Playing football for Cal, Ryan O’Callaghan found, was the perfect cover for a secret he vowed he’d die before telling: He was gay. And he desperately did not want to be.
It was the early 2000s, and the Redding native became what Outsports writer Cyd Zeigler calls a “one-man wrecking crew” as an offensive tackle for the Golden Bears.
“He racked up game balls, one of his proudest being in the 2005 Big Game, a 27-3 thrashing of Stanford,” Zeigler writes on Outsports, part of the Vox Media-owned sports news website SB Nation.
“In high school, football turned into a way to go to college. In college football was a great cover for being gay,” O’Callaghan told Zeigler in a long and deeply personal interview posted online as the nation celebrates LGBT pride month.
As a senior, O’Callaghan won the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy, given to the best offensive lineman in the conference. He went on to a pro career with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs that ended in injury.
Once he was out of football, O’Callaghan found himself face to face with the vow he’d made years earlier: Afraid that he would be shamed and shunned for being gay, he would kill himself once his playing days were over.
The interview traces his life through the dark days after leaving pro ball — through drug abuse and suicide plans — and his eventual decision to seek help from a counselor. His path took surprising turns, no more so than when he finally came out to his pro football mentor. Instead of being met with shock and condemnation, he found the same support he’d always depended on — and learned the power of being true to himself.
This week, O’Callaghan came out to the world in the Outsports interview — still a difficult and often costly move for many LGBT people, even in the age of same sex marriage, and especially for professional athletes.
“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 told Zeigler.