Former NFL offensive lineman Ryan O'Callaghan said he's received thousands of supportive e-mails and phone calls since he publicly came out as gay this week, each positive sentiment serving as validation for his decision to candidly discuss his suicidal state while he was still closeted.
O’Callaghan has heard from friends, family and former teammates from the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs as well as some he played with collegiately at California. A wide array of athletes who have not yet come out as gay, including another former NFL player, have also reached out.
“My phone has been pretty busy,” O’Callaghan told USA TODAY Sports.
Complete strangers were moved by his courage, too.
“To me it wasn’t just a gay story,” said O’Callaghan, who chose LGBT magazine Outsports as the vehicle for his revelation. “I think people might not have related to every aspect of the story, but they were able to grab one part of it that really hit home for them. That was the goal, to inspire people by being (honest).”
Two responses he received were especially noteworthy.
One was from a closeted Catholic priest inspired to confide in O’Callaghan. Another was from a close-minded, heterosexual NFL fan who said he didn’t understand what it meant to be gay and consequently used homophobic taunts in his language with regularity — being a “smart ass," he said — but had his “eyes opened” after taking in O’Callaghan’s story.
“When you can change minds, it goes a long way, and people become a little more understanding,” O’Callaghan said.
“Gay people are husbands, wives, your neighbor, they’re everywhere — in every walk of life.”
He said messages from ex-mates like Mike Vrabel, Ryan Lilja and Brian De La Puente warmed his heart. While O’Callaghan wishes he would have come out sooner, perhaps when he was still playing in the NFL, the timing felt perfect based on his current state of mind and mental health.
“That’s tough because I built up being gay in my head so much back then,” said O’Callaghan who played in the league from 2006 to 2011.
“If I knew the response would be so overwhelmingly positive — that people would still love me and everything would be fine — yeah, I would’ve come out. That (closeted) life was exhausting.”
Fearing condemnation while hiding his sexuality, O’Callaghan became addicted to painkillers and planned his own death.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said. “But I’ve got a long way to go, too. I waited a long time to come out, but that’s because I wasn’t planning on living, being alive today. Now, I have a lot to love about myself. But it takes a while. I haven’t touched a painkiller in years.
He said “so much has changed” since he played, mainly with the LGBT movement in society — from marriage equality nationwide, to several professional athletes who have already come out, including Jason Collins in the NBA.
Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL in 2014, but he never made a 53-man roster. O’Callaghan now thinks an active player who came forward would be welcomed with open arms.
“If a guy came out, especially a more well-known guy, he’d get so much support,” O’Callaghan said. “There are enough guys on every NFL team who would not only be accepting, but they’d go out of their way to help and be supportive.”
O’Callaghan looks forward to using his story as a way to help others and would be “more than willing to help the NFL” with LGBT education and inclusion. When asked how he’d counsel a closeted player weighing the pros and cons of coming out, O’Callaghan said baby steps are crucial.
“I’d say start by telling one person, the person you trust the most,” he said. “For me, I talked to (therapist) Dr. (Susan) Wilson. After I talked to her, I confided in my best friend. That went a long way, and then you tell the next person. It’s about just having someone on your side who you can really trust and who respects you.”
Of course, O’Callaghan did receive some negative feedback amid the flood of support — not that it's bothered him.
“Genuinely, if you’re gonna bash me, say you don’t accept me, I’ve come so far,” he said. “I don’t give a damn about those people.”