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What was it like for a gay kid coming of age in Redding during the 1990s? Pretty grim, according to Redding native and former NFL offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan’s recently released memoir, “My Life On The Line: How The NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life.”
The book begins on a hair-raising note, with O’Callaghan, a stand-out player on both sides of the line for the Enterprise High School Hornets from 1997-2001, contemplating suicide as his lucrative but injury-riddled six-season career in the NFL neared its inevitable conclusion with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011.
He’d made a pact with himself as early as his freshman year with the University of California Berkeley Golden Bears in 2001: When football was done with him, he was done with life. He’d kill himself rather than live openly as a gay man.
His sexual orientation was a secret he’d been keeping since he was 7 years old. As a teenager, his large size caught the attention of coaches, and from high school on, football, even though he had exactly zero interest in the sport, became the “beard” he used to mask his gay identity from family, friends, teammates, fans and the world.
Though he lacked passion for football, he was good at it. He had to be, to keep the straight charade going. In 2011, instead of planning for life after a relatively successful NFL career, the 6’7” 330-pound offensive tackle was planning to blow his brains out, rather than reveal his secret.
“I’m still that little gay kid who grew up in the middle of nowhere, scared quite literally to death,” he writes of that dark period in his life. “The secret that I buried inside of me at a very young age is something disgusting, unacceptable, deadly. No matter who I am or what I accomplish, the revelation of that secret will destroy my life and push away anyone who learns it. Being gay is death.”
Thus begins a harrowing journey through O’Callaghan’s early years in Redding to his college and professional football careers in which every conscious decision is predicated on preserving his phony heterosexual persona.
As he states frequently throughout the book, maintaining that deception, on top of playing college and professional football, was utterly exhausting.
Social scientists call this “minority stress,” the discomfort experienced by minorities, such as members of the LGBTQ community, when they feel forced to conform to alleged societal norms. Minority stress can be lethal, and if certain people hadn’t intervened in O’Callaghan’s life at the right time, he might not have survived to tell his tale.
But survive he did—if only by the skin of his teeth. He originally planned to shoot himself in the head with a pistol, but it was his addiction to opiates—first prescribed for his numerous football injuries, but later abused to quiet the noise inside his head—that very nearly ended his life.
O’Callaghan’s opiate abuse caught the attention of Kansas City Chiefs head trainer Dave Price. Sensing more was going on in O’Callaghan’s life than his injured shoulder and groin, Price referred him to a sports psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Wilson.
Despite initial resistance, O’Callaghan eventually informed Dr. Wilson that he was gay and planning to kill himself rather than come out of the closet and face certain rejection from his family and friends.
“I start telling her about being a kid in Redding,” he writes. “The isolation of those family picnics. The constant jokes I heard from the men in my family about being gay. The shit guys said in the Enterprise locker room all day, every day. … The people closest to me told me constantly, from my first memories, that I was straight and gay people were bad. I tell Dr. Wilson that all of this has translated in my head into gay people deserve to die. Whether or not that’s what was said, that’s certainly what I heard.”
“That was a long time ago,” Dr. Wilson told him. “How do you know your parents will reject you, their son, today?”
The idea that his family and friends might accept him as a gay man had never occurred to O’Callaghan. Dr. Wilson had found the flaw in his suicide plan, and it gave O’Callaghan the glimmer of hope he needed to continue living, if only long enough to tell his family he was gay and ascertain their reaction.
He was still heavily addicted to opiates, and O’Callaghan’s account of his Adderall-and-Oxycontin-fueled drive from Kansas City, Missouri to Redding in late 2011 to inform his parents in person that he was gay, only to O.D. in Nevada and wind up marooned at his uncle’s house in Lake Tahoe, is among the most perilous cross-country road trips you’ll ever read.
As it happened, Dr. Wilson’s hunch was correct. O’Callaghan first came out to his aunt and uncle, who accepted him unconditionally. His uncle, the teller of many gay jokes during his childhood, quipped, “Just tell me you still like country music.” O’Callaghan still does. Jason Aldean remains one of his favorites.
Their acceptance is the turning point in a memoir that otherwise might not have been written. After a short convalescence in Lake Tahoe, O’Callaghan completes the journey to Redding, where he discovers that his mother and father also unconditionally accept him as a gay man.
