REDDING, CALIF. - Inside Ryan O’Callaghan’s home, the only evidence that he played in the NFL is an action photo of him lined up at offensive tackle for the New England Patriots as quarterback Tom Brady prepared to take the snap.
The photo sits on a shelf above a lamp shaped in the form of men’s buttocks. With a couple of visitors in tow, O’Callaghan patted the lamp and, with a hint of mischief, watched it change colors.
He is more than six years removed from his last season in the NFL and almost two months removed from publicly acknowledging he is gay. At 6-7 and about 260 pounds, he looks far too slender to have played six seasons in the NFL, including the Super Bowl in 2008, when the Patriots lost to the New York Giants 17-14.
Back then he carried more than just the additional weight on his frame.
“I had to learn how to love myself,’’ he said. "I’m not looking to be a sloppy straight guy anymore.’’
During a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports, O’Callaghan said he was dealing with the breakup with a boyfriend of nine months — “First love and all that,'' O’Callaghan said — but, for the record, willing to be set up “if you know anyone who’s younger and hot."
While looking for love, O’Callaghan said, he also is working on a book about his life, planning to start a foundation to help youth struggling to cope with their sexual identity and a rental home where he lives with his two dogs.
“Life’s great now,’’ he said.
But he said his life probably would have ended years ago if he had not met Susan B. Wilson, a clinical psychologist in Kansas City.
“It’s the truth,’’ O’Callaghan said. “I could almost certainly say I’d be dead.’’
'A girl from the hood'
They met at Wilson’s office on the south side of Kansas City for an initial assessment in 2011. O’Callaghan said he’d begun to abuse painkillers and Dave Price, then-head athletic trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs, recommended O’Callaghan go see Wilson, who had been treating members of the Chiefs for substance abuse and related issues since the early 1990s.
Wilson likes to convey her own struggle by telling clients she is “a girl from the ‘hood who made good.’’ But made it clear he was not from the same ’hood.
“He said he watched Fox News, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh’’ Wilson told USA TODAY Sports during a recent interview, “and he wanted to know what I thought of that.’’
Wilson, who is biracial, grew up in housing projects in Pittsburgh and remembers the riots that broke out in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. That was 15 years before O’Callaghan, who is white, was born a world away in rural northern California.
“It’s a story about how people who are so different can learn from each other,’’ she said.
Although Wilson rarely saw reason to disclose details of her personal life during therapy sessions, she said, she drew on her own struggles. Such as growing up in a segregated community and with a white Italian mother who’d been disowned by her father after she married Wilson’s black father.
“She use to say some really cruel things, like, ‘If it wasn’t for you, my dad said he would take me back and I could just resume my white life,’ ” Wilson said. “I did not fit easily into anyone’s box.’’
She was the long-nosed “yellow girl,’’ the nerd buried her in schoolbooks, on the front stoop rather than inside with a mother who lashed out and battled clinical depression.
Wilson navigated the chaos on her way to the University of Pittsburgh, where in 1972 she discovered her passion for psychology. She said a Jewish professor saved her career goals when her academic counselors and other discouraged her from pursuing a career in psychology.
“I could see the individual in the person and not the color,’’ she said.
Wilson said she was unfazed when Callaghan asked how she felt about his affinity to Fox News, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
“I care about you as a person, not about your politics,’’ Wilson recalled saying.
O’Callaghan said Wilson struck him as different than another therapist he’d seen.
“She just came off as real to me,’’ he said. “She talked like a human being.’’
'I could never come out'
He disclosed he was abusing painkillers he was taking for an assortment of injuries. But Wilson said she suspected the drug abuse was covering up a more deep-seated issue and was even more convinced of that about a month later when O’Callaghan made a disclosure: He planned to kill himself when his NFL career ended.
“Well, there are a lot of reason and I can’t tell you right now,’’ Wilson recalled O’Callaghan saying.
Then he began skipping therapy sessions.
