Two weeks before former NFL offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan’s world turned upside down, he went to the Los Angeles Pride parade and festival. Being in that environment and walking around West Hollywood wasn’t a shell-shocking experience, to use O’Callahan’s own words. He’d been an out gay man for several years.
He didn’t fit the gay stereotypes, but O’Callaghan had spent a lot of time cultivating a self-accepting identity that he spent so much time trying to escape.
O’Callaghan knew that on June 20th, his life would change forever. That’s what the trip to Los Angeles was about. It was to sit on a bench with one camera in front of him, and one behind, and tell a public story to SB Nation’s Outsports that for years he struggled with privately.
He may not have been taken aback by being a gay man in the gay environment of West Hollywood. But sitting in front of those cameras, telling an account that would be broadcast to millions – that unnerved him.
“My reasons for wanting to do this have always been the same,” O’Callaghan tells Rolling Stone. “Wanting to help people in my position. Hopefully someone could relate to my story.”
But O’Callaghan needed the time to be right.
“I waited so long, because I don’t think you go, in my case, 29 years, not planning on living, not accepting living as a gay man. You don’t go from everything I did to normal and ready to speak and be an example overnight. I had to work on me. It took a while.”
O’Callaghan was drafted in 2006 by the New England Patriots and played in 51 games over four seasons between the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. On Tuesday, he became just the seventh openly gay person to play in an NFL game. None came out publicly while actually playing in the league. The last player to come out was Kwame Harris in March 2013.
There have been only two former MLB players to come out – Billy Bean and Glenn Burke. In the NBA, the list is John Amaechi and Jason Collins.
Because of that, the significance of O’Callaghan’s story can be seen in its unique nature among professional male athletes. On it’s own, it’s an inspiring story of a man who used football to mask his identity. A story of a man who planned to kill himself following his career, but accepted help when higher-ups in the Chiefs organization offered it.
For Cyd Zeigler, the story’s author and an expert on sexuality in sports, there’s a slow yet continuous trend of more acceptance of homosexuality in the athletic world. He wouldn’t speculate on why gay athletes so rarely come out, because he didn’t think he could speak broadly when each answer is so individualized.
He would speak to how O’Callaghan’s story was courageous. And how it showed that the Chiefs’ handling of the situation should be the norm, not an anomaly. But regardless of the story’s inspirational nature, it also served as a reminder that players coming out is still extremely rare.
“People think coming out is a pretty good benchmark to where we are in sports,” said Zeigler. “It’s not the only benchmark, but I think it’s an important one. And, nobody’s out. So something’s wrong.”
There are gay players currently in the NFL. Former training camp player and current executive of the You Can Play Project Wade Davis says he works with them and counsels them. In the Outsports story, Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli refers to having worked with other gay NFL players. It’s not wholly uncommon for gay players to exist in the NFL. It’s just that the public at large never knows about it.
Davis said he hasn’t spoken with O’Callaghan yet, but he wants to reach out and thank him for his courage and offer any assistance if he needs it. Davis says that society has a tendency to teach people that “if we are gay, we are nothing.” And that it’s a mindset that society needs to “un-learn.”
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and most people have this assumption that the NFL is the reason that individuals aren’t open about their sexuality,” Davis says. “But looking at my story and Ryan’s story and a lot of other players’ stories, it’s not college, it’s not high school, it’s the society that we live in where we prioritize this patriarchal form of masculinity.”
It was just about a month ago when Zeigler got a Facebook friend request from O’Callaghan. Zeigler, a Patriots fan, said he recognized the name when he saw it. Then he saw the profile picture was of him in a football uniform. He wondered if it was real.
O’Callaghan had followed Zeigler’s work, and approached him about coming out publicly. O’Callaghan knew the reaction would be instant and wide-ranging. And in the hours since the story posted on Tuesday, he’s received thousands of messages.
He opened one email from a man who said he’d stopped talking to his son because he was gay, and that O’Callaghan’s story made him want to re-establish that relationship. Notes like that, Callaghan said, have been the most powerful.
Two weeks ago in West Hollywood, Callaghan only stood out because of his 6-foot-7, 331-pound frame. Aside from that, he was just one in the crowd. Now though, because he told his story, he’s going to become a representative – a face of the LGBT community in the NFL.
And that’s something, that after many years, he’s ready to take on.
“I spent my whole life trying to avoid the spotlight,” O’Callaghan says. “Football was a great place to hide. Now I don’t have 50 other guys to hide behind. I realized this was going to get some attention. That’s the point. Get the word out there, spread awareness, make people feel accepted. They’ve got to know. I’m fine with that. I’m ready.”