An excerpt from “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life,” by Ryan O’Callaghan, with Cyd Zeigler.
The first guy I start dating regularly—where the word “boyfriend” enters my mind, even if we don’t say it — lives in Eureka, a California coastal town about two hours away. We have, it seems, both swiped the same direction on Tinder. I’m a little surprised when I get the match. In just a couple years of being out, I have quickly learned that most gay guys seem to like abs and 0 percent body fat. No, I’m not pointing fingers. I’ve found myself gravitating toward those very same guys. While I have come way down from my Cal playing weight of 370, I don’t even have a two-pack. Yet what I quickly learn from Brandon is that big men like me do have a gay fan base, including some guys like him who have the six-pack.
Brandon is a ball of energy and super fun to be around. He’s just what I need in my first foray into the gay dating world. He’s always positive, which really helps me. I often have trouble being especially positive as I’m still dealing with so many transitions in my life, so being around that attitude is the best possible medicine for me.
Shortly after we start dating, I get word that I’ve been selected to the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony there will be a bunch of local sports dignitaries, friends and family, a dinner, and some speeches. The local media will also be there, and that gets me thinking. NFL prospect Michael Sam came out publicly just a few months ago. Shortly afterward, Scott Pioli called me for advice. He was with the Atlanta Falcons by then, and he wanted my take on whether Sam could fit into an NFL locker room. If anyone in the NFL wanted to make a statement by selecting Sam for their team, it was Scott. That’s just the kind of guy he is, always trying to help minorities get a foothold in the league. I told Scott that I just wasn’t sure, but that all of the guys in the league I’d come out to had been really supportive. And if Sam had a guy like Scott he could lean on in the organization, it could work. Sam ended up being drafted by the Rams, and his experience really gets me wondering if adding my story to the conversation about gay athletes could help.
By the time the awards banquet rolls around, I’ve settled on a plan. Almost every honoree brings a date to these things, and they always thank that date for their support. Since I’m dating Brandon, I’ll bring him along, mention him in my speech, and let the media there run wild with it.
My dad doesn’t like my plan very much at all. The night before the event, he pulls me aside and asks me if I’m sure this is what I want to do. His questions are about me and my well-being, but it really seems like he just doesn’t want to deal with me being gay and having it all over the media. I’m still living with my parents, and Dad obviously knows he has a gay son living in his house, but in some ways I think it still isn’t real for him. I’m the same guy I always was, I never date, and I never talk about being gay. He shares his concerns with me, but I’m all-in on the plan.
The next day, a couple hours before the ceremony, everybody meets at my parents’ house. My sister, my brother-in-law, a couple friends, and Brandon. It’s hard not to like Brandon the moment you meet him, but I’m afraid of how my dad will react shaking hands with a guy he knows I’m dating, a guy I’ve kissed. Thankfully, Brandon is his ever-bubbly, friendly self, and he melts my dad’s armor as soon as he walks in the house. Meeting Brandon that night finally makes having a gay son very real for my dad. Sharing a laugh with Brandon certainly doesn’t hurt.
The ceremony is being held at the Big League Dreams facility in Redding, which has a bunch of sporting venues like baseball diamonds and basketball courts. They’ve dressed up one of the basketball courts with some tables and a stage for the dinner and presentation. I’m excited to meet soccer player Megan Rapinoe, another local athlete in my induction class. She came out a couple years ago and represents the United States in the World Cup. She’s badass. But when I get there I find out she has sent in a video instead of showing up herself. I’m bummed, but the truth is, if I had still been in the NFL I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it either.
Dinner is a lot of chitchatting with my family and friends and catching up with a couple people I haven’t seen in a while. I introduce “my boyfriend Brandon” to as many people as I can that night. Some people know I’m gay, and some don’t, but I figure introducing someone to a guy I’m dating is the most low-key way to let people know.
Of course, the entire time I’m thinking about my speech and the public reaction. Telling a couple locals is one thing; telling the world is another. When it comes time for me to accept the award, I rise from my seat to polite applause. I had written out some remarks on a piece of paper so I won’t screw up what I want to say. I pull that out of my coat pocket, get behind the podium, and start thanking the usual suspects. Then I let it out.
“I also want to thank my boyfriend Brandon, who came all the way from Eureka to be here with me tonight.”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was, it doesn’t happen. People sit there quietly, just listening to what I have to say. It reminds me of Scott’s reaction, how he couldn’t even understand that what I was telling him was somehow news.
After my speech, people come up and congratulate me, but not a word about Brandon.
The next day in the newspapers? Crickets. Nobody writes about it, nobody reports on it. No one seems to give a shit that this former NFL player just told the world that he’s gay. I’m actually pretty disappointed.
Truth is, I quickly realize they have all done me a huge favor. I am not ready to come out publicly. I’m still struggling with it a bit, finding my gay way in the world, despite the veneer I try to put on. At this point, I’m where most sixteen-year-olds are in their sexual development. I’m figuring out how to date, how to talk to people I’m interested in, how to find them. I want to help other people, be a resource for other gay guys struggling with who they are. But you can’t really give advice to other people if you haven’t fully lived. I need to live life as a gay man. I need to learn. I need to focus a lot more on understanding myself and expanding my horizons, and a lot less on worrying about heaping a bunch of responsibility on my shoulders.
Ryan O’Callaghan’s memoir, “My Life On The Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life,” with Cyd Zeigler, is available from Akashic Books.