Football was Ryan O’Callaghan’s “beard.”
The former Patriots and Chiefs offensive lineman was a star in high school and at the University of California, but he acknowledges now, eight years after he took his last NFL snap, that he never had a passion for football. O’Callaghan used the sport and its hyper-masculine image to hide his deepest secret.
O’Callaghan played six seasons in the NFL as a closeted gay man.
The term “beard” in the gay community refers to a woman who goes on a date or even marries a gay man in an attempt to make him appear straight. O’Callaghan, a hulking 6 feet 7 inches, 330 pounds during his playing days, used football for that purpose.
“I only played football because it was a cover for me. I never loved football. I sold out,” he said.
Recently at Brookline Booksmith, O’Callaghan talked about his memoir “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life” at an event moderated by The Athletic’s Steve Buckley, who came out as gay in 2011.
O’Callaghan talked about the book, playing football as a gay man, and how his internal conflict, combined with multiple injuries, led him down a dark path of addiction to prescription painkillers, and how he planned to kill himself in a Missouri cabin he built after his last NFL game. He called it his “crypt.”
O’Callaghan was raised in Redding, Calif., a city approximately 120 miles south of the state’s northern border.
O’Callaghan grew up in a conservative Irish Catholic family that liked to shoot guns, hunt, drink beer, and make homophobic jokes at family functions. The anti-gay attitude O’Callaghan’s family showed forced him deeper into the closet.
“It was more the words that came out of their mouths, negatively, towards the gay community that stuck with me,” O’Callaghan said. “As a kid, kids hear the things their father says and their uncle says and that time in your life, you take it to heart.”
O’Callaghan would leave the room every time a show like “Will & Grace” came on TV because he didn’t want to be around anything that made him look gay. When he started playing football his freshman year of high school, and became the best two-way lineman on the team, he’d wear his letterman jacket while bulldozing his way past people in the hallways to appear more masculine. It was all just a cover for his homosexuality.
“I had told myself ‘You have to be a tough guy or they’re going to think this,’ ” O’Callaghan said. “But yeah, it came out in being a bully. A lot of times, that’s what happens when people act out. They’re hiding something. The people who speak out loudest against gays, they probably can relate.”
When O’Callaghan got to Cal in 2001, he kept up the veneer of being straight. He told a story of being in a near-empty Berkeley bar with his teammates as a freshman, and when an attractive woman walked in, she made a beeline for O’Callaghan and sat on his lap. He thought he was being set up by his teammates to prove his straightness, and he went along with it.
“When I went to Berkeley, I’d see a flyer for an LGBT meeting. I’d purposely not look at those because ignorance was bliss,” he said.
O’Callaghan was drafted by the Patriots in the fifth round in 2006, but by 2008, they placed him on injured reserve. They released him days before the start of the 2009 season, but he got a second chance with the Chiefs, thanks to former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who had become the Chiefs’ general manager.
But shoulder, back, and groin injuries plagued O’Callaghan and he became hooked on painkillers. After he failed a league drug test for marijuana, the painkillers distracted him from his sexuality, which he considered problematic. O’Callaghan recalled that in one month-long period, the Chiefs wrote him nine vicodin prescriptions, plus an outside doctor prescribed him oxycontin.
“At first, the pills were post-surgery,” O’Callaghan said. “But I wasn’t able to smoke and moderate the pills, and I quickly became addicted.”
The Chiefs knew something wasn’t right with O’Callaghan, and team trainer David Price suggested he meet with team psychologist Dr. Susan Wilson. After O’Callaghan came out to her, he came out to his family in 2012. The response was overwhelmingly positive, especially from his father.
“We’ve never been closer,” O’Callaghan said. “Now he’s always asking about what I’ve been doing, and now he’s proud of [me] being an activist instead of football. He’s come a long way.”
When O’Callaghan came out publicly in June 2017, both former and current NFL players came out to him via social media and e-mails.
“People would be surprised who’s closeted,” O’Callaghan said. “Pro Bowlers and a lot of guys with families. You try to give them advice, everyone’s situation is different, but it’s hard to tell someone who’s that deeply closeted to get them to see the light, that it’ll be OK, especially if they have young kids.”
The exchanges inspired him to start the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which next year will offer scholarships and mentorships to talented LGBT youth, including athletes. Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Nike have donated to the foundation.
O’Callaghan believes the NFL is moving in the right direction with social issues, albeit slowly.
“The past couple years, they’ve done more and more . . . American society is influenced so much by the NFL,” he said “It’s crazy. The NFL, if anything, will be changing their opinions.”
O’Callaghan is part of that change. And that change saved his life.