“My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life”: An Interview With Ryan O’Callaghan

 

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Raised in Redding, California, former NFL offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan had a career in football that many aspiring professional athletes could only fantasize about. At University of California at Berkeley, O’Callaghan played for the California Golden Bears. In 2006, he was drafted by the New England Patriots. He also played for the Kansas City Chiefs until 2011, when O’Callaghan’s mounting list of injuries led to retirement at the ripe old age of 28. Starting with his high school days, Ryan O’Callaghan’s athletic skills brought him praise and respect from his family and football fans alike. It would also eventually bring him wealth, as well as a certain level of celebrity– even though O’Callaghan himself admits that offensive linemen don’t get as much “glory” as their more high-profile teammates. At 6’7″ and weighing in at over 300 lbs, O’Callaghan must have looked indestructible to the rest of the world. However, along with the adrenaline-infused, testosterone-driven excitement of the sport came the inevitable injuries. With those injuries came the need for some strong painkillers. A merciless addiction to those painkillers soon followed. But underneath his seemingly unbreakable exterior, there was something else troubling this NFL hero. O’Callaghan knew he was gay from an early age. His conservative hometown of Redding was a three hour drive from San Francisco, but may as well have been on a different planet. Even though he grew up in the ’90’s, when LGBTQ visibility was exploding in pop culture and in the news, O’Callaghan didn’t feel he could come out to his family, where the proverbial “traditional values” were the norm. Gay men were at best “the other people” and at worst were the subjects of cruel humor. He would eventually be one of the few openly gay former NFL players… but long before coming out, being gay colored every moment of his intertwined professional and personal lives.

ryan2Ryan O’Callaghan has written a fascinating new book, co-authored with popular sports writer Cyd Zeigler. Named My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, the book’s title may seem to be a bit, shall we say, “overly dramatic”. But make no mistake: The title of this vivid, revealing, and occasionally shocking memoir is pretty damn accurate. The author gets very candid about how his body paid the price for his career with some nearly life-threatening injuries. He is equally honest about what followed: an equally life-threatening addiction to opioids. But arguably, even greater than the physical pain and the drug dependence was the emotional torture of being in the closet, and having to fiercely protect his image as a big, strong, heterosexual, masculine pro athlete by all means necessary. In O’Callaghan’s own words, the sport became his “beard”. But what would happen when his NFL days were over?

Today, O’Callaghan is an advocate for LGBTQ equality and a sought-after speaker. All of O’Callaghan’s proceeds from the sale of My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life will benefit The Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which he founded to provide scholarships, support, and mentorship for LGBTQ+ athletes, students, and youth. Ryan O’Callaghan took the time to speak to be about his book and much more…

JR: Hi , Ryan. Thank you for speaking with me.
RO: Yeah, absolutely. You’re welcome.
JR: Congratulations on the new book.  I found it absolutely fascinating. It’s a great read for football fans, and for fans of all sports in general. It really captures the excitement of the game, in addition to being your own personal story.
RO: Thank you. I think a lot of people see the cover and think that it’s just about football. But I’ve actually heard from quite a few people who bought it thinking it was just a football book– without actually reading the cover– and they actually ended up getting something out of it. So, you know, however it affects someone, that’s great.

JR: You weren’t exaggerating when you named the book How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life!
RO: Yeah. A little dramatic, but true!
JR: Dramatic, but accurate!  So first off, where do you call home now?
RO: I’m living in Redding, California, which is where I grew up. I moved back here after I retired because I had to get my life together, and I didn’t really know where to go. I’ve been here for, gosh, like five years now. I am ready to move! It’s probably the last place a single gay man should live. But, you know, I’m in a fortunate position to be able to travel as much as I want, and to do all the things with the charity work I’m doing. So, it’s serving as a base station for now.
JR: I get it! Is it easier to live there now than it was back then when you were a kid? I recall in the book how you mentioned the name Redding was appropriate, because it was kind of a “redneck” town!
RO: Actually, it might be even more conservative than it used to be. There’s a church there… well, they call themselves a church– but honestly, a cult has really taken over, and they’re about a tenth of the population. They do everything from conversion therapy, to laying on people’s graves to absorb their energy. They are very “out there” and they have control over this place. So, I wouldn’t say it’s gotten better.
JR: Oh, no!
RO: That will be a 20/20 episode, or one of those investigative shows one day.
JR: (Laughs) Well, they need to get the memo that it is going to be 2020 soon, and it’s time to move forward! So, what made this the right time to tell your story to everybody? What made this the right time to write the book?
RO: Honestly, writing a book was never the plan. I think if that was the plan, I would have written a book first and used that to come out. But, you know, I felt that coming out publicly in 2017 was the right time, because I had been living as a openly gay man. I’ve been dating someone a while and I anticipated people reaching out to me for advice and anything like that. I wanted to make sure I had some ground to stand on. And obviously, when I came out publicly, the response was a little overwhelming but very positive– and I’m glad I did wait. You know, I heard from people from all walks of life: teammates, owners… and I’m happy with the impact I’ve been able to have. The book came about because when I came out publicly, I was approached by a literary agent with the idea to write one. I saw it as a great way to tell the rest of my story. You can only say so much in a short article, but so the book was a great way to tell the rest of my story and to reach people who didn’t initially see my coming out story on Outsports. It was also a great way to raise money for the charity that I started.

