In his new book “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life,” former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan takes us on a profound journey of self-acceptance. As he battled for his life against depression and opioid addiction, the fear of condemnation for his sexuality pushed him to a breaking point. The former Patriots and Chiefs offensive tackle planned to take his own life after football.
O’Callaghan and co-author Cyd Zeigler, one of the co-founders of Outsports. strike a balance of harrowing authenticity and zestful optimism in recounting the trauma of his past while paving his path toward recovery. Ultimately, that path provides a way for athletes today to be open about their sexuality and gender identity.
Click here to read an excerpt from “My Life On The Line”
For O’Callaghan, the path to self-acceptance requires him to embrace all aspects of himself, even beyond sexual identity. He continues to explore romance, navigate the gay dating world, and discover what his true passions are outside of football. According to the former NFL player, his experience in the league taught him to be fearless and, right now, he is “very much living.”
I spoke with Ryan about conquering his fears and what authenticity means to him now.
In My Life on the Line, you discuss the difficulties of being a gay man in the hyper-masculine sport of football. Looking back, do you think it was the self-realization that you were gay that nearly killed you or holding onto the secret that did?
They’re kind of one in the same because being gay is what drove me into the depression. The fact I was gay convinced me that my family would never love me for who I was. And the drug use was a way to not allow me to feel like myself. So it numbed a lot of self-hatred.
Did you fear that if you came out and others loved you, you might have to reconcile with the self-hatred and ultimately love yourself?
I would say it’s only scary because loving myself would have been completely new. When I was closeted, I didn’t think how long it would take me to accept myself. When I came out, I realized it wasn’t going to happen over night. It ended up taking over a year. I didn’t even date or talk to guys for the first year or so after coming out. I found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to go from 29 years of closeted misery to being fine overnight. It was a process.
You wrote in your book, “I have never truly dated anyone, man or woman. It’s like being a twelve-year-old trapped in a thirty-year-old body, just trying to figure out how to navigate this world of sex and romance that, for the first time, I actually want to be part of.” How are you still navigating sex and romance?
It’s very true. Even today, I am where most 20 year olds are because I’ve only been dating a handful of years. I’m realizing that you’re always trying to figure things out, what you like and how to handle personal connections. There is so much for me to still learn. The first long-term relationship I had taught me a lot. In a way, I still feel like I’m catching up. I also think that is a big part of the reason why I go for guys younger than me.
Because that’s where you feel like you are right now... Still in those early stages of finding yourself?
Yeah, and I’m totally comfortable where I’m at. I feel like I relate more with guys who are younger. That has a lot to do with my past experience in the NFL. I never really had to grow up or think long term. The reality for most athletes, especially guys who play professionally, isn’t working several jobs to pay back student loans or the normal financial struggles that drag most people down out of college. Not only do I want to grow, but I’d like to have experiences with someone.
Are there aspects of you that feel very mature, or even beyond your age?
Yeah, I go into most things in my life now not afraid. I don’t focus my energy worrying. I’ve realized there’s more important things to worry about than the little day to day things that bother most people.
Do you have goals that you are fearless about conquering today?
I’m still in a position where I’m trying to work out goals. I’m very much just living. When I was closeted and I had no plans to live, I never developed hobbies and passions for things. Today, I have my charity. That’s my long-term commitment and passion.
Tell us about that.
I started the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation as a way to help other LGBT students, primarily athletes, through scholarships, support, and mentorships. I’ve already had other former athletes, straight and LGBT, offer to help mentor. I think giving a scholarship is helpful, but I wanted to provide athletes with something you can’t put a price on. There’s a benefit to give a student mentorship and advice instead of handing them a check and telling them “good luck”. Everything I’m doing now is to raise money for the charity. Any money I receive surrounding my coming out story and my sexuality goes directly to my foundation, which I don’t pay myself or anyone on the board from.
In your book, you talk about learning that there were many closeted NFL players who had come before you. Do you have hopes to see an out NFL player in the league during your lifetime?
I hope my visibility and the support my foundation will encourage closeted athletes on any level to feel more confident about themselves. I hope that my experience will show them that it is possible to be themselves and have a successful career as an out athlete.
When you incurred the injury, and the focus shifted from your play on the line to you on the side of it, is this when you felt the football “beard” began to disappear?
Yes, especially the last two years when I injured my groin, then my sixth shoulder injury. At that point I knew football was over. My plan was to play football until the end, and that’s when the drug abuse kicked into high gear. Honestly, if my drug abuse hadn’t gotten so out of hand and my trainer didn’t notice, who knows what my story would be now.
Click here to read Ken Schultz’s review of “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life”
Towards the end of the book you take us to a very vulnerable moment intensified by feelings of self-hatred and rejection of who you were. And these aren’t “gay” emotions, these are human emotions that many struggling with depression experience, LGBT or not. Was it difficult for you and Cyd Zeigler to write the chapter about your plans to take your own life?
Obviously there were a lot of dark moments. I came out to family and friends in 2012, so it was 5 or 6 years between coming out and writing the book. I’ve had a lot of time to talk to therapists and work through these emotions. Even to this day, I still chat with a therapist because I think it’s healthy. I’ve put a lot of work in so that writing sections that are deep and emotional aren’t as hard as many people may think. I think the toughest part was telling him about going to the cabin and how I planned to do it.
You write after coming out to your family, “Whatever issue they might have had with me being gay is gone with the realization that I’ve been planning to end my life over it all.” What transformation have you seen in your family since then?
Coming out to my parents was the scariest moment of my life because everything that I feared was leading up to that moment. It took my dad a little while to come around and accept it completely, but that happened after meeting the first guy. Since then, we are closer than we’ve ever been. They’re always asking me how dating life is and whether or not I’m having fun. Now, we really talk about the things that matter.
I still see positive things that happen with my family since coming out. A few weeks ago, one of my niece’s teammates told her that she likes girls. And my niece, who’s 13, knows that I’m gay and she told her friend “that’s totally fine, we’re still friends.” And when she told her mom (my sister), one of the first things my sister told her was “that’s the right thing to say to your teammate, and if you like girls that’s totally okay, too”. That was a lesson learned, and done properly.
And loving language.
And to explicitly say “if you like girls, that is totally fine.”
So after you spend 29 years in this dark place hiding your sexual identity, you make the decision to publish your truth. Now that you’ve released the book and your truth is literally in the world’s hands, what do you hope for yourself and the rest of your life?
My life has definitely already taken off. I think most of my growth has been mentally and emotionally. The things I value now are way different. Being happy and doing what I want to do is what’s important now. I think as long as I’m just happy in the future and getting to do what I’m passionate about, I am fine with wherever life takes me.
So you’re detached from the outcome?
Yeah, I don’t really have a clear plan of how I want things to happen. Ultimately, I would like to meet someone and settle down, and eventually build a life with someone. But I’m in no rush.
What was the process like writing the book with Cyd Zeigler, and what are you most happy about from your experience?
When I first came out with my Outsports article, I was approached by a literary agent about a book, and that’s when the idea became reality. It was natural for Cyd and I to work together because he did a great job on the article and he knew a lot of my background. We weren’t able to tell all of my story in the original article, and a book would reach so many more people. I am really excited that, through my foundation, I can give back to the LGBT community through all of the book’s proceeds.