“If you’re a gay kid, and you hear someone you love say ‘fag’,” former New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan says, “it makes you think that in their eyes, you’re just a fag, too.”
This was the impression the young athlete got growing up, that steered him towards pro football, as a way of hiding his sexuality. O’Callaghan, in a soul-searching OutSports interview, recalled how his upbringing in conservative Redding, California, made him believe he could never “live as a gay man”.
The constant anti-gay slurs he heard fro friends and family “got to me a lot”, and O’Callaghan, 33, made the decision in high school to hide his gayness behind a football jersey. That masquerade took him through college play at the University of California and on onto the NFL.
O’Callaghan, at 6-foot-7 and 330 pounds, certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of a gay man, and he kept his secret buried “deep down” as his playing career progressed.
“No one is going to assume the big football player is gay,” O’Callaghan notes, “That’s why a football team is such a good place to hide.”
Wade Davis, another former NFL player who came out of the closet after retirement, concurs. “It’s easy to hide in the NFL, if you do it right,” Davis, the Executive Director of the You Can Play Foundation, says. “You can pretend to be straight, and no one expects otherwise.“
For O’Callaghan, that meant doing as much as he could to deny his real feelings–even from himself. “I found every way possible to fit in as a straight guy,” O’Callaghan remembers, “I even had a girlfriend, which brought me a couple of years. Because once [your teammates] see you leave with [a girl], that’s different from just seeing me talk with them“.
Hiding his true self from friends, other players, and even his family, had a darker side. Even as O’Callaghan enjoyed phenomenal success on the gridiron, he despaired of life after football. “I made a pact with myself. Once my playing days were over, I’d take a gun to my head and kill myself“.
When his six seasons in the NFL were ended by on-field injuries, O’Callaghan’s fears of life as a gay man without football to hide behind, loomed large. “I started abusing painkillers,” he recalls, “it helped with the pain of the injuries, and with the pain of being gay.”
Eventually, with the help of a league psychologist who works with players facing drug abuse issues, O’Callaghan began coming to terms with his sexuality. “All I had ever done, was think about how bad the reaction would be“, he says. “It takes a lot more strength to be honest with yourself, than it does to lie. It took a while to build up that strength to tell [my therapist]. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”
O’Callaghan eventually came out to his coach, family, and friends. At first, his revelation drew mixed reactions, but when O’Callaghan said his only other option was suicide, “they were just glad to have me alive“.
Today, O’Callaghan has settled into a “comfortable” post-NFL life, dating men, working with the local LGBT group in Redding, and sharing his story as a way of helping other gay men through their own struggles. “As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay, there’s a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help.”
Wade Davis, whose foundation encourages gay and lesbian athletes to play pro sports, says O’Callaghan is not alone among NFL players. “The Michael Sam debacle aside, there are dozens of closeted players in the league,” Davis says. “But none of them are ready to come out while they’re still active. It’s seen as a career killer.”
The NFL has, with Davis, launched the Respect At Work program, designed to provide a “welcoming environment” for gay players, but none have so far come out. “No one wants the drama of having gay players on their team,” said former NFL linebacker Darrell Reid. “Michael Sam was set up to fail, for that reason.”
O’Callaghan, meanwhile, is optimistic that one day, the NFL will have out, active players, and is preparing to attend his first LGBT Pride in San Francisco on Sunday. “It’s all about going forward, proudly,” he says with a smile.