Big, strong and tough. These are words that you would use to describe Ryan O’Callaghan, a former NFL offensive lineman.
He is an imposing man, standing in at 6’7, 330 pounds. O’Callaghan played college football at the University of California and eventually for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. However, those fights in the trenches as an offensive lineman couldn’t compare to the internal fight that he had with himself.
When he was growing up in the conservative Redding, CA, he realized something: he was gay. It was tough for him to come out to his friends because of the homophobic remarks that were made in his presence. They wouldn’t understand him, but those words hurt him.
“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, an LGBTQ sports publication. “That got to me a lot.”
O’Callaghan would decide that he’d use his size to play football. No one would expect the strong football player to be gay, or at least that is what he believed.
“No one was going to assume the big football player is gay. It’s why a football team is such a good place to hide.”
So he kept it bottled up for years and years. Then just a few days ago, he couldn’t keep it a secret anymore. He even battled with depression and suicidal thoughts during and after his playing career. He used painkillers and eventually got hooked.
“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 slowly attempted to push his family and friends out of his life, going into a downward spiral of massive proportions.
“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.”
He would then meet with Susan Wilson, a clinical psychologist who worked with the team. This allowed him to open up and change his life around.
Wilson then deciphered O’Callaghan’s issues: He repressed his sexual orientation.
“Not because of any way he behaved,” Wilson said. “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.”
O’Callaghan would eventually reveal to then-Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli that he was gay.
“Scott,” O’Callaghan said, “I’m… gay.”
Pioli waited to hear something worse. He was used to this sort of thing.
“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.”
Now at a point of his life where he is in control, O’Callaghan feels comfortable with his sexual orientation. He now feels that he can help others with this new transition into freeing themselves.
“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.”
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.
His story is important because it dispels the concept that gay men are all supposed to be a certain way. They can come in all shapes and sizes. They are strong, they are weak, they are white, black, small, big, tall, short, etc. We should not assume that all people are a certain way.
While reading about his story, we have to keep in mind that it’s tough coming out in the male sports world. There have been hundreds of thousands of athletes who have been too afraid to come out. It’s because locker rooms are thought of as this bastion of masculinity, whereas being gay is not.
This simply isn’t true. Being gay doesn’t undercut one’s masculinity. It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you who you are. If people hate someone because of their sexual orientation, it’s no different than being a racist. You can’t change a person’s race and you can’t change who they like. It’s a fact of life.
Having said that, sports still have an issue with the mistreatment of the LGBTQ people and the use of homophobic terminology. Just in May, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar was suspended 2 games by the team for hurling a gay slur at pitcher. Again in this month, fans of Mexico were using gay slurs during the FIFA Confederations Cup matches.
This is something that we need to change in the sports world. Why is it that we treat people who are different than us with so much vitriol? This has nothing to do with beliefs. This has something to do with their being. Being gay isn’t something that you agree with or disagree with (looking at you Daniel Murphy).
The advocacy and courage that O’Callaghan has shown is to be commended. That’s what people that are part of the LGBTQ community have done everyday. You can’t just change who you are. It’s part of you.
Thank you Ryan O’Callaghan for being a sign of hope for your community and beyond. It will go a long way in dispelling the myths about the LGBTQ community.
(Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/John Amis)