The former offensive tackle for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs has lived in Redding since then, and “My Life On The Line” leaves plenty of room for a happy—but complicated—ending.
It’s complicated because until the age of 29, O’Callaghan had been living what he calls his “fake adult life.” Even though he was certain by age 13 that he was attracted to guys, he’d never been with a guy and he’d only slept with a woman once, in college, to maintain his fake straight persona.
Just as he had to learn the Enterprise Hornet’s playbook as a freshman newcomer to football, O’Callaghan had to figure out the online gay-dating scene in podunk northern California, having never been on a real date.
Life after football was also complicated by O’Callaghan’s four-year court battle with the NFL over disability compensation for his career-ending shoulder and groin injuries. He prevailed, winning a six-figure annual settlement that allows him to live comfortably without working.
Which is good, because his body is so damaged from football he can’t stand or sit for long without experiencing excruciating pain.
In 2017, five years after coming out to family and friends, O’Callaghan felt comfortable enough with his new life to come out publicly as one of relatively few openly gay former NFL players in an article for Outsports.com, which covers LGBTQ athletes. The article was written by Cyd Zeigler, who assisted O’Callaghan with expanding the story into “My Life On The Line.”
While the book is essentially a coming out story, the drama unfolds against the backdrop of high-level college and professional football, where O’Callaghan, who inside his head knows he’s a gay man, duels with the best defensive players of his era, occasionally getting the better of them.
There’s plenty of blood and guts, much of it O’Callaghan’s, as his fingers get broken, his head gets knocked, his shoulders get mangled and his groin gets pulled throughout his career. All of this carnage to maintain the illusion that the big guy from Redding couldn’t possibly be gay.
“My Life On The Line” is a courageous and sometimes frightening dive into the mind of a once deeply closeted individual who, through the help of others, found a reason to live. All proceeds from the book benefit The Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation which plans to issue its first scholarships to LGBTQ athletes next year.
Part 2: Ryan O’Callaghan Talks About His Book, Being Gay In Redding And Bethel
Ryan O’Callaghan has been busy promoting “My Life On The Line” across the country since its Sept. 2 release—just in time for football season—but last week took time to sit down and talk with me about the book, growing up gay in Redding, and of course the infamously anti-LGBTQ Bethel Church.
Now 36, he’s lost much of the heft he once put on in order to appear as slovenly and unattractive to girls as possible, thus warding off advances. He ballooned up to as high as 370 pounds in college, a weight his coaches deemed unhealthy. Nowadays, he figures he’s down to 270. He looks slim, more like a basketball player than an offensive tackle.
“You were lucky, you almost didn’t make that ride home,” I tell him. “You were on quite the cocktail.”
“I am lucky—I almost didn’t,” he nods in agreement. “It took me a while to get off them and get totally clean, but I haven’t been on them since 2012. It’s been a difficult adjustment to life, because I still have severe pain from all of my injuries. You learn different ways, and I’m lucky for not having to work. If I had to work and be on my feet all day?”
He shakes his head.
We establish that he played for Enterprise High School from 1997 to 2001. One of those games was against a Pleasant Valley team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, another northern California stand-out who would go on to play two seasons with O’Callaghan at Cal, before being drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
O’Callaghan still maintains contact with both Enterprise and U.C. Berkeley.
“I still have a relationship with Enterprise,” he said. “Obviously the teachers are gone and the coaches are all different. This past year when they went to hire the new football coach, the athletic director brought me in to interview the coaches, so that’s nice. I’m involved somewhat—as you know I really have no passion for football, but I know what a good coach is. I don’t go out there and practice and try to help them that way or anything.”
I suggest with his knowledge of football, he’d make a great coach.
“I’d be a damned good coach, but I have no passion for the game,” he insists. “I couldn’t get out there in a stance and show them how to do it.”
“In the book, you became aware you were different at age 7 and the age you knew for sure was about 13,” I said. “Talk a bit about how you gradually came to know this.”
“As a kid, before puberty, it was more confusing, because your buddies have crushes and whatnot and I never had that,” O’Callaghan recalled. “I thought, OK, maybe I’m a slow developer. That’s what went through my mind at that age, maybe I’m a slow developer.
