Carl Nassib made history in June, when, in a video posted without warning to Instagram, the Las Vegas Raiders defensive end told the world in a casual and affable tone: “I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay.”
The first active NFL player to come out publicly, Nassib stressed that doing so was important not because he wanted to attract any additional attention to himself, but rather because being openly, proudly, and visibly gay could benefit others.
“I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are not necessary,” he said. “But until then I will do my best.”
In a way, he’s already succeeded. Nassib spent this summer going through the rigors of training camp. The Raiders’ first regular season game is on Monday night and Nassib made the final roster. That represents the sum total of newsworthy events about him. Not to take anything away from the milestone, but the lack of a media feeding frenzy may be the best possible news of all, according to Ryan O’Callaghan, a former offensive lineman who came out in 2017, long after he’d retired.
The normalcy that’s followed in the wake of Nassib’s announcement is indicative of progress, he told The Daily Beast when reached by phone at his home in Colorado. It was a mere seven years ago when Michael Sam came out prior to the NFL draft. For months afterward, Sam was placed squarely at the center of the culture war. Execs and coaches anonymously whispered that Sam’s sexuality would cause his draft stock to plummet. A clip of Sam kissing his boyfriend on ESPN after the then-St. Louis Rams called his name was seen as some kind of terrible affront to right-wingers and by Sam’s account, bigotry ultimately kept him from a pro career.
The change can’t be pegged to one cause, O’Callaghan explained. Largely, it’s a question of societal changes. Overall, he believes the league did a much better job when Nassib came out. (Both the Raiders and Commissioner Roger Goodell offered public support; conservative media has largely avoided the subject.) A (mostly) silent, unquantifiable minority may still continue to vent their spleens, but, “the overwhelming response has been acceptance,” he said. “It made a big difference.”
The fear of how people, both in the NFL and beyond, might respond is why O’Callaghan kept his sexuality a secret for so long. When his NFL career ended, O’Callaghan abused prescription painkillers to avoid dealing with who he really was. Thoughts of suicide, which he’d harbored throughout his life, returned.
“I only played football as a cover for being gay,” O’Callaghan, who is now in recovery and started a foundation dedicated to supporting LGBTQ athletes, said.
Growing up in Reading, California, a conservative enclave in the state, once he’d reached a certain size it prompted questions about why he wasn’t on the gridiron. (Having a father who coached pushed him in that direction as well.)
So he slapped on a set of pads and helmet. “I never loved football,” said O’Callaghan. “It was the most macho thing I can do, relying on everyone's ignorance thinking that a gay guy couldn’t play football.” There were moments in high school where he’d hear standard homophobic comments—“dumb shit,” was how O’Callaghan put it. In response he’d act like “an asshole or a bully,” he told the Advocate. After all, lording it over his classmates and being feared was preferable to anyone thinking he wasn’t straight.
When O’Callaghan arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, the anti-gay slurs faded to a degree. Rarely did he hear anyone going on a truly impassioned anti-gay tirade. One coach in the NFL would drop the groan-inducing “no homo” line. (O’Callaghan declined to name him.)
Still, “when you hear one of your teammmates and friends call someone a fa--ot, you remember that,” he said. It was the heteronormative assumptions which put O’Callaghan in a difficult place—the regular conversations about partners and “sexual conquests,” he said. As a matter of course, “It’s a conversation you can’t relate to." Though he’s aware—and was at the time—that no one in the locker room intended any harm, it invariably left him feeling like an outsider. One way to cope was by lying.
“You feel this pressure to say the right thing,” said O’Callaghan. It was an all-consuming preoccupation: the idea that if he let his guard drop for a moment, or said something slightly off, his secret would be revealed. After he came out, none of his former teammates ever asked O’Callaghan to apologize for deceiving them. “They were more worried that they had ever said anything that affected me when I was closeted,” he said.
The near-constant vigilance he demanded of himself and the performance he felt required to put on was not just stressful, but downright exhausting and debilitating.
After a standout career at Cal, the now 6-foot-7, 340-plus-pounder was selected in the fifth round by the New England Patriots. He worked himself ragged to make it as a backup on the squad that lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. In a way, his desire to remain closeted and the Patriots’ ethos were mutually compatible. "All you are there to do is whatever it takes to win," he told Outsports. “Distractions were not allowed… As little comfort as it did bring, it did help.”