JR: That’s great. I still think it’s amazing how when you first told your story online, you actually put your personal e-mail on there. When I read that, I was like, “He’ll never make that mistake again!” (Laughs)
RO: I started that Yahoo e-mail because I figured there were people out there like me who wanted to reach out. There’s that saying, “Be the person that you wish was there for you!” That was just what I was trying do: to make myself accessible. And as I say in the book, I got a LOT of emails. I STILL get e-mails almost every day. I was ready for some negative e-mails from some bigoted, closed-minded online trolls. I still haven’t received an outright hateful e-mail. If I did, who cares? Whatever… But that should be encouraging for people. Obviously, comments online are a different thing. But no one has reached out to me directly with negative things.
JR: I imagine the response was probably overwhelming.  I’m surprised your computer didn’t just explode. (Laughs) 

RO: Yeah. But I was lucky. I was lucky to have Cyd, the co-author of the book, to point me in the right direction and help me manage that stuff. Because, as you know, I’ve had a lot of injuries and I can only do so much– but he was really helpful in helping me navigate through that whole experience.
JR: That’s great! So in the book, you really open up about how specific members of your family and certain friends reacted when you came out. You were protecting them for so long– if you want to use that term “protecting”– and you wrote about how you were surprised at their reactions. For those who haven’t read the book yet, we won’t give too much away. I presume these family and friends read the book. I hope they did! What was the reaction from the people who you called out, or who you mentioned by name?

RO: My parents both enjoyed the book. I’ve obviously had these conversations with the family: They knew my story, and everything in the book is absolutely true. You know, I left out some things just to be nice. I’m closer with my parents than I’ve ever been. There’s no need to “pick a scab” or whatever that saying is. But the response has been great. In the book I talk about losing a couple of friends. There was Brian, the guy that lived with me for seven years.   I haven’t heard from him. I’d reached out to him during the process of writing the book to see if he wanted to include something. I wrote the book five or six years after I came out, and with being hit in the head a lot and everything else, I wanted to make sure things were as I remembered it. So I reached out to him during that process, and didn’t hear back. I talk about Aaron Rodgers in the book: what happened between us, and how he stopped talking to me after I came out. He had gay rumors about himself. But I’m assuming he knows about the book. If his PR team is worth what he’s paying them, I’m sure he knows. You know, I don’t expect to hear from him or anyone else.  I wrestled with the idea of even including that story about him, because I didn’t want it to seem like one of those “kiss and tell”-type books. But I didn’t think I could tell an honest life story without including the highs and the lows. What happened between us was, at that time, the lowest point in my life. I don’t regret including all that.

JR: Yeah. I was I was wondering if there was an epilogue to that, like maybe that you would hear from the people that you wanted to hear back from…
RO: I didn’t WANT to hear back from them. Specifically in his case, people can read the book and actually learn what happened between us. But he’s got much bigger fish to fry, with his family and with things that had happened which I know about but didn’t put in the book. I’m not worried about myself in that case. I feel for his mother.