“Then when I hit puberty, it was not only am I not attracted to girls at all, but I started being attracted to guys. That’s when I knew for sure, and I knew instantly that was a problem.”
As Callaghan points out in the book, he thought being gay was a problem because that’s what the cultural cues around him in the 1990s were telling him. The gay jokes at high school and family gatherings. I asked if there were any cues his parents might have picked up on from him.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “They didn’t. I never … that was before the internet and all that, so I wasn’t online looking at stuff. I instantly in my mind knew, or thought, it wasn’t acceptable.
“Growing up, I’d hear all of these things coming from family. I’m very clear to say now that my family are awesome, they’re great, they weren’t being hateful, but I didn’t understand that as a kid. I never heard anything good out of them.”
I admitted that I used to enjoy telling a gay joke or two, until I realized that such jokes can be harmful.
“It depends on your audience,” O’Callaghan said. “Now, if one of my buddies wants to tell a gay joke, that’s fine, because I know where he really stands and I’m old enough so that it doesn’t matter as much. Some people are more offended. Kids don’t know the difference, whether it’s joking or honest or judgement. That’s why I always tell parents, watch your mouth around kids.”
Indeed, if there’s one lesson he hopes readers glean from his book, it’s just that: Adults should mind what they say about LGBTQ people when they’re around kids.
In the book, one of O’Callaghan’s deepest regrets concerns the kids from drama and band class he hung out with in junior high but abandoned and turned on as soon as he got to high school.
As his status as a football player rose, he began bullying his former friends and other classmates, literally calling himself Big Man on Campus. It was a classic case of psychological projection, but at the same time, O’Callaghan was aware he was constructing an elaborate ruse.
“I took it out on everyone,” he said. “Like I said in the book, I’d rather be known as a bully and an asshole and leave no doubt in people’s minds, so nobody would suspect anything. Me at the time, I thought that was the best way to go about it. I told myself I needed to be an asshole. It’s kind of projection, because my insecurities were coming out because of that.”
None of this behavior changed the fact that he was gay.
“I thought I might grow out of it,” he continued. “I purposely tried to look at girls and find something attractive. Hell, I did that till I was 29. But not one thing ever. For a while, I thought, maybe I’m bi. But no. I don’t know how some gay guys can go marry a female. … I was never confident enough that I could fool a female. I knew I could fool people playing football, but I don’t know how guys do that.”
He also knew football wouldn’t last forever, and began formulating his suicide plan during his first year at Cal.
“I played football in the beginning because buddies did and it was expected of me,” he said. “Then I kept playing because it was good cover. I knew I wasn’t going to change, and in my mind, I thought I knew I could never be an out gay man, so I said I’m going to kill myself after football because my parents would love a dead son more than a gay son. Once again, that’s ridiculous, but I was messed up.”
O’Callaghan began using marijuana in Berkeley in part to control the pain of injuries and continued to use it in the NFL until he failed a drug test with the Chiefs. That led to an overreliance on opiates for pain relief and soon he was totally addicted.
“You get introduced to them because of the pain, but it’s that euphoric feeling that makes you not feel like yourself that is addicting,” he said. “After that, I would do anything not to feel like myself. I quickly became a junkie. You don’t need to wake up in the morning and snort three oxycontin. There’s taking medicine for pain and there’s doing what I was doing.”
He credits Kansas City Chiefs trainer Dave Price, who passed away last year, and Dr. Susan Wilson for saving his life.
“She’s the one who gave me hope in the end,” he said. “I was looking for it in some way, because like I said, I would have just ended it. I firmly believe if it wasn’t for David sending me to her, it would be different. I was able to thank David a lot before he died.”
It’s a terrifying journey O’Callaghan’s been on, and I asked him what can be done to make life easier for LGBTQ youth in our public schools today.
“A lot of schools are having people come speak,” he said. “I’ll be doing that a couple of times in November, one in Framingham, Massachusetts and another in Sebastopol. They’re 11- to 13-year-olds. They’re having people talk about the issue and start a conversation among their classmates.
