How Ryan O'Callaghan's story of being gay in the NFL is helping to smash stereotypes
In his new autobiography 'My Life On The Line', Ryan O'Callaghan details the paranoia he felt as a closeted Patriots player. He tells Sky Sports why stigma and silence are so damaging in sport
Last Updated: 05/09/19 7:37pm
Ryan O'Callaghan had been publicly out for just a few months when he was asked to contribute to 'Note to Self', a much-loved segment on one of America's biggest morning TV shows.
Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden and Kermit the Frog are just a few of the famous names to have featured in past episodes, writing and voicing personal letters of guidance to younger versions of themselves.
Speaking directly to camera, O'Callaghan connects instantly. As a lineman, he played over 50 games for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, but there is no talk of glory days. Just the ability to have hindsight is a blessing in itself. When CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King wrote her foreword for a special print edition of 'Note to Self' letters, she mentioned O'Callaghan specifically. "It's not easy to pick a favourite, but I keep going back to Ryan's letter again and again. No one would ever look at this burly, tobacco-chewing NFL lineman and suspect that he felt broken and alone and so ashamed of being gay that he'd even begun planning his suicide."
O'Callaghan says his self-worth was as low as could be - "if you're gay, you're as good as dead," he recalls thinking at his career peak in 2006 and 2007, the year the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season - which makes it difficult to equate that anguished, closeted football player from a decade or so ago with the assured, confident figure of today. He's not inscrutable, but as a storyteller, he easily shatters expectations. It's one of the reasons why he felt compelled to write 'My Life On The Line', his autobiography released this week.
"I've had the ability to change a lot of opinions," he tells Sky Sports, speaking from his home state of California. On the book's cover, a sweating O'Callaghan stands in a muddy Pats jersey, a 6ft 7in, 22-stone right tackle seemingly built to protect quarterbacks - the archetypal macho man, but one with a wary look in his eyes. In the memoir, he describes how fear first gripped him as a boy, how his physicality propelled him into football, why he held his closet door so tightly shut, and what eventually saved him when the downward spiral struck.
Written with Cyd Zeigler, the author and co-founder of the influential LGBTQ sports website Outsports, the book begins with O'Callaghan outlining the origin of his paranoia - the everyday homophobia and hypermasculine culture that abounded as he grew up in conservative Redding, over 200 miles north of gay-friendly San Francisco. He determined that his family must never find out his secret or he would be a colossal disappointment, disowned by those closest to him. He lays out a play-by-play of his strategy to hide in the plain sight of football, building suspense but also trust with the reader through his honest and sometimes heart-breaking reflections on the spirit-crushing cost of self-avoidance.
Now that he truly knows himself, O'Callaghan is able to explain where some of the problems lie for a lot of gay and bisexual men in environments like team sports. "One guy told me that I'm the most palatable gay man they've ever met. Now that's far from an appropriate thing to say - but I understand where he's coming from.
"If it takes someone meeting a guy like me, who carries himself in a certain way, to kind of open their eyes, then that's fine. But I'd also like to point out that guys like me, who are big and masculine, have it somewhat easy in the gay world. There's a lot of couples that can't walk down the street with their boyfriend holding hands without getting something screamed out of a car driving by. It would take someone with a lot of courage and, quite frankly, stupidity to mouth off to me like that."
O'Callaghan's physicality was part of his protection. At the University of California, he spent his time "keeping up appearances" - putting on unnecessary weight, wearing the baggiest clothes he could find, trying to repel girls while his friends and team-mates sought out their company. Yet the most important part of the disguise was the game itself. "Football was my cover for being gay," he says. "A lot of people do things to hide that, like dating a girl - but I just have zero attraction to women whatsoever. I never have. I can't figure it out for the life of me."
He titles that chapter 'The Beard' - slang for something that provides a cloak of heterosexuality. "I wasn't confident enough that I would do a good enough job fooling a girl that I was straight. I thought that would blow my cover, so that's why I chose football."
Following one recent interview, O'Callaghan generated additional headlines by simply suggesting that camouflage like his is not uncommon in the NFL today. "There's a very high likelihood that at least one guy on every team is either gay or bi. I made that comment with a little knowledge, just because I've had guys come out to me. But basic statistics will say that too." He's unsure whether the majority of football fans are genuinely surprised by that, or whether it just makes for an eye-catching headline. "Everyone reacts differently, but there are still a lot of people who don't understand that gay people come in all shapes, sizes, forms... not everyone's a stereotype. Actually most gay guys are not the stereotype."
Fans aren't necessarily thinking of the player as an individual. They've got to realise that we're all humans and everyone's going through something.
His own commitment to conformity, or what was perceived to be 'normal' ("another word I'm not a big fan of"), almost broke O'Callaghan. A serious shoulder injury forced him to miss the entire 2008 season and having already made a pact with himself, his need to remain in the NFL became a matter of life and death. In 2009, he joined the Chiefs and having first started managing pain with pot back in his Cal days - he writes of how "it dulled a lot of the aches and pains... it made my entire body feel better in a way the Vicodin only masked" - he knew he was running the risk of discovery by the drug testers. They got him in 2010. Not long after, he sustained a partially torn groin at training camp and became increasingly dependent on prescription drugs.
