For a brief moment, picture a typical gay man. Depending on when you grew up, where you came from, and what sort of media you consumed, you probably have a certain image in your head. I suspect that image looks nothing like Ryan O’Callaghan.
Unless you’re a world class NFL football nerd, chances are you haven’t heard that name before. However, after learning about his story, I hope he’s someone who has changed your perception of what it means to be LGBTQ. That’s because Ryan O’Callaghan’s story is a sad, downright heartbreaking story on many levels, but one that has a happy, uplifting ending.
We need more stories like that, especially during Pride Month. We need them now more than ever.
To appreciate what Ryan O’Callaghan went through, it’s necessary to appreciate how hard it can be to live life as a closeted gay man. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a story from decades ago. Ryan O’Callaghan was born in 1983. He’s pretty much the same age as I am. He was born at a time when things were steadily improving for the LGBTQ community.
However, that wasn’t much solace for him. He grew up in a very conservative part of California. After realizing he was gay, he had no idea how he was going to live that life in such an environment. That led him to hide his sexuality. At one point, he even made plans to kill himself.
It’s hard to imagine how agonizing it must be, having to hide a part of who you are from everyone around you. Forget, for a moment, how you feel about homosexuality in general. Imagine trying to hide a big part of who you are from everyone and being terrified of the truth coming out. Could we really manage keeping a secret like that?
I know I couldn’t. I question the honesty of anyone who claims they can. For Ryan O’Callaghan, it was too much. He really didn’t believe he could live a full life as an openly gay man. The best he could do was hide his secret as long as he could. That was where football came in.
This goes back to that picture I conjured earlier. Ryan O’Callaghan is 6 foot 7 inches tall. During his playing days through college and the NFL, he weight in between 250 and 330 pounds. He was an offensive lineman. He looked and played the part. In essence, he was the last person anyone expected to be gay and that’s how he liked it.
Through high school, college, and the NFL, he let football be his mask. It’s supposed to be the manliest sport in the world. Even after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to play in the NFL in 2014, there’s still this perception that the men who play football fit a certain ideal and that ideal doesn’t involve being gay.
That’s not to say there haven’t been gay players in the NFL. In fact, there have been quite a few. One of the best tight ends in NFL history, Jerry Smith, played his entire 13 year career in the NFL as a closeted gay man. There’s a good chance there are active players in the NFL right now who are gay, but in the closet.
Be that as it may, it offered no comfort to Ryan O’Callaghan. Football was still his mask, but he loved playing it enough to keep going. It also helped that he was very good at it. He was so good that he managed to get a college scholarship with the California Golden Bears. He went onto play well enough to get drafted by the New England Patriots in 2006.
That’s a level of success very few football players ever reach, regardless of position. The fact that Ryan was able to go that far is a testament to both his skill and his talent for the game. Doing it all while in the closet just makes it all the more harrowing.
However, that success didn’t change his plans. Ryan still believed he could not live life as an openly gay man. Once his playing days were over, he still planned to take his own life. At one point, he even wrote a suicide letter, bought guns, and built a cabin. That’s how close he came to ending it all.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending.
Before he took that fatal step, he got help from a clinical psychologist. She helped him out of that dark place. Eventually, he was able to come out, revealing his secret to the general manager who had drafted him. It’s hard to overstate how big that moment must have been for him.
I certainly can’t do it justice. I’ve only touched on some of the details surrounding Ryan O’Callaghan’s story. For a more a more complete picture, check out his book, My Life On The Line. Also, I highly recommend that everyone read this story done by Outsports. It covers Ryan’s struggles in far greater depth.
I should offer a bit of a trigger warning, though. Some of the details are difficult to take in, but it’s worth noting that this story has a happy ending. Here’s a brief snippet.
Very early on in the process he felt it was mandatory to share his truth with Pioli, the man who had brought him from New England and helped keep his career — and his life — moving forward.
Just after the 2011 season, O’Callaghan visited Pioli in his office.
The day before he had called his general manager, who had become a good friend, to ask him for a meeting. Pioli had known about O’Callaghan’s drug abuse, and the gravity in his player’s voice over the phone told him that something dire was on his mind.
“He had built this up like he was coming in to tell me that maybe he had done something truly terrible,” Pioli remembered.
O’Callaghan trudged into Pioli’s office the next day. After a hug and some small talk, O’Callaghan turned serious. He told Pioli he had been visiting with Wilson and had gotten “clean.” It was good news to Pioli.
“I’ve got something else I’ve got to tell you,” O’Callaghan said. At this point he was fighting back tears. Pioli’s mind raced, wondering if his player had harmed or killed someone.
“I’m gay,” O’Callaghan said.
His private announcement was met with immediate support from the GM. Then:
“So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?” Pioli asked.
O’Callaghan looked at him, bewildered, 27 years of fear, anxiety and self-loathing meeting Pioli’s stare.
“Scott,” O’Callaghan said, “I’m… gay.”
Pioli acknowledged that and asked again if O’Callaghan had done something wrong.
“People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess,” Pioli 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.”
O’Callaghan also didn’t know that, according to Pioli, he wasn’t the first gay NFL player whom his GM had counseled.
The two men talked more and Pioli assured O’Callaghan that their conversation changed nothing, he was still there to support him, and they were still friends. O’Callaghan was shocked by the reaction. Pioli handled it pitch-perfectly, as though he had known all along. So O’Callaghan asked if his boss had, in fact, known.
“Ryan, how would I have known?” Pioli responded.
“Do you really think I like coffee that much?” O’Callaghan asked.
Pioli had no idea what his player was talking about.
O’Callaghan had, since his time in New England, headed to the training room after every practice to consume copious amounts of coffee, a convenient excuse to avoid being in the showers with the rest of his teammates.
Pioli got emotional at the thought of one of his players having to go to those lengths to keep some distance from his teammates. The mental toll this had all taken on O’Callaghan had come into focus.
As they rose to say goodbye, Pioli came around from behind his desk and opened his arms to embrace O’Callaghan. They had hugged countless times before, after games, after the offseason, even just moments ago when O’Callaghan walked into his office.
This time O’Callaghan stuck out his hand to shake.
“What’s with the handshake?” Pioli asked.
“I just told you I’m gay,” O’Callaghan replied sheepishly.
Pioli was having none of it and grabbed O’Callaghan.
“Dude, it’s OK,” Pioli said. Then, in his signature sense of humor, “Just don’t grab my butt.”
That broke the tension and O’Callaghan burst into laughter. The humor was a sign to him that Pioli wasn’t going to change. They could get along just as they always had.
“Don’t worry,” O’Callaghan replied, “You’re not my type.”
I sincerely hope this story resonates with others for all the right reasons. Whether you’re openly LGBTQ, in the closet, or just know people who are struggling with their sexuality, I hope the story of Ryan O’Callaghan offers insight and perspective.
Yes, we’ve made progress as a society. Life for the LGBTQ community is better now than it has been in the past. We still have room for improvement, as Ryan’s story perfectly illustrates. If you or anyone you know is struggling, I hope this story helps you in some way.
Also, if you need help or are at all feeling suicidal, please check out the resources of the Trevor Project. Thank you an have a Happy Pride Month.