“I’m constantly surprised how much more open-minded kids are these days. Cal had me come to speak to the football team. Two years ago, the Washington State quarterback (WSU’s Tyler Hilinksi) killed himself out of nowhere. No one really knows why still, but there’s been speculation. So the head coach at Cal asked me to come talk to the team and tell them my story and have a very honest conversation. If you had a teammate who was [gay], what would your concerns be?
“It took a while to get the conversation started. I had to be honest. If someone’s in the shower and they do this, what are you going to think? A couple of guys groan and then that starts the conversation. The bottom line out of all of it was, nobody would have cared if one of their teammates was [gay]. They understand that not everyone is attracted to everyone, and even if they are, that doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything.”
Not all of O’Callaghan’s friends were pleased after he came out. Brian, his longtime friend from high school who served as sort of a personal assistant for O’Callaghan during his NFL years, disappeared from his life. Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback who he’s known since high school, abruptly broke off contact after O’Callaghan came out publicly in 2017. O’Callaghan doesn’t know the reason why in either case.
“Like I said in the book, I’m left assuming,” he said. “But every other one of my straight buddies had no problem whatsoever.”
The same goes for New England Patriots CEO Robert Kraft, who flew O’Callaghan to Foxborough, Massachusetts to thank him personally for having the courage to come out. Kraft has also donated to the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, as has Levi’s.
“I started the foundation as a way to give back to the community,” he said. “There are all of these athletes who come out, and they’re given all these opportunities to make money and get sponsorships. I felt better giving back, so that’s why every penny I get from the book goes to it. These different speaking things at schools and corporations go to it, and from there, every penny that comes in goes to scholarship and support, mainly through mentorships for LGBTQ students, primarily athletes. The first scholarships will be next year. Levi’s has hopped on board and Mr. Kraft made a nice donation. Things are going well.
“Obviously how the book sells is going to be a big part of what I can do with the charity. I’d like to help the north state as much as I can. It’s hard to raise money, especially for the NorCal Outreach Project in Redding. They don’t have an easy time getting grants because Chico is so close and they have the university, so all that money goes to them. I’d like to do what I can to help up here.”
O’Callaghan himself may not be too long for the north state, though. His faithful canine companions since Kansas City, Rodger and Taylor, have plenty of room to run in Redding, but once they pass away, there’s nothing keeping him here, not even his parents. Redding has grown slightly more accepting of its LGBTQ population since the 1990s, but it still has a long way to go, in no small part thanks to Bethel Church, which makes an appearance in “My Life On The Line.”
“That church is just lost,” O’Callaghan told me. “They’re lost. We’re pretty lost in time here, especially with the influence that’s here now with that cult. I don’t see it getting better in that regard. There might be some nicer restaurants coming to town, but they’re all owned by people who are just lost.
“In this day of information and technology and science, to believe some of the bullshit that they believe is mind-boggling to me. It’s drawing the weakest-minded people in the world and I don’t think Redding should be proud to have them here.
“I’ll take a poor, uneducated person who’s right-of-mind over someone who thinks they can touch you and heal cancer. I mean, c’mon. How do people not see through that? Any time someone tells you not to question something, you should question it.”
We talked a little more about football and the art of the offensive lineman, called by some the most important position in football. That’s why offensive linemen are so well paid these days. But it’s still a tough gig, and the average NFL offensive lineman taps out after 3.5 seasons. O’Callaghan made six seasons, almost double that.
“I’m somewhat proud of it, considering I had all of this other bullshit going on,” he said. “I was deadly serious about playing.”
I ask him what might have happened if that scared little gay kid who grew up in the middle of nowhere had been accepted all those years ago. Could he have become a top NFL offensive lineman without that self-hatred as a motivator? Might he have become an actor, or perhaps a musician?
“That’s tough, because I didn’t have a passion for football,” he said, mulling it over. “I don’t regret it. I don’t know. I was always the most reserved, quiet kid, I hated the spotlight, I still don’t like it. But I have this pedestal of sorts, and it would be a waste if I didn’t use it, so I’m going to use it.”
And with that, I’ll give Ryan O’Callaghan the last word.
“The people who are going to read this are probably already allies,” he said. “I hope in the article you stress that parents ought to watch what they say around kids. Do what you can to help local charities that are trying to fight back against the negative influence of Bethel. They’re a minority but they’re awfully loud and we do need to speak up.”