Ryan O’Callaghan knows what it’s like to play professional football as a closeted gay man.
The former offensive lineman played six seasons in the National Football League, but never felt comfortable enough with his own sexual identity (or the possible reception in the locker room and from fans) to come out while playing, only doing so after he had retired. O’Callaghan initially declined to make comments when Las Vegas Raider defensive lineman Carl Nassib revealed he was gay in a post to Instagram in June, saying he wanted to let him tell his own story.
But now that the NFL season is officially underway, O’Callaghan told The Daily Beast he’s pleased with the reception Nassib has received by the team and league, saying “the overwhelming response has been acceptance” and that “it made a big difference” for Nassib.
In a refreshing series of posts and actions, the league has become a trailblazing ally in its response to Nassib’s coming out. They immediately matched his $100,000 donation to Trevor Project, the advocacy and support organization for LGBTQ+ youth at risk for death by suicide, after Nassib had encouraged others to fund that worthy cause.
“The NFL is supporting Raiders DE Carl Nassib by matching his donation with a $100,000 contribution to The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth,” they announced at the time. “The NFL is committed to year-long efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We proudly support the LGBTQ+ community and will continue to work alongside the Trevor Project and our other community partners to further enhance our collective work and commitment to this space.”
In his first press conference since coming out, Nassib told reporters he “thought nobody would care” about his place as the first active out gay player in the NFL, but was still pleased with the response.
“It was just such a good feeling to have all that support,” he said. “I was glad to do my part to help bring visibility and representation to my community.”
He still had the jitters when he arrived at training camp, though.
“First couple of days, being out, the only out player, my body felt like Jell-O," Nassib admitted. “I was very anxious. But now, I just wanted to get this [press conference] over with, wanted to move on.”
It’s the type of response that O’Callaghan could only dream about while he was an active player with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. Instead of coming out, he did just about everything he could to hide his sexuality.
“I never did a single thing with a guy where anyone would ever suspect I was gay,” O’Callaghan told The Advocate in an interview last year. “But for some reason, I thought that at any moment I was going to be outed.”
Describing his experiences in high school as a “complicated time,” he said he used stereotypes about football players to his advantage.
“Back then I’d rather be known for being an asshole or a bully than anyone getting any sort of hint that I was gay,” he told The Advocate.
All that changed once he was selected by the New England Patriots and reported to training camp.
“Once I got to the NFL, I didn’t really act like a bully,” he recalled. “I mean, you’re around a bunch of other badass people.”
Life as a closeted NFL player was difficult for O’Callaghan, saying he was “absolutely consumed” by an “overwhelming feeling of self-hatred and doubt that anyone would ever accept” and love him as a gay player.
His fears were so advanced that when he was left unconscious and temporarily paralyzed on the field during a game, his first thought upon regaining consciousness was “Shit, now I’m gay and paralyzed.”
O’Callaghan wrote about those experiences in the autobiography he wrote with Cyd Ziegler of Out Sports.
In My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, O’Callaghan wrote candidly about his battles with not just prescription drugs, but also the depression and suicidal thoughts that accompanied his altered state of mind and inability to come to terms with his sexuality. His focus now is the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation (ROFDN.org), which provides scholarships to LGBTQ+ student-athletes. To keep costs low, the foundation is currently run by volunteers, and O’Callaghan is using My Life on the Line as a funding mechanism. Proceeds from its sales are funneled into the foundation.
When Nassib takes the field tonight in the Las Vegas Raiders season opener against the Baltimore Ravens this evening on Monday Night Football, it won’t be his first NFL game, but he will make history as the first out gay player to play in a regular-season game. What’s comforting to O’Callaghan and other fans, is that he'll have the full support of the league and his team.