Category: Sports News
Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.
Growing up in Redding, Calif., he didn’t see any other option. From a deep red corner of a blue state, the conflicted young man had decided in high school that he would never — could never — live as a gay man. While the 6-foot-7, 330-pound offensive tackle didn’t fit any of the gay stereotypes, he decided shortly after coming out to himself in junior high school that he could never let anyone else in on his darkest secret.
Over the years he had heard general comments from friends and family members about gay people. Every utterance of a gay slur or a joke about gay men — and he heard them plenty when he was young — was like a knife to the gut.
“If you’re a gay kid and you hear someone you love say ‘fag,’ it makes you think that in their eyes you’re just a fag too,” O’Callaghan told Outsports on a recent visit to Los Angeles for his first-ever Pride celebration. “That got to me a lot.”
Growing up in a conservative area light years away from nearby San Francisco, his own views of gay people had been shaped by those off-color comments and the rare image on television showing a gay man he couldn’t relate to. He knew that the people in his world would never accept him being gay, and he could never truly accept it either.
O’Callaghan decided early on that he would hide behind football. The sport would be his “beard,” and the jersey on his back would throw off the scent and keep his secret hidden for over a dozen years on a journey that saw him playing college ball at the University of California and in the NFL with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
He agreed to play during his freshman year mostly because that’s what his friends did. His childhood friendships meant the world to him at the time, and following his junior high friends into high school football seemed to make a lot of sense.
O’Callaghan learned very quickly that football was the best place in the world for a gay teenager to hide. The brute, physical nature of the sport went against every stereotype of gay men he knew. At his size, few people would suspect he was gay, and if he was a football player on top of that, he felt his secret would be buried.
“No one is going to assume the big football player is gay,” he said. “It’s why a football team is such a good place to hide.
So he dove into football and made a pact with himself: As long as he put on those pads, he was good to go. Once football was over, he’d take a gun to his head and end it all. That was the deal, and he would hold himself to it.
“I wish I’d known, I wish I had been more aware,” his mother, Evelyn O’Callaghan, told Outsports in a phone interview. “But he just wasn’t any different from the kid down the street. He was focused on class and school. He was active in sports. He played football in high school and he would just always seem very focused.”
Initially he took slowly to the sport, relying on his physical presence to compensate for his lack of experience. By his sophomore year he understood the playbook and was eliciting attention from opposing JV defensive-line coaches across Shasta County. His on-field dominance showed his junior year on the varsity team, and the growing giant’s play grabbed the attention of dozens of college-football recruiters across the country.
O’Callaghan saw his personality change as the football accolades flowed in. The quiet, shy kid who didn’t mind hanging out with the band geeks turned into Mr. Popular, gregarious with his friends but “a bit of a bully” to the very kids who resembled him just two years earlier.
Shortly after his junior year he attended a camp at UC-Berkeley. The football staff offered him a scholarship on the spot and he took it. He was going to have football for the next four or five years as a great cover for his sexuality.
At Cal he found every way possible to fit in as a straight guy. Playing football helped, but he had convinced himself that it wasn’t enough..
Every media image O’Callaghan had seen of gay men had featured chiseled features and six-packs, so he let his appearance go, becoming a “sloppy straight guy.” He started chewing tobacco because, he figured, you don’t see many gay men in TV and film doing that.
Soon after arriving in Berkeley he found another perfect cover. He was out with his teammates when a cute young woman, a fellow Golden Bear, came across their table. She ordered a drink, said hello to the guys and — of all the athletes sitting around the table — sat right on O’Callaghan’s lap.
He had spent countless nights imagining what to do in a scenario such as this, all to make sure that no one would suspect he was gay. What would he say? What would he do? He had envisioned this very moment over and over again. He was well prepared and he played the role perfectly.
After some small talk, he left with the young woman on his arm, making sure his teammates could see him. O’Callaghan was now, he figured, undeniably straight.
“That bought me a couple years,” he said, nodding. “Because once they see you leave with someone, that’s different from them just seeing me talk with them.”
