Lessons for all of us in Ryan O’Callaghan’s retirement plan

Ryan O’Callaghan is gay. This being 2017, that sentence should hardly raise an eyebrow. But that’s not why I’m writing about him today.

Ryan O'Callghan

Ryan O’Callaghan playing for the Chiefs, photo by Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ryan O’Callaghan used to play for the NFL—the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. Okay, a gay man playing pro football, that’s surprising in some quarters. But that’s not why I’m writing about him either.

I’m writing about Ryan O’Callaghan because he had an unusual retirement plan.

As all of us are advised to do, he worked on this retirement plan diligently throughout his career. And so when Ryan O’Callaghan retired from football, his plan was ready to put into action: He planned to kill himself.

Because he’s gay.

And he couldn’t see how he could live as a gay man without the cover of being a macho, presumed heterosexual, football player.

It seems like a relic from some bad 1950s movie, but it’s not. A young man grew up in a small California town in the 1980s and ’90s believing that because he was gay, he had no other path than suicide:

“If you’re a gay kid and you hear someone you love say ‘fag,’ it makes you think that in their eyes you’re just a fag too,” O’Callaghan told Outsports on a recent visit to Los Angeles for his first-ever Pride celebration. “That got to me a lot.”

Ryan O’Callaghan’s pain

When injuries cut his football career short, Ryan O’Callaghan started abusing pain-killers:

“It helped with the pain of the injuries, and with the pain of being gay.”

He built a cabin in the woods and stocked it with firearms. He wrote a suicide note. And then someone with the Kansas City Chiefs suggested he see a counselor for his drug abuse. He was 27 years old and had never said the words “I’m gay” to another human being.

“All I had ever done was think how bad the reaction would be,” O’Callaghan said. “It takes a lot more strength to be honest with yourself than it does to lie. It took a while to build up that strength to even tell her [the counselor]. You have to build up trust with someone. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”

The counselor didn’t try to talk him out of suicide. But she did suggest an alternative:

Why would he kill himself before he knew if he had to? Why not come out to his family and friends and find out their reaction, then choose whether it meant he had to end his life?

So Ryan O’Callaghan came out.

[Excuse me, I need to get another box of Kleenex now.]

Gay…and alive

“Was it great at the beginning?” O’Callaghan remembered. “No. Did everyone totally understand what it meant to be gay? No. But they knew what my alternative was. I told people close to me that I planned on killing myself. So at that point, no one cared. They were just happy that I was alive.”

As he got more comfortable being open about his sexuality, he decided that he would have a “big coming out moment.” Inducted into the football hall of fame in the county where he grew up, he thanked his “significant other” from the stage. But this was 2014, not 1954—or even 1994. The gesture produced no outrage or surprise—in fact, it barely registered.

Lessons for all of us

Ryan O’Callaghan’s story shocked me. How can someone growing up in the the last 20 years not know about the successful and fulfilling lives so many LGBTQ people lead? How could he not know about the role models? About the support systems? But even with all the LGBTQ visibility in our world today, he didn’t. I’m equally shocked by the fact that this kind of life is possible and by the fact that I didn’t realize it’s possible—cossetted as I am in the liberal bubble of the East Coast.

When O’Callaghan came out to Scott Pioli, his former general manager on the Kansas City Chiefs, he thought the man would be shocked.

“People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess,” Pioli told Outsports. “I wasn’t minimizing what he was telling me, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He built this up and built this up to the point where he said he was nearly suicidal. What Ryan didn’t know is how many gay people I’ve had in my life.”

O’Callaghan also didn’t know that, according to Pioli, he wasn’t the first gay NFL player whom his GM had counseled.”

I added the emphasis there. I mean, good for Scott Pioli for embracing O’Callaghan (literally) when he came out. But why didn’t Ryan know “how many gay people I’ve had in  my life”? Why didn’t Pioli come out publicly as an ally? Not to disclose the names of the gay men he’d counseled, but to say: There are gay players in the NFL, as in every profession. Why aren’t teams having conversations about diversity?

These conversations become even more important in the current climate, when hatred and prejudice have been unleashed across the country. And if Mike Pence and his fellow anti-LGBTQ ideologues ever get the power of the presidency, things will get much worse for us.

So if you’re an ally, speak up. Talk about the gay people in your life. And if you’re an LGBTQ person, speak up. If you don’t feel there’s a safe space to do that where you are, call a hotline and talk to someone. Get yourself out of the small-town mentality and find your place in the world.

We need you. Alive and thriving.

If you are a young LGBTQ person considering suicide, please reach out to the Trevor Project. Adults, talk to someone at LGBT National Help Center. If you’re an ally and you want to educate yourself about warning signs, see this resource page.

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