For years, Ryan O’Callaghan worried what people would say. By the time he said it, the fact he was keeping his true problems a secret nearly led to his death.
The former Chiefs and Patriots offensive lineman can say it now — he’s gay. And he’s far from the first former NFL player to say that. But his description of the process that led to coming out to his former bosses speaks to the issues that keep many from revealing their truth.
Via Cyd Zeigler of Outsports, O’Callaghan recalled a football career which included pretending to be straight, avoiding talk of women, drinking lots of coffee after practice to avoid the shower. But also of painkiller abuse that stemmed from a string of injuries, and the fact O’Callaghan planned to kill himself when his NFL career was over.
“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 said. “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.”
While O’Callaghan can speak with relief now, his story was nearly a tragic one.
The former Cal tackle spent six seasons in the NFL, beginning as a fifth-round pick of the Patriots in 2006. He was plagued by shoulder and groin injuries, which he struggles with to this day. He joined the Chiefs in 2009, along with a number of former Patriots when Scott Pioli went to Kansas City as General Manager.
O’Callaghan said he doesn’t recall gay slurs in the locker room, but the internal pressure he felt caused him to plan his suicide. Along the way, there was an addiction to painkillers, which he used for several reasons. He finally got help with the drug issue from the Chiefs athletic training and counseling staff, and was then able to tackle the other issue which weighed on him.
It culminated with a visit to Pioli’s office, where the G.M. reacted with a shrug, and then a hug.
“People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess,” Pioli said. “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.”
That kind of acceptance caught O’Callaghan off guard, and it took him a few more years to go public with his sexual orientation. By then, at an awards ceremony in his hometown, it didn’t create much of a stir.
With a little luck, every player who might be struggling would find someone as welcoming as O’Callaghan found Pioli. And perhaps if they do, stories such as O’Callaghan’s might not have to veer so close to a horrible ending.