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Bob Hohler

In NFL’s 100 years, no openly gay player has appeared in a regular-season game

Ryan O'Callaghan played for the Patriots and Chiefs but did not come out until after his playing days.
Ryan O'Callaghan played for the Patriots and Chiefs but did not come out until after his playing days.2006 file/george gojkovish/Getty/Getty Images

Every day he played for the New England Patriots, Ryan O’Callaghan anticipated his premature death. A 330-pound lineman, O’Callaghan expected it to go like this: When he no longer could present himself as a hulking, tobacco-chewing NFL gladiator instead of the person he yearned to be — an openly gay professional — he would end his life.

“That was my whole mind-set the entire time,” he said.

O’Callaghan, who helped protect Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII in February 2008, is one of untold closeted gay men who have led tortured double lives in the NFL. In prime time, they have entertained millions. The rest of their days they have labored to conceal their inner truths.

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As the NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary, one of its inglorious milestones is a century-long shutout: Not a single active player in an official game in the NFL’s storied history has been openly gay.

On Sunday in Miami, there will be irony amid the confetti after Super Bowl LIV. The winner will receive the Lombardi Trophy, named for legendary coach Vince Lombardi, whose brother was gay, and who is remembered by some for quietly supporting players he believed were gay. The trophy will be presented by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a supporter of LGBTQ rights who also has a brother who is gay.

“I don’t think it’s the NFL itself that’s keeping guys from coming out,’’ said O’Callaghan, who credited psychotherapy with helping him conquer his suicidal thoughts and become openly gay after his playing career. “But the NFL definitely could be doing more.”

Goodell’s office, in a statement to the Globe, said, “We welcome and support all players. The NFL is a meritocracy and we place a high priority on inclusion and diversity. Discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation is not consistent with our values and is unacceptable in the National Football League.”

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Related: Coming out saved former Patriot Ryan O’Callaghan’s life

When Michael Sam, an All-American defensive end at the University of Missouri, came out as gay in 2014, Goodell said, “Good for him. He’s proud of who he is and had the courage to say it.’’

Anticipating that Sam would enter the NFL Draft, Goodell said, “We truly believe in diversity, and this is an opportunity to demonstrate it.”

The St. Louis Rams selected Sam in the draft’s final round, but they released him before the regular season, and he never played an official game.

The NFL has since launched an LGBTQ affinity group, NFL Pride, and sponsored a float in the New York City Pride Parade. And assistant Katie Sowers will be on the 49ers sideline at the Super Bowl as the league’s first openly lesbian coach.

Katie Sowers is making history at the Super Bowl this week.
Katie Sowers is making history at the Super Bowl this week.David J. Phillip/AP/Associated Press

In addition, O’Callaghan appeared Monday at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl, with other former NFL players who have come out as gay. The former players met with youth groups and promoted the league’s commitment to LGBTQ rights, as they did before last year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Yet barriers remain in every major men’s North American professional sport, while at the highest levels of women’s sports, many players are openly lesbian.

The only openly gay players in any men’s leagues have been Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers and the NBA’s Jason Collins, who both came out in 2013. Collins played for the New Jersey Nets before he retired in 2014. Rogers won a championship with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2014 and retired in 2017.

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While Collins was widely praised when he came out, there was a cross-current of dissent, stirred by critics such as ESPN commentator Chris Broussard, whose religious beliefs hold that homosexuality is a sin.

Broussard’s view has been shared by an untold number of NFL players, including veteran linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, as they demonstrated in phone conversations in 2015 with Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots star tight end. Hernandez, whose family and friends said he struggled to conceal his bisexuality, took his life in prison at the age of 27 in 2017 while serving a life sentence for killing Odin Lloyd.

Before he died, Hernandez engaged in several awkward discussions with the Pounceys, his best friends in the NFL, about Sam’s sexual identity.

Read the Boston Globe’s Spotlight series on Aaron Hernandez

Mike Pouncey, a four-time All-Pro center who plays for the Los Angeles Chargers, told Hernandez he would never shower with a gay teammate, according to recordings of Hernandez’s jail calls the Globe obtained.