At Cal, O’Callaghan eventually became a one-man wrecking crew. He racked up game balls, one of his proudest being in the 2005 Big Game, a 27-3 thrashing of Stanford.
As a senior, he won the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy, given to the best offensive lineman in the conference. O’Callaghan took particular pride in that because the Morris Trophy is voted on not by talking heads or coaches, but by the opposing defensive linemen, the players he went up against on Saturdays.
In four years at Cal, O’Callaghan had gone from being a big fish in the small pond of Redding to being an NFL prospect. Blocking for Aaron Rodgers, whom O’Callaghan had known in high school and with whom he became close friends at Cal, grabbed him the attention of pro teams always looking to protect their franchise quarterbacks in a league that increasingly relied on the passing game.
For O’Callaghan, the accolades and NFL attention held off his plans of suicide for a few more years.
“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.”
The New England Patriots, in particular, took notice of O’Callaghan’s protection of Rodgers, along with his blocking for Marshawn Lynch. Coach Bill Belichick used the 136th pick — near the start of the 2006 NFL Draft’s fifth round — to select the Cal tackle.
Once in Foxborough, the rookie focused his entire life on making that team. He truly felt his life depended on continuing his football career. Plus, his competitive nature kicked in. Being that close to a career in the NFL was not something he would take lightly.
“I was deadly serious about making that team, which meant doing my best and giving all I could. There was never in my head the idea of ‘just being good enough.’ To me it was a deadly serious relationship I had with football.”
There couldn’t have been a better place for O’Callaghan to land than New England. The team had become so used to success, nothing less was acceptable. There was a total dedication to victory that permeated everything the team did, every locker-room talk, every poster on the wall, every practice, every conversation. Everything was about winning.
Part of that comfort was within O’Callaghan’s own mind. Making it at Cal was tough enough; Making it in the NFL, and as a fifth-round tackle, is damn near impossible. The total dedication to winning didn’t just distract his teammates from his personal life, it distracted himself from it.
During his two “healthy” seasons with the Patriots, he played in 26 games and started seven of them. His lone start during the 2007 season, in which the Patriots posted a perfect regular-season record, came in week 17 during a nationally televised game against the New York Giants.
“I played damn well in that game,” O’Callaghan beamed.
Throughout his time with the Patriots the occasional question about his personal life did arise. He would dismiss it with claims of dating “a girl back home.” He found that that response quickly shut down any conversation about exactly who that girl was, and talk returned to football.
O’Callaghan can’t recall a single time during his six NFL seasons that he heard someone use a gay slur. Instead, he says, subtle pressure came from the constant talk in the locker room about women. Sex with them. Their body parts. Girlfriends, wives. That “sex talk” drove a sense of unease in O’Callaghan that fueled the fears of his truth.
“There is so much talk about women in the locker room, even in the NFL,” he said, exasperated with the amount of times he heard the chatter. “I’d just turn around and ignore it. I figured I couldn’t even talk about it well, like they would see through me if I did.”
O’Callaghan continued to avoid situations that might reveal his secret. When invited to the anniversary bash for team owner Robert Kraft and his late wife Myra, he called up the Manhattan-based ex-girlfriend of a former Cal teammate and convinced her to be his “date” for the night. No hanky-panky, he was quick to explain to her. But at the very least he would show up with a woman on his arm for all of his teammates to see.
He never played in another game for the Patriots after those first two seasons. An injury to his left shoulder during the 2008 preseason placed him on injured reserve. The Patriots let him go a year later, days before the start of the 2009 season.
Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli had moved into a general manager role with the Chiefs and was high on O’Callaghan. Along with a couple of other Patriots, like quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel, Pioli gave O’Callaghan a second chance in Kansas City.
“He was an upgrade for what we had at the position,” Pioli told Outsports via phone last week. “Same reason you bring any player to a team.”
The Chiefs were woeful that season with Cassel and new head coach Todd Haley at the helm, managing just four wins. O’Callaghan started in Week 3 and kept his starting spot throughout the rest of the year.