The Kansas City Chiefs signed him in 2009, after missing a year due to injury. O’Callaghan lasted another two seasons before being released. It was then that he began abusing painkillers. Initially, he was ingesting them to deal with the lingering symptoms of multiple injuries and surgeries. Eventually, they served to numb a different kind of pain, including thoughts of suicide.
“They give you this euphoric feeling that makes you not feel like yourself,” O’Callaghan said. “And when you hate yourself—like I did when I was closeted—you’ll do anything not to feel like yourself.”
O’Callaghan began burning through the cash earned during his career, too, and pushing away anyone who might be able to pull him out of this spiral, all to arrive at rock bottom. It was, in a sense, a way to justify taking his own life. O’Callaghan was working at the Chiefs’ facility in the scant hope of making it back to pro football. There, he began speaking with a team trainer and counselor, who were able to pull him back from the brink, as Outsports documented.
“People ask me, how’d you do it? How’d you get over it?” said O’Callaghan. He never spent time in any rehabilitation facilities to deal with his substance abuse problem. Instead, “What worked for me was fixing the underlying problem of why I was abusing in the first place.”
O’Callaghan continued: “As soon as I learned that it was okay to be gay, and then learn to love myself, it made quitting easier.” Not easy by any stretch of the imagination, he stressed, but doable.
So began the cautious process of coming out. First to family members and friends, then former teammates and professional colleagues, building out a support network and slowly but surely rebuilding his life. From there, his focus shifted to helping others do the same. He established the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation in 2018. At first, the organization’s goal was to help pay for LGBTQ athletes to attend college whose families declined to support them after coming out. Unfortunately, he explained, the NCAA rules and regulations proved too much of an obstacle. What he hadn’t anticipated was the number of closeted athletes who just wanted to meet and talk, if only to have one person in their lives who they know will guard their secret until they’re ready.
Today, the bulk of the foundation’s work is devoted to these outreach efforts, including speaking to groups at schools and corporations—anyone who’ll give him an audience. “My goal is to reach as many people as possible,” O’Callaghan said.
O’Callaghan has partnered directly with the NFL too, on PSAs and other events. Despite his praise for how they supported Nassib, the league has committed “to do more,” as O’Callaghan put it. And the question of what that more might exactly entail remains a bit vague. He has pressed this case to Goodell, who he believes to be an ally, but donations to nonprofits like GLAAD and The Trevor Project consumed much of the budget for the year. Not to take anything away from the great work both organizations do, but “that doesn’t really help guys in the locker room,” said O'Callaghan.
Ideally, he’d be given the chance to meet the incoming rookies during the league’s annual transition program for incoming players. (O’Callaghan mentioned that Esara Tuolo, another out former NFL player had given this kind of talk during his rookie year. Panels dedicated to sexual orientation have been held, if intermittently.) “Just give me 20 minutes,” he said, to hold “a very frank, honest conversation. That’s one way of reaching everyone.”
He’s counseled trans athletes too. Of late, the right’s anti-LGBTQ sentiments have been redirected into legislation aimed not just at blocking transgender athletes from participating in sports, but overall, restricting access to gender-affirming medical care.
O’Callaghan described working with a junior high school student who had survived a suicide attempt. Their parents (the student uses they/them pronouns) had reached out to him, and over a three- to four-month period, their situation slowly improved to the point they were ready to come out. Despite living in a small, conservative town, they’ve fully transitioned.
Of all the people he’s heard from, one of the first emails he received stands out. A father whose child had recently come out wrote O’Callaghan. In his email, the father confessed that he found this act so objectionable, “He basically disowned them,” he said. Upon hearing O’Callaghan’s story, the father had a change of heart—so much so, he was inspired to try and reconnect with his child. O’Callaghan didn’t hear from the father again. Whether they were able to reconcile, he doesn’t know.
But the thought—the hope—he might have been able to help this one family reconcile, just by being publicly honest with who he was, meant everything.
”That alone made coming out worth it,” he said.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.