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BOOKS Former NFL player talks football, politics and Madonna
by Joshua Irvine
2019-09-18

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Ryan O'Callaghan made headlines two years ago when the former NFL defensive tackle came out as gay, making him one of the league's few openly LGBTQ players. Two years later, he's about to publish a book detailing his years-long struggle with his sexual identity and the physical and psychological toll of pro football.

My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, co-written with Outsports' Cyd Ziegler, takes readers inside the mind of a star player that never wanted to be, pushed into a paranoid spiral of prescription drug abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts set at center field of the most American of sports.

Windy City Times: What was the impetus for writing My Life on the Line?

Ryan O'Callaghan: The goal of coming out publicly [in 2017] was to reach people who would relate to my story. I was trying to help save someone who might have the same thoughts and ideas as I did—to kill themselves. After I came out publicly, I was approached by a literary agent with the idea of writing a book and telling my story to reach even more people. I also looked at is as an awesome opportunity to raise money for my charity to give back to my LGBTQ community.

WCT: You describe your choice to play football as a practical necessity rather than a dream come true. Have you gained more of an appreciation for the sport from playing?

RO: Looking back, I have a tough relationship with football because I tend to associate it with those times of my life where I just couldn't be myself and I was an absolutely miserable person. I respect the game and the people that play it, but it's not for me.

WCT: You're very explicit about the anti-gay culture present in high school football, but that changed as you got into college and pro ball?

RO: In high school, there was a little more homophobia—kids saying "faggot." In college, it was less homophobia, but just more intense guys-acting-heterosexual. Just talking about girls they're getting with, and all the different things they've done. It's very in your face.

In the NFL I had a coach that liked to say, "no homo," but that was really the only homophobia I experienced in the NFL.

WCT: You talk about putting on a "performance" of behaving stereotypically straight while rejecting "gay" behavior—"gay guys listen to Madonna." How much of that behavior was true to you as a person—by which I mean did you really like drinking Busch Light?

RO: [Laughs] No. Hell, I still hate beer. I did a really good job of studying my straight buddies and doing what they did. I had good teachers.

I'm a totally different person. I'm genuinely happy, I drink what I want to drink now: martinis. I listen to what I want to listen to. Most things I did back then, in one way or another, was to act straight.

WCT: So what's your take on Madonna now?

RO: Her old stuff's good. You won't find me "Vogue"-ing.

WCT: Reading the book, I expected a harsher assessment of the people who wronged you—the NFL for its drug policy, your family for their homophobic behavior, Aaron Rodgers [a contemporary in O'Callaghan's in high school, at Cal Berkeley and in the NFL] for abandoning you after he was accused of being gay—but I couldn't help but feel a lot of these people get off pretty lightly.

RO: My relationship with my family is better than its ever been, so out of respect for them and how far they've come I left some things out. Everything that's in there is true, but I could have put more. As far as Aaron goes, I just don't have answers to why things happened the way they did. I could speculate, but that's not necessarily the right thing to do.

The NFL… The amount of drugs they give you is detrimental but, in the end, it was their people that recognized the problem I was having and it was their people that sent me to get help.

If I wanted someone to come out of the book feeling a certain way about a person I would have put it in there. I think people are intelligent enough to come up with their own conclusions.

WCT: You describe yourself as politically conservative. In today's political environment, how do you reconcile that identity with anti-LGBTQ sentiment in many conservative circles?

RO: I should make a blanket statement that I think the Republican Party these days is absolutely disgusting—the hatred being spewed, the actions being taken to harm trans people and all sorts of minorities. I would never vote against my own self-interest. I never understand how some Republicans can be quote-unquote "allies" with the gay community and then still vote for people who actively pass bills that hurt us. It's not an a la carte thing; you can't take one, leave one.

WCT: One last question: What sort of impact do you hope to see from the book?

RO: I've had countless people reach out that once weren't allies or were ignorant to the fact that gay people come in all shapes and forms, that have said they've had a change of heart. I don't know if [LGBTQ] people will gain as much from the book as someone who's a football fan who sees a picture of a football player on the cover and picks it up and reads it. I hope that it makes them think twice.


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