There have been a lot of players who spent time in Foxboro who could be considered heroes.
But here’s one former member of the New England Patriots whose name you may not recognize but has shown considerable courage and is now a role model for many: Ryan O’Callaghan.
During his time at Gillette Stadium, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive lineman competed in relative anonymity, hoping only to keep Tom Brady upright so that the TV cameras don’t focus on him and the block he missed.
But since 2017, O’Callaghan has quietly become an influencer in the world of sports. That’s when he revealed he is gay, one of the few NFL players to come out.
And during last season, his autobiography, “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life,” was published. It explained how his secret and his drug addiction nearly drove him to suicide.
It’s an honest, emotional book, one that shows how far the world — especially the sporting world — has come on sexuality.
Growing up in Redding, Calif., O’Callaghan said he knew early on that he was gay. And he knew — absolutely, positively — that he could never tell anyone, never pursue his urges.
He describes his father as a “redneck,” a bigot. He recalls the pain he felt when his uncles and older male relatives made fun of gays at family gatherings.
He decided to play football as a way to prove he is masculine, and so that no one would ever think he is gay. He is big and athletic and good, so he vigorously pursued the sport, knowing it will help him hide his secret.
Football, he says, was his “beard.”
He played at the University of California at the same time as star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and performed well enough to be taken by the Patriots in the fifth round of the NFL draft.
But his secret haunted him, especially in the hyper-macho world of professional football.
He played in a Super Bowl but after three seasons and a slew of injuries, the Patriots released him. It turned out to be a fortunate move because the Kansas City Chiefs signed him to a big bonus.
In a powerful opening chapter, O’Callaghan tells how he used his bonus to buy a cabin near a lake, where he worked on projects, drank beer, popped painkillers, bought guns and went hunting — all in an effort to hide his sexuality.
“Once my NFL career is over, I’ll get in the truck, drive to the property, open this gun cabinet, and shoot myself in the head,” he writes in the closing of the chapter.
“I’m not building a cabin, I’m building a crypt.”
“Nobody wants a f---ing faggot around.”
Injuries and drugs and, of course, his secret, consume his life. Finally, a Chiefs executive recognizes O’Callaghan’s drug addiction and requires him to visit a clinical psychologist, who he at first hates. Eventually, he trusts her and she becomes the first person to hear his secret.
In a powerful scene, she hugs him as he weeps uncontrollably and says, “Ryan, that took a lot of courage.” And she assures him — and gives him hope — when she tells him he is not the first player to sit across from her and tell her he is gay.
It takes time but he eventually reveals his sexuality to others, including his parents. While his mother was all in, his father remained standoffish.
But O’Callaghan writes that one of the breakthrough days with his father came when his dad told him the new guy Ryan is seeing seems to be a good guy.
It’s a moment of acceptance, and love, he thought he would never see.
More acceptance comes at a Patriots reunion, after he publicly reveals he is gay. Many teammates he had worked so hard to keep his secret from embrace him, congratulate him, encourage him.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft takes O’Callaghan in his office and tells him how proud he is of him, how he will inspire others.
In other words, in Kraft’s estimation, and in mine, Ryan O’Callaghan can take his place among Patriot heroes.