Featured in our 5th Annual Faces of Sports Issue!

Ryan O’Callaghan played football before the NFL began making major strides toward equality and inclusion. Look at his picture. He looks great, doesn’t he? He’s 6-foot-7 and down a bit from his 330-pound weight when he played as an NFL offensive lineman for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (and not quite as menacing).

Playing in the NFL is the dream of many young athletes, the very pinnacle of life as they can imagine it. And it’s considered by many as the most masculine of all the team sports – the most macho thing a guy can do. On the contrary, calling his relationship with football a “deadly serious” one, O’Callaghan said, “Playing for six years in the NFL with everything else I had going on in my own mind and my physical injuries was a huge achievement. Just making it six years with everything going well is nearly impossible.”

O’Callaghan actually considers his greatest personal achievement getting out of the NFL alive. That’s because when he left the NFL in 2011 he planned on killing himself. He’d already distanced himself from family and friends, amassed a number of guns and written his suicide letter. The reason? The same as for many LGBTQ individuals – he never believed anyone would accept him for being gay.

For those of you who don’t understand what it’s like feeling forever trapped in the closet because of your sexuality, here’s how O’Callaghan describes it:

“My relationship with football is much different than most. I only continued playing football because I found it to be a good cover for my sexuality. Football is what kept me in the closet, purposefully; it was all my injuries that ended my career.

Hiding who you are is absolutely exhausting mentally. My plan all along was to use football as a cover until I no longer had it, and then I was going to end my life. It was hard enough staying hidden while having football as a giant cover. I couldn’t imagine having to do it without football.”

As O’Callaghan’s abuse of pain killers increased to a point of concern, Dave Price, then-head athletic trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs, recommended O’Callaghan see clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Wilson who had been treating members of the Chiefs for substance abuse and related issues. Knowing that the drugs were covering up more than the pain just from his injuries, she guided him through the coming out process that he says saved his life.

Since his NFL retirement in 2011 O’Callaghan’s first and foremost efforts have been to take great care of himself as well as learning to love himself. His devastating injuries while playing has resulted in a permanent disability award from the NFL so he’s working on getting and staying as healthy as possibly.

O’Callaghan, along with other professional athletes Jason Collins, Gus Kenworthy, Megan Rapinoe and Robbie Rogers appeared in the 2018 award-winning “Alone In The Game” documentary that provides an in-depth look at the “culture of exclusion, bigotry and discrimination” faced by LGBTQ athletes.

Near and dear to O’Callaghan’s heart, however, is The Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation (ROFDN) he’s started as part of his wanting to give back to the LGBTQ community. He says he was presented with several opportunities after he come out publicly but “profiting off being gay did not sit well with me, so my foundation was born.”

The ROFDN’s vision is to “begin to redraw our definitions of what defines a person,” raising awareness enough to appreciate and respect the contributions of others. And based on that vision, the foundation’s mission is to support talented LGBTQ youth through scholarships.

O’Callaghan also has a book coming out next summer about his story with details he’s never told before. Not only does he think LGBTQ and Ally individuals will be interested in reading it, he also thinks there’s quite a bit in the book that diehard football fans will be interested in reading about. And he says that every cent of profit from his book will go directly into his foundation.

If he could go back and talk to that tightly closeted teenage Ryan, O’Callaghan would like him to unapologetically be himself and have faith the world will accept you. And if that doesn’t happen right away, just know that one day they’ll catch up. He says to not let your sexuality or anything else define who you are or what you can do. Ignore all the labels people stick on you and do what makes you happy, because being happy is what’s most important.

The website for The Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation is www.rofdn.org

By Connie Wardman