Before the 2010 season, everything began to fall apart. A groin injury sidelined O’Callaghan just long enough for someone else to supplant him in the starting lineup.
The final blow came during the 2011 training camp. The nagging left-shoulder injury from his Patriot days came back to haunt him. He was put on injured reserve again, and never saw playing time again.
O’Callaghan knew his NFL career was over.
“The injuries created so much down time, and that’s when my mind went into overdrive.”
For the first time since realizing he was gay, he had no playbook to study, no practice to attend, no game to prepare for. His darkest thoughts crept into the void.
O’Callaghan’s lifelong plan came into full focus. Without football to protect him, he suddenly felt vulnerable to questions about his sexual orientation. He had decided many years ago that he would never — could never — live life as an openly gay man. With his beard being yanked away from him by injuries, he felt exposed and he had to do something about it.
He started with pain killers.
O’Callaghan had found them years earlier as he battled injuries, but in 2011 the pain of his injuries and his sexual orientation became so much to bear that be began to abuse them. He says prescriptions were easy to get as the big offensive tackle begged for more. O’Callaghan remembers one day in particular when he took 30 Vicodin. It would have killed a normal man, but not an NFL offensive tackle who had started taking the drug regularly.
“I was abusing painkillers, no question,” he said matter-of-factly. “It helped with the pain of the injuries, and with the pain of being gay. I just didn’t worry about being gay when I took the Vicodin. I just didn’t worry.”
He was also spending money recklessly. In the final months of 2011 he says he was spending $400 a day on drugs. He plunked another $70,000 into building a small cabin on his property outside of Kansas City where he intended to eventually end his life.
“I started spending all my money to put myself in a position where it would be impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to back out of killing myself.”
As his last act, he distanced himself from all of his family and friends. Still caring for them, he felt that if he simply pushed everyone away it would be easier for them to accept his suicide than if he had stayed in close contact. Through his college and NFL career he had talked to his mother “every day or at least every other day.” Suddenly, as he prepared for his suicide, that all stopped.
“There was a point of time where I didn’t talk to my family for months,” he said, shaking his head with regret, “I stopped talking to a lot of friends.”
While methodically sabotaging his own life, O’Callaghan was going to physical therapy at the Chiefs facility. He still clung to a small glimmer of hope that he might have one more season in the league. There the team’s head trainer, David Price, noticed O’Callaghan was not himself, suddenly acting erratically.
Price encouraged O’Callaghan to spend some time with Susan Wilson, a clinical psychologist who worked with the Chiefs and the NFL counseling players on drug abuse.
“David saw the pain pills as the problem, and they were,” O’Callaghan explained. “But the real problem was why I was abusing them. And it wasn’t just the injuries.”
It took Wilson only two visits with her new patient to figure out that the physical pain was not the only issue driving O’Callaghan to pain killers and contemplating suicide. That suicidal talk, Wilson recognized early on, was not just talk. She realized the threat to his safety was not imminent, or she would have checked him into a hospital. But the threat was very real and lingered on the horizon.
Wilson racked her brain to piece together clues. O’Callaghan’s sexual orientation crossed her mind as a possibility.
“Not because of any way he behaved,” Wilson explained. “Ryan is one of those people who, if you look at them, would never draw suspicion. But as a practicing psychologist, your mind goes through the list of things that drive people to consider suicide, and that was one of them.”
Plus, she had counseled gay NFL players before. The concept was not foreign to her.
Knowing she could not legally reveal to anyone, including the Chiefs, what they were talking about helped O’Callaghan slowly open up to her. Months and countless hours of conversation after their first meeting, Wilson became the first person to whom he confided he was gay.
“All I had ever done was think how bad the reaction would be,” O’Callaghan said. “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 even tell her. You have to build up trust with someone. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”
The lifting of that weight did not end his suicide plans. His small cabin outside of Kansas City housed a number of guns, and he had even written a suicide note to leave at the scene. All he had to do was pull the trigger.