Looking back, O’Callaghan said, he feared he might say more than he was prepared to about the secret he discovered growing up.
“When I was younger I had an idea that I was different,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports. “I knew for sure (he was gay) when I hit puberty. Once I hit puberty, I started to actually be attracted to men, or boys, at that time. That obviously grew and grew and it became pretty clear by my sophomore, junior year of high school I couldn’t change it.
“Early on I decided that I could never come out. When you’re in the closet, it’s a scary place. You think no one will love you, especially if you hear slang and people talking bad about gay people. You think they’re talking about you.
“You hear people you love talk and say these things and you think that’s exactly how they think of you. Or they will if they knew you. You just decide not to let them know you.’’
Desperate to hide his sexual orientation, O’Callaghan said he was drawn to football as a cover. No one would suspect he was gay if he was cloaked in a helmet, pads and playing a masculine sport, he figured. Plus, he enjoyed competition, and soon thrived on the field.
He starred at Redding Enterprise High School, then played at the University of California and in 2006 was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round before being traded to the Patriots.
He embarked on a career in which he played 51 games, started 20 of them and considered his greatest success to have kept his sexuality a secret. It required work, O’Callaghan said.
“I stayed up all night practicing what to say, where not to look,’’ he said. “I would go through all these scenarios in my mind just to not slip up. It’s tough. It’s exhausting.’’
Wilson said she made it clear their work would be fruitless if O’Callaghan continued to skip sessions. He returned to her office, and one day began to cry as he struggled to talk.
“He started and stopped and started and stopped,’’ Wilson said. "He was having tremendous difficulty even getting the words out of his mouth.’’
Then the words came.
“I want to kill myself because I’m gay,’’ O’Callaghan said.
He explained how he feared that without football he would no longer be able to mask his sexuality and would be rejected by friends and family.
She suggested he reveal the secret — carefully.
Football as a beard
He started with his best friend, then flew back to home to tell his family and after that told Scott Pioli, then-general manager of the Chiefs.
“Dude, it’s OK,” O’Callaghan recalled Pioli saying befor the GM jokingly added, “Just don’t grab my butt.”
O’Callaghan said he was stunned by the acceptance and, soon after retiring from the NFL after the 2011 season, had to work on an unexpected plan — how to live.
“Wow, Ryan,’’ Wilson said then, “you’re story could help other people.’’
A year later, he started dating for the first time. In 2014, when he was inducted to the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame in Redding, he brought his then-boyfriend to the event. But O’Callaghan did not decide to tell his story until he spoke to outsports.com for a story that published June 20.
Since then, he said, he’s been overwhelmed with the positive response that included many emails, one which started out, “Ryan, you saved my life today.’’
“I know I’ve made a difference,’’ O’Callaghan said. “I heard from a father who’s teenage son came out and he’d disowned him. (The father) emailed me saying how the article opened his eyes.
“I was hoping people would reach out. That’s why I did it, to help people.’’
The affinity for Fox News, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh? O’Callaghan said he was using that the same way he used football — as a cover.
With training camps underway and the 2017 NFL season approaching, O’Callaghan expresses no interest in the sport. In fact, there is a sense of disdain.
He has been unable to work since 2012 and is on permanent disability as a result of injuries sustained in the NFL.
Most of his memorabilia, including a commemorative ball from the Super Bowl, stays in a back room.
“I’ll never love it,’’ he said. “I have memories. I’m not going to act like it was the worst thing in the world. It was a job. They looked at it as a job and I looked at it as a job, and a beard.’’
Wilson said O’Callaghan is one of a handful of gay players she had treated between the early 1990s and 2014, when she stopped working with the NFL to focus on her job as Vice Chancellor of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. But O’Callaghan said he suspected other players who were gay and that he played for one coach who is gay.
O’Callaghan also said he thinks the NFL is be ready to embrace an active player coming out as gay, even though no one has yet to do it.
“I get it,’’ he said. “It’s a scary place."
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