Ryan O’Callaghan—an offensive lineman who played college football at the University of California, Berkeley, and professionally for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs—knew he was gay when he was in middle school.
But he grew up in a conservative part of California, and played a stereotypically hyper-masculine sport. He was surrounded by gay slurs. After deciding early on he would never be able to live his life openly as a gay man, he made another decision: to kill himself after his football career ended.
As Outsports reported in a powerful feature on Tuesday, things did not go as O’Callaghan initially planned.
While O’Callaghan was rehabbing from what ended up being a career-ending shoulder injury in 2011, he became addicted to pain killers. They helped him deal with the physical pain caused by football, as well as the emotional suffering that can come with a life lived in the shadows. Chiefs head trainer David Price noticed that O’Callaghan was struggling and suggested he talk with Susan Wilson, a counselor who had worked with other Chiefs players.
After working with Wilson for months, O’Callaghan finally told her he was gay. She encouraged him to come out to some other people before he made any decision about taking his own life — after all, she reasoned, he should see what the reaction would be first, in case his assumptions were wrong.
The first person O’Callaghan told was Steve Pioli, the general manager of the Chiefs who had also been the GM at New England when O’Callaghan played there. O’Callaghan braced for Pioli’s condemnation, which never came. Instead, Pioli was immediately accepting.
“I’ve got something else I’ve got to tell you,” O’Callaghan said. At this point he was fighting back tears. Pioli’s mind raced, wondering if his player had harmed or killed someone.
“I’m gay,” O’Callaghan said.
His private announcement was met with immediate support from the GM. Then:
“So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?” Pioli asked.
O’Callaghan looked at him, bewildered, 27 years of fear, anxiety and self-loathing meeting Pioli’s stare.
“Scott,” O’Callaghan said, “I’m… gay.”
Pioli acknowledged that and asked again if O’Callaghan had done something wrong.
O’Callaghan found support from most of the people he confided in, including his friends, family, former Cal teammate Aaron Rodgers and former Chiefs teammate Dustin Colquitt.
Now, he is sharing his story in the hope it will inspire or comfort others who are struggling or possibly considering the same drastic steps he once planned to take.
“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,” he said.
O’Callaghan is the first current or former male athlete in any of the big four American sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) to come out in three years.
It’s important to note that while the Chiefs’ staff did a commendable job in O’Callaghan’s case—spotting the warning signs that O’Callaghan was in trouble, getting him help, and then supporting him when he came out— this is not always the case.
In December 2012, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, then drove to the parking lot of the Chiefs’ training facility and shot himself in the head in front of Pioli and a few Chiefs coaches. Belcher’s brain, which was studied posthumously, showed signs of CTE, and a year after Belcher’s death, his mother filed a wrongful death suit against the Chiefs, and specifically singled out Pioli.
“According to the suit, former Chiefs general manger Scott Pioli and other Chiefs officials ‘engaged in mental abuse to ‘motivate’’ Belcher to play through his injuries,” the Kansas City Star reported. “The suit alleges that Belcher was told ‘he was just an accident, and they would get rid of him’ — treatment the suit labels ‘constant bullying pressure and stress’ that, coupled with Belcher’s concussion issues, ‘caused or contributed to cause (him) to become insane.’”
The Outsports story, written by Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler, provides an in-depth look at how much O’Callaghan struggled when he was in the closet, and gives hope to LGBTQ athletes who are concerned about telling their team owners and teammates about their sexual orientation — both Pioli and Wilson said they had talked with other gay NFL players.
Zeigler has often expressed his frustration that more professional athletes have not come out while on an active roster, and stories like O’Callaghan’s certainly suggest that there are supportive people out there.
But O’Callaghan’s story in no way means that coming out is a risk-free proposition in today’s NFL. Players in the NFL have to deal with homophobic slurs from fans and other players. They are asked about their sexual orientation at the NFL combine. While O’Callaghan was supported, there are homophobic coaches and media members. NFL careers are incredibly short and volatile already — most last only a little over three years — and players who come out are met with an unforgiving spotlight and the pressure of perfection.
Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL in 2014, did not have a positive experience. Sam never made it to a 52-man roster in the NFL, and thinks that coming out right before the draft played a huge role in that.
“I think if I never would have came out, never would have said those words out to the public, I would still be currently in the NFL,” Sam told Dave Zirin on an Edge of Sports podcast last year. “But because of me saying those words, I think it could have played a huge part in my current situation.”
O’Callaghan’s story ends on a hopeful note. It will inspire and help many, and Pioli and others in the Chiefs organization should certainly be praised for how they handled his situation. But when it comes to eradicating homophobia, the sports world — and the NFL in particular — has a long way to go.