“They’re gonna have to make accommodations for him, like his own shower and bathroom,” Pouncey said. “I couldn’t even sit next to him in meetings.”

Pouncey’s twin brother, Maurkice, a two-time All-Pro center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, complained to Hernandez about ESPN airing a scene of Sam and his partner “smashing cake in each other’s face and kissing each other.”

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“It’s just upsetting, man, for ESPN to do that,” Maurkice Pouncey said. “You mean to tell me it’s OK for your kid to watch a grown man kiss another man? Most people believe in God, know what I’m saying? Y’all contradicting yourself.’’

The Pounceys have repeatedly declined to comment to the Globe about their conversations with Hernandez.

Hernandez’s inner turmoil was evident in conversations with other close friends and loved ones. Speaking with his cousin, Tanya Singleton, who became a mother figure to him after his father died, he discussed a desire to be who he wanted to be.

“Be real with yourself,” Singleton told him. “Live the life you want to live because when you hold so much inside, and you have so much pressure, that makes you a different person [and] brings the anger out of you . . . I just want you to be happy.”

“That’s all I want,” Hernandez said.

Shayanna Jenkins says of Aaron Hernandez: “I would not have loved him differently”

O’Callaghan, who left the Patriots for the Kansas City Chiefs before Hernandez arrived in Foxborough in 2010, said Hernandez’s crimes were inexcusable, but he could relate to Hernandez’s anguish in trying to shield his sexuality.

“I can understand the fear going on in his mind,” O’Callaghan said. “That’s a scary place.”

Anxiety gripped O’Callaghan while he was with the Patriots from 2006-08 and the Chiefs from 2009-11. In Foxborough, O’Callaghan said, he tried to shower quickly and spend as little time as possible in the locker room, often seeking refuge in the trainer’s room.

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He recalled spending his free time rehearsing how to react in situations that could place his secret at risk, as when a woman sat in his lap at a party.

“It was exhausting,” he said. “I was in my own personal hell.”

O’Callaghan considered it a personal triumph when a platonic female friend agreed to accompany him to a party at Gillette Stadium that Patriots owner Robert Kraft staged for his 45th wedding anniversary.

“I thought that kind of mirage bought me some cover,” he said.

O’Callaghan is one of nine former NFL players who have come out as gay after their careers, according to the publication Outsports. He is the only former Patriot.

The first to come out was running back Dave Kopay, who played for Lombardi with the Washington Redskins in 1969. Kopay has said he believed Lombardi knew that he was gay and fully supported him.

O’Callaghan said he suspects that every NFL team includes at least one gay player who is fearful of coming out.

“I know some of them,” he said.

In 2018, Outsports listed 46 NFL players who said they would welcome a gay teammate, including current or former Patriots David Andrews, Cameron Fleming, Joe Thuney, and Ted Karras.

When O’Callaghan came out as gay, he said, Kraft called to support him. Kraft has been one of the NFL’s leading supporters of LGBTQ rights, and the Patriots in 2015 were the league’s only team to sign an amicus brief filed with the US Supreme Court to support same-sex marriage, which the court legalized by a 5-4 vote.

As for Goodell, O’Callaghan said he came away from a private conversation trusting the commissioner’s sincerity about welcoming openly gay players to the league but concerned about how to achieve it.

“I understand the NFL doesn’t want to be seen as an activist group,” O’Callaghan said. “They do a lot of outreach, but it’s kind of under the radar. Most people don’t know about it.”

Problematic, too, he said, is the nature of playing in the NFL. Careers are short — about three years on average — and contracts are not fully guaranteed.

“It’s extremely tough to come out because you have such a short amount of time to make as much money as possible,” O’Callaghan said. “Doing something that might jeopardize that is very hard.”

O’Callaghan has drawn hope, however, from the rapidly growing public support for LGBTQ rights since the Supreme Court’s ruling. Barriers have fallen throughout society.

“Sooner or later, there will be an openly gay player in the NFL,’’ he said. “It’s going to take someone with a lot of courage.”


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.