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 spent his time in football preparing for his suicide, yet thanks to a small group of people within the Chiefs organization he ultimately found the will to live as the real Ryan O’Callaghan.
For O’Callaghan, football had come along about the same time as the realization that he was gay. He had never put on a helmet until his freshman year in high school, but his father, a high school and college football referee, saw the potential as his son outgrew his peers in size and strength. The high school football coaches who watched O’Callaghan grow saw it too, as he sometimes joined his father on the sidelines at their games.
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.
This has been reposted from Outsports.