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Ex-NFL lineman Ryan O’Callaghan says he grappled with role in Aaron Hernandez Netflix series

Ryan O’Callaghan was hesitant to speculate about Hernandez’s sexuality, but ultimately agreed to share his perspective as a formerly closeted NFL player.

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Ryan O’Callaghan, left, Dec. 3, 2007, and Aaron Hernandez on Sept. 16, 2012
Getty Images/Photo of Ryan O’Callaghan by G Fiume/Photo of Aaron Hernandez by Jim Rogash

Former Patriots lineman Ryan O’Callaghan says he faced a dilemma, when asked by the producers of a new Netflix documentary to talk about Aaron Hernandez’s sexuality. Not only did he not know Hernandez, but they were never teammates, either. O’Callaghan told Outsports he worried he might be outing the late tight end.

“I did have some hesitations, because Aaron never did come out, and I didn’t want it to seem like this was an ‘outing Aaron Hernandez documentary,’ and I didn’t want to be attached to, ‘Oh, he’s outing Aaron,’” O’Callaghan said in a phone interview.

Ryan O’Callaghan
Ryan O’Callaghan via Facebook, with permission

O’Callaghan ultimately decided to participate in the three-part series, “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” because he wanted to offer the unique perspective of a formerly closeted NFL player. O’Callaghan came out as gay in 2017.

“I didn’t know Aaron, but I was happy to give the perspective that I did,” O’Callaghan told Outsports. “As far as the feedback I’ve gotten so far, I think it’s resonated with people.”

Hernandez, who ascended to superstardom in his three seasons of playing with the Patriots, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2015. Two years later, while still behind bars, he was acquitted of double-murder, stemming from a 2012 shooting in Boston that took place just a month before he signed a $40 million extension with the Patriots.

Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell five days after his acquittal, on April 19, 2017.

Hernandez’s sexuality has been the subject of speculation for years, and the premiere of the three-part Netflix series raises the question of whether that topic is at all newsworthy, or just rehashed tawdry gossip aimed at fans of the “true crime” genre.

The executive producers are sports journalists Kevin Armstrong and Dan Wetzel, who appear in the series. They along with director Geno McDermott received high praise from straight media such as the Boston Globe and Sporting News, but they also scored a terrible review in Sports Illustrated. Staff writer Jack Dickey called their docuseries “tired and dismal,” bemoaned their reliance on speculation and asked rhetorically, “Why is this story being told again?”

When the rumors surrounding Hernandez’s sexual orientation started to swirl in the immediate aftermath of his suicide, Outsports co-founders Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski wrote extensively about the untoward nature of the coverage, citing reckless conjecture from sensationalist tabloids. At the time, most mainstream media outlets ignored that aspect of the story, including the Boston Globe.

But that soon changed. Last year, the Globe included Hernandez’s sexuality as part of its in-depth Spotlight series and podcast exploring the tight end’s life, trials, and death. Those journalists interviewed his boyhood friend and high school quarterback, Dennis SanSoucie. The former Marine said their friendship blossomed into a bisexual relationship when they were growing up. In the series, SanSoucie says Hernandez was petrified of his homophobic and abusive father finding out their secret.

The Netflix documentary addresses Hernandez’s sexuality in each of the three episodes. McDermott interviews several people in addition to Armstrong, Wetzel, O’Callaghan and SanSoucie, who talk about the apparent inner turmoil Hernandez experienced because of his sexual orientation.

“In school, there (weren’t) a lot of kids who were out of the closet,” SanSoucie said in Episode 1. “And the few that were, I used to feel like, ‘Golly, what a homo. Here I am, the football player.’ I was in such denial — such denial — because I was an athlete. You mean to tell me the quarterback and tight end are gay? That doesn’t sit right with people.”

SanSoucie went onto explain he and Hernandez thought their fathers would disown them if they found out.

Overall, O’Callaghan says he feels Netflix handled the topic with respect, and responsibly wove sexuality into Hernandez’s story. “Obviously, being gay doesn’t make you want to kill someone,” he said. “But covering your tracks could lead you to do some really weird things if you think the consequences of being out are that bad.”

O’Callaghan knows about the pressure of trying to remain closeted in the high-profile world of professional football. As he explained in his recent memoir, My Life On The Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life,” written with Zeigler, he says football was his beard, and he tried to gain as much weight as possible in an effort to exude the slovenly offensive lineman stereotype. One of the most illuminating sequences of the series comes midway through Episode 1, when O’Callaghan talks about his former habit of tossing around gay slurs; then the video cuts to a jailhouse recording of Hernandez belittling effeminate male prisoners in a phone call to his mother.

With prosecutors unable to attach a motive to Odin Lloyd’s 2013 killing, the Netflix series — much like previous Hernandez projects — attempts to uncover how the promising young football superstar found himself convicted of first-degree murder charges. Numerous theories, ranging from Hernandez’s unprecedented levels of brain trauma to the impact of child abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, as well as his dad’s death, are all presented as possible pieces of his psychiatric puzzle.

It is in this context that speculation about Hernandez’s fear of being outed is explored. At the very least, O’Callaghan says panic over that fear would’ve destroyed his own already precarious mental state.

“One person can only handle so much,” O’Callaghan told Outsports. “I was already in a bad head space. To add all of those extra things to worry about it, I don’t know what it would’ve done to me. I know it wouldn’t have been good.”