In the introductory chapter of the new autobiography by Ryan O’Callaghan, “My Life On the Line,” the former NFL offensive lineman recounts a day spent planting willow trees at his rural cabin with two Kansas City Chiefs teammates. It’s set up as a normal exercise of testosterone-laden friendship and bonding, about what you’d expect from a football player’s memoir.
Gradually, though, it becomes clear that there’s something a bit off about the scene. O’Callaghan panics internally when one of his teammates makes a comment about women. He reflects on his love of country music and beer, mostly because they both give the world no reason to doubt that he’s heterosexual.
Underneath this seemingly idyllic scene is the truth that O’Callaghan is a tormented gay man doing everything in his power to remain in the closet. The chapter ends on this revelation:
“Once my NFL career is over I’ll get in the truck, drive to the property, open this gun cabinet, and shoot myself in the head.”
At that point, “My Life On the Line” ceases to be a sports memoir and reveals itself to be a story about survival. It just so happens that this survival tale takes place within the context of Division I college football and the NFL.
Written with Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler, O’Callaghan spares no personal revelation in recounting the decades of mental torture he endured trying to keep anyone from finding out who he was. And this attention to detail is one of the strongest aspects of what becomes a gripping narrative.
Once O’Callaghan introduces his suicide plan, it becomes the book’s version of Chekhov’s gun, looming over every aspect story with the question of whether or not it will eventually go off. O’Callaghan and Zeigler periodically drop reminders of his suicide plan throughout the rest of the book, but don’t overdo it, as just a mere mention is enough to understand why continuing his career is so important.
The result is that even though the ending of O’Callaghan’s story is already known — he is narrating the book, after all — it’s still a very suspenseful read. It’s near impossible to listen to O’Callaghan discussing the painstaking process of keeping his secret or his plan to end his life without thinking, “Please... just come out and tell someone.” But because he’s so resolute to follow through on his plans, the suspense comes from not knowing what will finally prompt him to change them.
As the book reveals, the self-hatred that led O’Callaghan to conceal his true identity was rooted in the attitudes of his family and surrounding community. O’Callaghan recounts growing up in rural Redding, Calif. (“California is two states: California and Alabama. I lived in Alabama.”) surrounded by his father and a group of uncles who had two basic methods of socializing: barbecues and homophobic jokes.
Growing up to a constant soundtrack of homophobia imprinted the message that “Being gay is death” on O’Callaghan from an early age. Even decades removed from these get-togethers, O’Callaghan mentally returns to them again and again throughout the narrative. It’s clear that these seemingly forgettable jokes (and they are “jokes” in the very loosest definition of the word) inflicted a great deal of trauma.
O’Callaghan also makes the conscious decision not to name a single dramatic “gay awakening” moment in his young life, instead making it clear that at a certain point, he just knew that being gay was a part of who he was. This has the effect of making his situation especially poignant in relation to the casual bigotry of his family that comes to dominate his life. He knows who he is, but he also feels that being himself is impossible.
From the moment O’Callaghan gets recruited to join the University of California, the book features several tropes common to a football player’s narrative. Famous athletes show up throughout his career and O’Callaghan and Ziegler give sufficient space to his relationships with figures like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady to keep the gridiron stories interesting. And there are several anecdotes of triumph and defeat, including the effects of a vicious hit by Brian Urlacher.
But “My Life On the Line” is that rare sports autobiography where the details away from the field are more compelling than the on-field stories — even those of the undefeated 2007 New England Patriots. In fact, O’Callaghan and Ziegler accomplish the near-impossible feat of making an athlete’s childhood interesting by recounting his high school personality change from kind-hearted friend of the drama kids, to type-A macho “asshole” (his word) to prevent anyone from catching on to his secret.
This conflict ultimately becomes the central question of the book: whether O’Callaghan can become comfortable enough with his true self to take down all the defense mechanisms he had constructed in order to keep it hidden. Ultimately, it becomes clear that his survival depends on it. “My Life On the Line” is an honest glimpse at how hard it still is to come out in so many parts of the country. It’s an engaging, well-crafted, and ultimately heroic journey.
All of O’Callaghan’s proceeds from the sale of his book will benefit The Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which exists to provide scholarships, support and mentorship for LGBTQ+ athletes, students and youth. Find out more about “My Life on the Line” by clicking here.