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Ryan O’Callaghan talks NFL, gay football players, his new book

Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was to play in the NFL, and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

Fortunately, half his plan didn’t work out.

O’Callaghan, one of only a handful of openly gay former NFL players, was right tackle for six seasons (New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs) before he retired in 2011.

O’Callaghan’s career ended when his addiction to painkillers, injuries, and the stress of living in the closet overwhelmed him.

O’Callaghan discusses those dark days and happier days — thanks to counseling — in his memoir, “My LIfe on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me, and Ended Up Saving My Life.” Cyd Zeigler helped O’Callaghan write the book. Zeigler is the cofounder and co-editor of Outsports.com.

O’Callaghan also created The Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which will provide scholarships and mentoring to LGBTQ athletes. All of O’Callaghan’s proceeds from the book will benefit the foundation.

In an interview with Q Voice News from his home in Redding, Calif., O’Callaghan, 36, talks about the NFL, gay football players, why he stayed in the closet, and writing the book.

Here are some excerpts.

 

Gay NFL player anytime soon?

“There are plenty of gay and bi NFL players,” O’Callaghan says. “It will be sooner than later. I firmly believe the NFL is ready for an out NFL player.” (In August, NFL free agent Ryan Russell made history when he came out as bisexual)

Younger NFL players

“There’s a younger generation of people in the NFL who are playing now and coming up through the ranks who are much more open-minded than when I first started playing football,” O’Callaghan says.

“For instance, last year, I went and spoke to a University of California football team. The coach had me come and tell my story. Basically, answer any questions they would have if one of their teammates would come out,” O’Callaghan says.

“At first, the guys weren’t throwing up their hands with questions. But I kind of egged on the conversation. What if you’re in a shower with someone and he looks over, how are you going to react? A couple of guys kind of mumbled something and groaned, and then that started the conversation.”

NFL free agent Ryan Russell comes out as bisexual

Open-minded NFL players

“This younger generation is OK with it,” O’Callaghan says. “They understand that just because someone’s gay doesn’t mean they’re attracted to you.

“Also, if you’re a good football player, it doesn’t matter who you like or who you go home to,” O’Callaghan says. “The majority of guys on every team would be perfectly fine with it.”

NFL can support LGBTQ community

“The NFL (needs to) continue along the path that they’ve been taking recently of doing visible things in support of the LGBT community,” O’Callaghan says. “They’re present in the Pride parade and actually supporting the parades. They did that last year, and they did it this year. (In 2017, the Los Angeles Ram made history as the first NFL team to sponsor an LGBTQ Pride event.)

“This year they also had me on the NFL Network to talk about it,” O’Callaghan says. “They weren’t secretive about it. It seems like a small step, but it’s a big step because that’s the first time the NFL took a stance on their network. They said, Hey. We support it, and we’re doing this.

“If they would continue to do more things that are visible to the public, that would help. That would go a long way,” O’Callaghan says. “The NFL has such an influence culturally on society. That’s why if an active player came out, that would do so much for the gay community as a whole.”

Ryan O'Callaghan Gay Football Players

Former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan appeared on “Today” September 3 to discuss his dark days of hiding in the closet, the happiness he has found since coming out, and his book, “My Life on the Line.” Photo: “Today”

Stayed in the closet

“I was more worried about my family and them accepting me and loving me. That was what really kept me in the closet,” O’Callaghan says. “I never got anything from them that was accepting toward gay people. From an early age, that’s what kept me there.”

Family embraces him

“My parents and I are closer than ever. I see them quite a bit,” O’Callaghan says. “I dated someone for a couple of years, we’ve been apart for like a year, but he spent the holidays with us one year. That was totally fine.

“My sister is totally cool. Everything with my family is great,” O’Callaghan says. “They ask about my personal life, and I tell them. They tell me they’re proud of me for what I’m doing. I believe them.”

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Family apologized

“They apologized profusely, everyone did,” O’Callaghan says. “There’s a difference between making a comment and saying faggot and being hateful. I understand now that they were saying things out of ignorance and not hate. As a kid, you don’t understand that.

“I’ve also encouraged my mom, my dad, my aunt, and uncle to just ask questions if they want,” he says. “I’d rather have someone ask me a question and know the answer than assume.”

Writing the book

“I had told myself, If you’re going to write the book and tell your story, you’re going to tell the whole story,” O’Callaghan says. “Everything that’s in the book is totally true. We edited it several times, just making sure the language was correct. We had attorneys read it to make sure I wouldn’t get in any trouble.

“I’m not profiting off the book. It’s all going to my charity. The last thing I want to do is get sued for something silly.”

Considered suicide

“The most difficult part was explaining that I planned on killing myself at the cabin and my plan,” O’Callaghan says.

“The book does have a lot of dark moments and honest moments, but I look at it more as a positive story,” he says. “Just, obviously, because I’m here today and happier than ever.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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