The pressure to practice and play
Patriots legend Rob Gronkowski has recently spoken in favour of relaxing the NFL rules on weed and CBD oil. But although 11 US states have legalised marijuana for recreational and medical purposes, O'Callaghan isn't expecting change to come soon. "They're in a tough spot when it comes to cannabis use, even though there are some states where there are teams where it's legal.
"The NFL can do what they want, but it would be tough for them to just say 'yes, if you play for a California or Colorado team, or whoever else where it's legal, you can smoke weed'. You try to have policies that are blanket across the whole league because who knows if that might entice some guys to choose a team over another just because they can legally smoke weed?
"It's no secret that a lot of athletes smoke marijuana. But to do it legally and have it as an actual policy in the League? I think that's still some time off, and will have to be directly related to federal laws."
O'Callaghan became hooked on the NFL's approved narcotics. "I'm taking an absurd amount of painkillers, up to 30 pills of various strengths," he records in the book. Seven years later, he fears other footballers may be heading down a similar road. "There's still the same pressure to be able to practice, and play on Sundays. Management is always looking for someone who's a little bit cheaper, or younger, and if you're not practicing and playing, you don't have much value.
"So guys are going to do what they have to do. I don't know if the quantity of painkillers that they prescribe has changed or not since I played, but I think realistically I can say that guys are still getting prescribed what they need or want."
The outcomes of O'Callaghan's addiction were bills running to thousands of dollars (he hardly saved any money for his retirement, as he didn't expect to be around to spend it) and the exacerbation of his complex mental health problems. Unsurprisingly, he has no NFL passion now as it was only ever a means to an end; sports in general hold limited appeal for him, although he admits to an inkling of interest in NASCAR. Yet he retains great respect for football, what it takes to be a successful team, and the incredible commitment shown by its stars.
Gronkowski, who retired in March having won three Super Bowl rings and countless other accolades, is one such player. "He's a tremendous athlete," says O'Callaghan, who left New England the year before Gronkowski was drafted. "I'm familiar with the injuries he's had to deal with, the concussions and everything else." He has sympathy too for Andrew Luck, who unexpectedly quit the Indianapolis Colts in August citing the punishing cycle of injuries and rehabilitation. Luck is just six months younger than 'Gronk', and O'Callaghan was a similar age when his pro career ended. "I can't blame someone for wanting to be able to play with their kids when they're 50 years old. It's not a selfish move whatsoever to look out for yourself. You've got to, because no one else is going to."
Reaching the right people
Through finding his own sense of self, O'Callaghan has also found his voice - and the NFL is listening. Commissioner Roger Goodell asked him directly for advice on how to best support closeted players, and O'Callaghan is encouraged by the response. "You can't go and just tap these players on the shoulder, so I explained how being visibly supportive helps - and in the last two years, the NFL have had floats in the New York Pride parade. This year, they actually sponsored the parade itself, and on top of that and the float, they had me on the NFL Network to actually talk to their fans about it. In the past, they've just done things quietly and under the radar. But now they're doing more in the public eye, and that's only going to help."
He's also hugely grateful to the Patriots multi-billionaire owner Robert Kraft, who has given "a generous donation" to the new Ryan O'Callaghan Foundation which will provide scholarships and mentorship to LGBT+ students, primarily athletes. O'Callaghan says every dollar brought in from 'My Life On The Line', speeches and personal appearances will go into the fund, but that it will take much more than money to create a culture in which everyone can thrive through authenticity. "You can't just write a check and say good luck. I'd rather have a few people that we actually watch, link up with, and mentor - to help them along the way - rather than just financially." He admires the work of the You Can Play Project, first launched in 2012 in the NHL where every team now has a player ambassador to lead on inclusion, and would like to see more collaboration in the LGBT sports activism sector in general.
Recently, the morning talk shows and other media opportunities have given O'Callaghan a platform to inspire young LGBTQ athletes and to reach others too. In the last week, he's also been invited onto networks to discuss free agent Ryan Russell coming out as bisexual. He's wise to the wide range of opinions and reactions to anything about sexuality in sports; he mentions that there was also a variety of views around the timing of Luck's retirement and the quarterback's reasons for quitting. "Fans aren't necessarily thinking of the player as an individual. They've got to realise that we're all humans and everyone's going through something."
O'Callaghan believes nothing short of a loved one telling him 'it's OK to be gay' would have been enough to prevent him from being closeted, and for him to avoid everything else that went with that experience. But when people are just indifferent, does that have an effect? "Well, there's the 'who cares?' response like, 'who really cares, we love you either way'. But then there's the 'who cares, it's not a big deal, I don't care about your personal life' response.
"For those people, they're the ones it's almost more important to reach because they can learn something about the fight for equality that still exists."
When he appeared this week on NBC's Today Show, host Al Roker mentioned to O'Callaghan about the significance of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10 coming so soon after the book's release. In the US, the suicide rate is at its highest since World War II. Figures released this week showed the UK rate jumped sharply by over 11 per cent in 2018, driven by an increase among men. Gay and bisexual men, particularly those in their teens and early 20s, are three times more likely to contemplate suicide than their heterosexual peers.
"At the end of the book, I put the National Suicide Hotline phone number in there, in case someone reading needs it," says O'Callaghan. "I want to remove the stigma associated with actually going and speaking to someone, and seeking that kind of help.
"It's a healthy thing to do. I've got this platform, and I really feel like I should use it."
:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email email@example.com in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.