Former New England Patriots footballer Ryan O’Callaghan has opened up about his struggle with coming out in the NFL.
“I only played football because it was a cover for me. I never loved football. I sold out,” O’Callaghan says. The confession came as part of his new memoir, My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life about his years spent playing professional football, living as a closeted gay man, and eventually coming out.
Originally from Redding, California, O’Callagahan says that homophobia in sports kept him scared and in the closet for years. Unfortunately, that homophobia began affecting him from an early age. “It was more the words that came out of their mouths, negatively, towards the gay community that stuck with me,” O’Callaghan said. “As a kid, kids hear the things their father says and their uncle says and that time in your life, you take it to heart.”
O’Callaghan avoided anything that had to do with queer culture and acted like a bully on the team to conceal his anger. Even in college, he couldn’t bring himself to look at flyers for LGBTQ meeings. “I had told myself ‘You have to be a tough guy or they’re going to think this,'” O’Callaghan said. “But yeah, it came out in being a bully. A lot of times, that’s what happens when people act out. They’re hiding something. The people who speak out loudest against gays, they probably can relate.”
After playing for the Patriots, O’Callgahan suffered a number of serious injuries with required heavy doses of pain medication. After transferring to the Chiefs, he became addicted to painkillers. He began meeting with a psychiatrist to help treat the addiction, and eventually realized he could not hide any longer. He came out as gay, and received a surprisingly supportive reception, especially from his dad.
“We’ve never been closer,” O’Callaghan says of his relationship with his dad. “Now he’s always asking about what I’ve been doing, and now he’s proud of [me] being an activist instead of football. He’s come a long way.”
While touting his own recovery and coming out, O’Callaghan insists he was not alone in the NFL closet. “People would be surprised who’s closeted,” he observes. “Pro Bowlers and a lot of guys with families. You try to give them advice, everyone’s situation is different, but it’s hard to tell someone who’s that deeply closeted to get them to see the light, that it’ll be OK, especially if they have young kids.”