Wilson somehow convinced him that his plan was faulty. Why would he kill himself before he knew if he had to? Why not come out to his family and friends and find out their reaction, then choose whether it meant he had to end his life?
To an NFL player used to logical and forward-thinking game plans, Wilson suddenly made all the sense in the world. So he embarked on what he planned to be a brief journey coming out to select people, experiencing their rejection, then ending it all.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
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.”
As O’Callaghan came out to friends and family, he says, everyone supported him at some level.
“Was it great at the beginning?” O’Callaghan remembered. “No. Did everyone totally understand what it meant to be gay? No. But they knew what my alternative was. I told people close to me that I planned on killing myself. So at that point, no one cared. They were just happy that I was alive.”
His aunt and uncle took particular interest in him, and specifically his addiction to painkillers. They asked him to stay with them for several weeks while they worked with a local doctor to help him beat the drugs. Today, O’Callaghan says, he is successfully managing his addiction.
“I can’t thank them enough for that,” he said. “I know not everyone has family like that.”
As he came out to more and more people, his eyes opened to a world of support he had not anticipated. He shared his story with various people in the NFL, including his Cal teammate Aaron Rodgers and his Chiefs teammate Dustin Colquitt. Each of them pledged their support when he shared his true self.
Thanks to that early support, O’Callaghan took a leap several years ago that he thought would be his big coming-out-to-the-world moment.
In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.
He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.
While he had thought he was prepared for his big “coming out” moment, he realized soon after that everyone had done him a big favor.
“You can’t really give advice to other people if you haven’t lived the life,” O’Callaghan said, relieved that his best-laid plan did not pan out that night. “At 29 I was, at that point, where today a lot of 16-year-olds are.”
Now O’Callaghan is in a very different place. He has been out in his personal life for several years and has dated openly. While he hasn’t advertised the fact that he is gay, he has not lied about it or hidden it.
“Being gay wasn’t just a small detail in my life, it consumed it. It’s all I would think about. But now that I have come out it rarely crosses my mind. Yeah I’d go about my daily life in football, but thinking about hiding it and hoping no one finds out and being ready for any situation was exhausting.”
He’s now arrived at the point in his life where he wants to make a difference. On permanent disability due to his NFL injuries — he has to use his hand and arm to lift his left leg into his truck thanks to a bum groin — he has been working through disability claims and unable to work since 2012.
He’s been living in rental houses back in Redding since leaving the NFL. The time he would otherwise spend on the job he enjoys with family. His current pad has a pool, and the 100-degree days that have arrived with an early summer make “uncle Ryan” very popular with his nieces and nephews.
Living near his family, finally able to be his complete self with them, has brought a lot of joy to the man who thought ending his life was the only way out.
At the same time, he yearns for more. Days spent cooling off in the pool with a beer in hand are relaxing, yet as he has come to fully accept himself his mind spins with ideas of another life. The gay community in Redding is tiny. He’s done some work with the local LGBT organization, but meeting other gay people like him — to date or otherwise — is a struggle. He’s not sure exactly when or to where, but he will at some point be departing Redding again for a new journey.
He sees the sharing of his story as, in part, an opportunity to bring more purpose to his life. He hopes it will open the door to communicating with other struggling LGBT people, to help them find community before they take the desperately destructive steps he once considered.
“As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay, there is a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help.”
O’Callaghan intimately understands that, despite appearances and stereotypes, LGBT people are in every facet of life. And when you least expect it, they suddenly arrive.
“People need to understand that we are everywhere. We’re your sons, your daughters, your teammates, your neighbors. And honestly, even some of your husbands and wives. You just don’t know it yet.
“It’s not always easy being honest, but I can tell you it’s much easier and more enjoyable being yourself and not living a lie.”
You can find Ryan O’Callaghan on Facebook. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are LGBTQ and considering suicide, The Trevor Project is there to help. You can visit their Web site or call their hotline at 866-488-7386.
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