Coffee instead of showers: The secret life of a gay NFL player

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He could hide with a helmet on, a 6-foot-7, 330-pound everyman offensive tackle granted anonymity in a sport filled with hulking men. He could put on an act at a bar, once leaving arm in arm with a woman, making sure his teammates saw he was leaving arm in arm with a woman.

Without the cover of an NFL uniform, though, Ryan O’Callaghan couldn’t face himself or his teammates. The showers were a nightmare — or would have been, if he entered them.

O’Callaghan, a former New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman who retired in 2011 after four pro seasons, came out as gay in an Outsports feature published Tuesday.

O’Callaghan, now 33, had a plan: He would hide his sexuality for as long as he could play football. And when his career was over, he would end his life.

As he climbed the football ladder, blocking for Aaron Rodgers at the University of California and becoming a 2006 fifth-round draft pick by New England, where he would block for Tom Brady, the impending suicide kept getting delayed — until the select few to whom he bared his heart saved his life.

Apart from the constant talk of women and sex, O’Callaghan said he felt mostly comfortable with the Patriots, a franchise that serves as the paragon of a league that demands its players be invisible. When O’Callaghan’s injuries piled up, the Patriots cut him before the start of the 2009 season. But Scott Pioli, the former Patriots vice president of player personnel, had become the Chiefs GM, and was a fan.

With Kansas City, there were more injuries — a bad groin, a left shoulder that wouldn’t properly heal, which led to flagging time on the field. By 2011, O’Callaghan’s career looked to be over, and his life wasn’t far behind. He had been abusing painkillers, spending what he said was $400 per day on drugs. He poured $70,000 into a cabin in Kansas City where he intended to end his life.

“I started spending all my money to put myself in a position where it would be impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to back out of killing myself,” O’Callaghan told Outsports.

His first savior was Susan Wilson, a consulting psychologist for the Chiefs. She helped him kick his drug habit and worked with him until he opened up, becoming the first person he told that he was gay.

“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 awhile to build up that strength to even tell her. You have to build up trust with someone. Just telling her was like a huge weight off my shoulders.”

O’Callaghan with California in 2005AP

Suicide was still on his mind, though, when he hatched his new plan. He would come out to a few people, feel their judgment, then end his life.

O’Callaghan requested a meeting with Pioli, who had known about the drug abuse and thought the sitdown would delve deeper into O’Callaghan’s secrets. It did.

O’Callaghan told Pioli he had worked with Wilson to kick his drug habit before he dropped what he felt sure would be a bombshell.

“I’ve got something else I’ve got to tell you,” O’Callaghan said. “I’m gay.”

Pioli was nonplussed.

“So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?” Pioli asked.

O’Callaghan repeated himself, but Pioli, who said O’Callaghan was not the first gay NFL player he had counseled, did his best not to acknowledge the gravity of the moment. The two men talked more, and Pioli insisted the admission changed nothing in his mind about O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan asked if Pioli had known all along.

“Ryan, how would I have known?” Pioli said.

“Do you really think I like coffee that much?” O’Callaghan asked.

Pioli looked confused. In his four years in the NFL, O’Callaghan said he had avoided being in the showers with his teammates. Instead, he would retreat to the training room after practice, drinking coffee after coffee.

The two shared a hug, as would many O’Callaghan soon came out to. He slowly began living the life he had been born to live, his suicidal thoughts fading away.

“Being gay wasn’t just a small detail in my life, it consumed it,” O’Callaghan said. “It’s all I would think about. But now that I have come out, it rarely crosses my mind. Yeah, I’d go about my daily life in football, but thinking about hiding it and hoping no one finds out and being ready for any situation was exhausting.”