien Bryant and Brad Thorson.
In 2013, the NBA’s Jason Collins became the first openly gay male athlete actively competing in a major U.S. sports league. “Early in my career I worked hard at acting straight,” Collins said at the time, “but as I got more comfortable in my straight mask it required less effort.”
At Cal, where O’Callaghan befriended his team’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, he purposely adopted attributes he thought connoted with an image of a “sloppy straight guy,” such as having a less-than-chiseled physique and chewing tobacco. On the field, he won awards for his play, and he was selected by in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the Patriots, who had won three Super Bowls in the previous five seasons.
After a shoulder injury cost O’Callaghan the 2008 season, he was released by New England in 2009, at which point he followed former Patriots front-office executive Scott Pioli to Kansas City, where Pioli had been hired as the general manager. O’Callaghan’s Chiefs tenure began promisingly, but a mix of new and old injuries took him off the field and into a new problem: an addiction to painkillers.
“It helped with the pain of the injuries, and with the pain of being gay,” O’Callaghan told Outsports. “I just didn’t worry about being gay when I took the Vicodin. I just didn’t worry.”
Seeing his NFL career slipping away, and thus his presumed reason for living, O’Callaghan began distancing himself from his family to, he thought, make his eventual suicide easier for them to take. He was still receiving physical therapy at the Chiefs’ facility, though, and the team’s head trainer, David Price, thought he saw something amiss and recommended the lineman see a clinical psychologist who had worked with other players on drug-abuse issues.
The psychologist, Susan Wilson, quickly recognized that O’Callaghan had some very deep-seated issues, and over a period of months, she was able to get him to confide, for the first time to anyone else, that he was gay. “It took a while to build up that strength to even tell her,” O’Callaghan said. “You have to build up trust with someone. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”
If that experience was a huge relief to O’Callaghan, he had an equally cathartic moment with Pioli, once he agreed to try sharing his secret with someone with whom he was close, before going through with his plan to end his life. O’Callaghan had such a fraught tone in his request to meet with Pioli that the Chiefs GM was prepared to possibly hear the worst kind of news, such as that O’Callaghan had killed someone.
Thus, after offering support when O’Callaghan told him he was gay, Pioli asked, “So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?”
“People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess,” Pioli, now an executive with the Falcons, told Outsports. “I wasn’t minimizing what he was telling me, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He built this up and built this up to the point where he said he was nearly suicidal.
“What Ryan didn’t know is how many gay people I’ve had in my life.”
At the end of their meeting, which followed the 2011 season, Pioli and O’Callaghan hugged, and the lineman began coming out to his family and friends, including Rodgers. He found support there, albeit at different levels, and his aunt and uncle helped him tackle his opioid addiction, which he now says he is able to manage.
O’Callaghan is back in Redding, comfortable with his sexuality and hopeful that others can benefit from hearing of his experiences. “As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay,” he said, “there is a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help.”