JR: Gotcha! So what is your relationship with the NFL like now? Do you keep in touch with some of the guys socially?
RO: Yeah, I do– on an individual basis. Me and Robert Kraft are closer now, and I talk to him more now than I ever did back in the day. He’s been a generous supporter of my charity and my cause as well, and had me out to New England. I chat with some retired players. As years go on, you just kind of lose contact– you know, no specific reason. It just kind of happens. But I still have plenty of guys that I played with that I chat with. I just was in Kansas City last week and hung out with a couple of them. After I came out, the NFL as an organization reached out to me. Like I talk about in the book, I had a chance to chat with Roger Goodell about things. I have another meeting set up with him in the near future. The NFL does a lot of things for the LGBTQ community, but not really in the public eye. There are reasons for that. But I think that getting my foot in the door, and encouraging them to take a couple more steps, and doing some other things will only help business. They have such a huge impact on culture in America, and their influence is massive. For an organization like the NFL to take a stand for equality and gay rights will really help change some opinions out there. Some people aren’t aware to this day that there even ARE gay guys in the NFL.
JR: That’s great. As your book really pointed that out, the NFL had a very high level of professionalism and enlightenment that you didn’t see in high school or college.
RO: Yeah! The NFL is an organization, but there are 32 individual owners and they don’t all have the same progressive viewpoints. But overwhelmingly, they are a very supportive place. Like I talked about in the book, in the locker room in high school or college, you’d hear some slurs and stuff. But the NFL is a business. I mean, you can’t go to your office and have your co-workers using bigoted language. It’s just like any other workplace environment. So yeah, I think people should be encouraged by how open-minded the organizations and the athletes are. Also, one only has to go on Google and they can clearly see the number of athletes who have come out and supported equality and gay rights and things of that sort of thing.
JR: That’s great. I was surprised too. I didn’t know how much the NFL had been fighting for equality until I read your book.
RO: Yeah, but now we need them to do more publicly, so that you don’t have to read a book to find out exactly what they’re doing. If they can actually get out there and do it, I think that would be a huge difference.

JR: True! So, in the book you mentioned the irony about how hard drugs– the opiates– were readily available to the players, yet pot was stigmatized even though smoking it really helped you and a lot of other guys with the aches and pains. You were prophetic, because as we enter 2020, people are finally realizing that CBD oil and medical marijuana have all these great side effects, and they’re not nearly as addicting as opiates– which have had a devastating effect on our society. I know a lot of athletes who swear by CBD oil. How do you feel about this like cultural shift: that finally we’re realizing CBD oil and medical marijuana are finally getting some respect, and there’s a trend towards legalization?
RO: It was bound to happen. I mean, like you mentioned, the affects of opiates can be devastating. Obviously, most people don’t have an addiction, and there are clear times you need a painkiller after surgery and stuff. But for most people, marijuana is a fantastic option for maintenance and general pain relief. The NFL has their drug testing policies, and the guys know what it is, and they know WHEN the tests are! I got caught that one year, but most guys get away with it. And whether it’s legal or not, it’s no secret that athletes smoke weed. But if it didn’t have to be a secretive thing like it is, or an illegal thing like it is in some states, that would be great. But I think the NFL is gonna have a hard time making a blanket policy saying athletes can smoke marijuana when it’s still illegal federally for whatever reason!
JR: (Laughs) How true! So in the book, you are very open about your addiction to painkillers but also very vivid in your descriptions of the intense pain that you went through: muscles tearing and bones cracking. OUCH! Was it tough for you to have to revisit all that pain, both emotional and physical, when writing the book?
RO: Yes and no. I came out to family friends in 2012, and came out publicly in 2017. I had quite a bit of time to talk to professionals and to process my thoughts and what I’d been through. I knew that the benefit of telling my story was worth whatever temporary discomfort I had in reliving it. But, honestly, talking about the drugs and the injuries wasn’t so tough. The hardest part in writing the book was talking about my plan to kill myself. My family reading all that was definitely tough for them too. But I knew the benefit of actually discussing my issues would be beneficial. I think people seeing how big of an addict I was will help too. I mean, I was a junkie. I was just a drug addict at that time. But I was able to get over it. I haven’t touched a pain pill like that since 2012. They say addiction is a disease, but it is very possible to get over it. I talk with a lot of people about addiction. My story’s got a lot of layers of different things to it, but I’ve been able to impact a lot of people who are addicted. I think it really comes down to fixing the reason WHY you’re abusing the drugs in the first place. That’s what I did. I was abusing the drugs cause I hated myself. Well, I learned to love myself. If you love yourself, why would you want to keep doing drugs and put your life on the line? So, I just I try to encourage people to look deep down inside and recognize the reason why they’re abusing the drugs in the first place. And you’re not gonna get over your addiction until you actually do that. It’s tough for some people to look in the mirror.

