Ryan O’Callaghan protected his friend Aaron Rodgers during their college days at the University of California. The right tackle played six seasons in the NFL, including stints with the Kansas City Chiefsand New England Patriots. All that time he was harboring a secret he’d been keeping his whole life, something that drove him to play football in the first place: a sexuality that he feared would never be accepted.
O’Callaghan’s professional career came to a crashing halt in a haze of hidden drug use and depression. He hit rock bottom and even went so far as to write a suicide note.
But a well-intentioned observer stepped in and helped turn things around, which led O’Callaghan to grow even more comfortable in his skin before eventually coming out as gay in a June 2017 article Outsports article written by Cyd Zeigler.
Two years and change later, O’Callaghan and Ziegler have combined to tell the full story in a book called My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, which will be released on September 3rd. O’Callaghan, who is donating all of the book’s profits to his charity, joined The Big Lead to talk about the process, the goals, and challenges of putting it all out there.
Kyle Koster: Let’s start at a very basic point. Why did you write this book?
Ryan O’Callaghan: I wrote the book as a way to tell the rest of my story. Originally that article with Cyd touched on a lot of things, but this was a way of filling in the gaps. It was also a great way to give back. Hopefully this reaches the people that didn’t see the original article and I’m pretty sure it will.
KK: Did you have a target audience in mind? Are you writing it for the kid who is like you, struggling?
ROC: Yeah, I think it’s for the — not necessarily athlete — but closeted kid and straight people who don’t really understand being gay. I think for guys like me, out guys who have been living their lives, I still have a great story to read but for someone to get something out of it, I think it’s more geared toward a closeted kid or a straight adult who doesn’t understand what it means to be gay.
KK: Can you take me through the process from when the article came out to this book getting written?
ROC: I was approached by a literary agent from a big company in New York so we agreed to link up with him. I knew I’d have to do it with a co-author and Cyd and I basically became friends after the article. He knew my story really well and I liked how he wrote. The agent started shopping the idea and after a handful of months he came back with nothing and he basically said, ‘Guys, I’ve called everyone, I’m sorry, I just didn’t get it done for you.’ Then Cyd made a couple phone calls and the first several calls he made, they hadn’t heard from [the agent].
We ended up negotiating a really good deal in my opinion. The whole time we knew the book would be coming out in September, so we had like 10 months to get it done, which is a long time. We knew we had all this time so there was no hurry.
I did an outline of sorts where I took the main topic and made bullet points. That turned into a bunch of phone calls as he was writing it. He’d send me a chapter after he was done and I’d go over it. He did a lot of work and there was a lot of back-and-forth.
He came out to visit me and visited some of the places that we talked about in the book because as a writer you need to visualize something. We hung out and he got a lot done on that trip. We probably went through six or seven editing rounds once the book was done: whose names to include, what to take out, softening some language for families. It was a very smooth process.
KK: One of the things that’s striking is the honest way in which you reckon with your family and upbringing. Was that difficult to re-live?
ROC: Yeah, I’m closer now to my family than I’ve ever been so the last thing I want to do is bring up something too harshly that we’ve already hashed out as a family and put behind us. The last thing I’m trying to do is open a new wound. I was just a little softer with language than I could have been, but everything in there’s true.
KK: It’s a tremendous responsibility to accurately present things as they really happened. Did you feel that?
ROC: Family stuff, I talked to my sister about that to make sure I remembered things correctly. Some things were harder than others to talk about. Toward the end we talk about my almost-suicide and how it was going to happen and all that. That was one of the tougher things to have to talk about and read over and over and over. For the most part, I spent plenty of time talking to a therapist and I’ve worked through everything so I feel pretty good about being able to talk about things now.
KK: In a way you spent a vast majority of your life not wanting to be fully open with people and this book is the exact opposite of that.
ROC: Going into this, I figured if I’m going to write a book, I’m going to tell the whole story. If you’re going to be honest you need to be fully honest.
KK: This a cliched question, I’m sure, but what do you hope this accomplishes?
ROC: I’ve been asked it a few times, and what I go back to is that I hope that the parents or the straight people out there who read it understand that their words matter and they watch the things that they’re saying, understanding that your kids are very impressionable and hear every word. And also, having a conversation with them early on in life, encouraging them to be themselves.
KK: Do you have regrets that it took this long to get to this point of your life?
ROC: No, because if I didn’t take this route, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m happy with where I’m at. I don’t know if I’d change a whole lot.
KK: How did you think your story was going to end?
ROC: With a gunshot. That’s a short answer but that’s it. I never planned on coming out it was just going to be over.
KK: In the darker times you went through, was this outcome even imaginable?
ROC: When I was closeted it wasn’t even a figment of my imagination that anyone would accept me. Since I’ve came out I’ll say the support has been fantastic and overwhelming.
KK: How receptive is football right now to a gay player in the locker room? What about the broader audience of fans? Where does that stand in 2019?
ROC: An NFL locker room is ready for an out player, a gay teammate. I’ve had chats with the higher-ups in the NFL and they’re aware that there are gay players and they want to do what they can to help the next player.
I’ve also chatted with people at the college level and had discussions about if they’ve had a gay teammate and their concerns about the locker room. I’m always surprised by how open and accepting this younger generation is and more and more of those guys are making their way into the NFL.
I’m pretty confident that the team will be fine with an open player. Their play on the field is going to have to speak a lot louder than the media that’s going to be talking about them being gay.
As far as fans go, that’s regional just like the rest of the topics politically. I think it’s an overwhelming majority of Americans won’t care either way. I also think most Americans don’t understand that there’s a long way to go in the LGBT community for equality.
KK: When you were closeted did you ever have a concern that coming out would have a negative impact on the team? Were you thinking, in some way, of being a good teammate?
ROC: No, that wasn’t really on my mind. I was more worried about family and them accepting me. I never loved football, so I wasn’t worried about anything like that, I was just worried about being closeted.
KK: It seems to be in other walks of life, like in the entertainment industry, it’s been something that’s been largely accepted. What’s holding sports back and making it the last frontier?
ROC: I’ve heard a lot of people say that sports are the last closet people are trying to break out of. A lot of it has to do with the masculinity and I’m sure that other people playing sports chose that sport similar to what I did, as a cover for being gay. Especially with a team sport you’re surrounding by a lot of other guys. You’re worried about their reaction and friendship and how they’ll take it. I can say my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. When you’re closeted it’s tough to see that that could be the case.