LGBTQ Pride Month

This Former NFL Player Wants His Coming Out Story To Help Others Who Feel Trapped By Their Sexuality

"It’s not always easy being honest, but I can tell you it’s much easier and more enjoyable being yourself and not living a lie."

Trigger warning: This post discusses suicide.

Most LGBTQ folks use other people as "beards" — someone used as a cover-up to hide someone's homosexuality — but Ryan O'Callaghan used an entire sport. The 33-year-old former NFL player came out as gay in an OutSports interview yesterday, opening up about how he'd hidden behind the game, how he'd concocted an elaborate plan to take his own life, and how he'd like to inspire others to know that they can be their true selves.

O'Callaghan — who played professionally from 2006 to 2011, first with the New England Patriots, then with the Kansas City Chiefs — spoke about how, even since high school, he'd viewed football as a way to mask his gayness. His career extended into college at the University of California at Berkeley and then into the NFL, delaying his plans for taking his own life, something he'd long considered to be an inevitable thing to do when his career was over as he couldn't see himself ever being able to come out and live life as a gay man.

"In high school, football turned into a way to go to college," O'Callaghan explained. "In college football was a great cover for being gay. And then I saw the NFL mainly as a way to keep hiding my sexuality and stay alive."

All of that changed, though, when the head trainer for the Chiefs, David Price, referred O'Callaghan to Susan Wilson, a clinical psychologist who'd worked with other football players, to get a grip on the player's drug addiction. It was during these sessions that O'Callaghan came out to Wilson — who had convinced him to at least come out to people in his life before considering taking his own life — and later football exec Scott Pioli, his family, and his friends. O'Callaghan gives people credit for helping save his life.

"Was it great at the beginning?" O'Callaghan recalled. "No. Did everyone totally understand what it meant to be gay? No. But they knew what my alternative was. I told people close to me that I planned on killing myself. So at that point, no one cared. They were just happy that I was alive."

At that moment, in 2011, O'Callaghan realized that everything would be OK, and that he could be accepted by those in the sport and those most important in his day-to-day life. But that doesn't take away from the struggle and internal conflicts he'd faced for so long. What it does, however, is make him want to help make things easier for others who want to come out.

"The only thing I can say is Ryan is far from alone in terms of being an NFL player struggling with the sexual orientation he has," Wilson — who admits to having counseled other closeted pro football players — told USA Today. "In general, sports like the NFL tend to be very masculine environments, so it is incredibly difficult to come out as a gay man."

In fact, OutSports notes that in the history of the NFL there have been 11 known gay players ever. Of those 11, only seven actually played in a regular season game with the other four only attending training camps or playing in a preseason game. And, of those 11, none ever came out while active. Those who played in the regular season game — in chronological order of them starting to play professionally — are Dave Kopay, Jerry Smith, Ray McDonald, Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo, Kwame Harris, and O'Callaghan. Those who didn't — in the same order — are Wade Davis, Dorien Bryant, Brad Thorson, and Michael Sam.

O'Callaghan wants to use his personal story to not only influence his life going forward but to help other LGBTQ people understand that, though they may be struggling now, they can find a community and not have to resort to harming themselves. 

"As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay, there is a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help," O'Callaghan added. "People need to understand that we are everywhere. We're your sons, your daughters, your teammates, your neighbors. And honestly, even some of your husbands and wives. You just don't know it yet. It's not always easy being honest, but I can tell you it's much easier and more enjoyable being yourself and not living a lie."

If you or a loved one are in a crisis, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to speak with a skilled, trained counselor who is ready to listen to you.

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