I’m not going to blame doctors for anything, cause I manipulated a lot of doctors into giving me what I wanted. But you know, there’s no reason for someone on their first surgery to be prescribed 60 Dilaudids and 50 Norcos along with 20 Percs. You don’t need all that. That’s where a lot of it starts. I’m happy that in January I get to stand in front of 200 doctors that work in sports medicine for teams– mostly college teams– and chat with them about that: to give them the perspective of an athlete and the way they prescribe. So hopefully I can make some changes. Obviously there’s a lot in the news about opioids, and they’re aware of the harm that these pills are causing. But if they hear my story, and hear about what athletes or other people do to manipulate, then maybe it will help overall. I was a master at getting what I wanted from doctor.
JR: I’d imagine that ANYONE would have a hard time saying “No!” to a guy of your size! (Laughs)
RO: Yeah! And a medical record that was three inches thick… But a doctor should STILL be able recognize an addict!

JR: True! So, on a different subject: A lot of gay guys may think of a professional football locker room to be something of a fantasy come to life.
RO: I’ve heard that…!
JR: Exactly! But I remember a few years ago, your friend Esera Tuaolo, who you write about, had given an interview for a Bear magazine which pretty much said that no, it’s not sexy. It’s chaotic, it’s noisy. There’s a lot of reporters running around and a lot of strange people who you don’t even know hanging around while you’re showering or in various stages of undress. In other words, it’s NOT a fantasy come to life. What would you say about that?
RO: That depends on your fantasy.
JR: (Laughs)
RO: Most of the days when you have practice in the season, there’s like an hour of media availability. So the locker room has male reporters AND female reporters, and they’re typically in there at the same time that everyone’s changing, showering, getting ready for practice… To be a fly on the wall may be someone’s fantasy. You’ve got the stereotypical slapping each other on the butt with a towel type thing. I mean, yeah, that stuff happens, but it’s not what it’s made up to be in Hollywood or anything else like that. That said, if you’re into mostly physically fit guys, then I’m sure gay guys would enjoy the locker room. (Laughs) I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh, I never looked around”, but I had this extreme sense of guilt and I would always be paranoid about being “found out” or anything. So, I would always find reasons to get the hell out of the locker room at those busy times. That sense of guilt affected me.

JR: I get it! So since retiring from football, what do you what do you do for fun nowadays?

RO: I’m trying to figure all that out. Really. My whole life, I never had long-term plans. I never planned on living. I never got passionate about things. I didn’t pick up an instrument. I didn’t pick up hobbies, like woodworking or anything. The first four years after I retired from the NFL, I was dealing with legal stuff, and doctor’s appointments, and trying to get injuries covered and my future figured out. And so I’m still to this day trying to figure out what hobbies that I can do. I’ve had a million surgeries, I’ve got torn knees and missing groin muscles and messed up shoulders. So for one it’s like, “What CAN I do?” You know, I’m not gonna go climb a mountain or go water skiing or snowboarding. I can’t do anything like that. So I’m trying to figure things out. I stay busy. I do what I can and I take care of myself first and foremost. But I’m also in a position where I’m able to use my platform to speak up and to hopefully change minds and influence people across the country– maybe the world. My passions right now are with my charity and doing different engagements to raise money and awareness for that, and hopefully next year to give away my first scholarship. A lot of that has to do with how well the book sells, and then go from there. I’m never bored. I’m not the type of person that always has to be doing something. I just enjoy every day, and whatever happens happens.

JR: That’s great to hear. Lastly: Anything else you want to tell the masses– besides, obviously, “Buy the book!”?

RO: Supporting the book is supporting a good cause. All my profits from the book are going directly to the charity and back out to the community. I don’t pay myself or anyone else out of the charity, so it’s not one of those deals that a lot of charities are like. If you are part of the LGBTQ community, I think you recognize some of the struggles that we go through and all that. But I also think you would find it informative and learn a few things about football and some other football players. And it hopefully will encourage everyone to do their part. You don’t have to be a retired NFL player to speak up and make a difference in the community and to help out others. I just really encourage others to find a way they can help. Even if it’s just donating five bucks, it’s something to make it easier for the next guy, or girl, or non-binary person.

JR: Well said! Thank you again for speaking with me!

My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, by Ryan O’Callaghan and Cyd Zeigler, is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, audiobook, and audio CD at Amazon.com.

Learn more about the book here.

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Visit the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation at http://www.ROFDN.org or on Facebook.

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