As part of our ongoing series, “Note to Self,” former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan opens up about the personal struggles he faced on and off the field. O’Callaghan played in the NFL for six years, including a trip to the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. The former offensive lineman reveals how he held onto a secret that nearly ended his life.
Happy Graduation. You just received a full-ride scholarship to Berkeley and that intimidates you. After your California high school all-star game against Florida, you realized that you don’t know nearly as much about football as you could, and now it seems that life is pointing you in that direction.
And yet, you are questioning the point of pursuing football, and beyond that, you are questioning your reasons for living. You’ve felt discouraged and even shunned by friends and family your whole life. Hearing the word “fag” out of the mouth of your loved ones and knowing that they’re talking about you.
You, a gay football player. I know you think, that’s an oxymoron, and that’s why your first goal is to make sure no one finds out. I know you are in pain. I know you are confused. I know you are battling an inner turmoil that will last another decade.
You’re about to enter the toughest years of your life. You’re going to succeed at a sport that serves as your cover. While you’re at Cal, you’re even going to be voted the best offensive lineman by your opposing peers. They all think you are a force to be reckoned with. They see this potential in you that you have trouble seeing in yourself. You will make it all the way to the NFL, playing first for the New England Patriots and then for the Kansas City Chiefs.
You are going to invest all of your energy and time into football so people refrain from asking your least favorite question, “where’s your girlfriend?” You are going to start chewing tobacco in order to look more straight. Don’t do it. You’re going to gain as much weight as possible so that people see you as unattractive. You’re going to do everything in your power to make sure no one finds out that you’re gay. You know that if your cover is blown, you’ll lose everything. If you’re gay, you’re as good as dead.
You will live 29 years of your life in fear. You’ll keep up this facade because you think there is no alternative. You will want to escape the anxiety, to feel something other than trapped. This is why you will abuse drugs, especially pain killers. You will even spend and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars because you have no intention of needing it, because after your NFL career, you will plan to take your own life.
But you won’t.
Your athletic trainer will notice your downward spiral and convince you to talk to a counselor. This will be the turning point for your whole life and give you the strength necessary to find out that people love you: your family, your friends, and your dogs.
You will realize, Ryan, that you have been scared of nothing. This is not the end. No. This is just the beginning. You will soon feel free for the first time in your life. Heck, you might even find love with someone who understands you and your struggle.
So again, breathe. Really, breathe. Believe it or not, it gets better for you, and soon you will want to share this newfound happiness and love with the world.
Just hang in there a little longer, buddy. One day, people will look up to you for your strength.
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