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Former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan talks Super Bowl, gay NFL players, and what will happen to Bill Belichick

Former NFL football player Ryan OCallaghan portrait on the field tom brady
Katie Luther; Courtesy Ryan O'Callaghan, with permission of New England Patriots

O’Callaghan said that we’re reaching a point in society when younger people don't feel the need to play football only as a cover like he did to hide his sexuality.

For those of us who are football fans, the Super Bowl can be a bittersweet moment. The dawning of the big day means that the most anticipated game of the season will be played. It’s also the last game of the year, so schedules are clear on Sunday afternoon.

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I confess that I’m not as big of a football fan as I used to be. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, I just assumed that the Steelers would always be in the Super Bowl since they won four during the decade. As a kid, I’d play football by myself in our backyard. I was Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and I’d scramble around in the snow, and pretend to throw a pass, then throw the football in the air, and dive-catch it like wide receiver Lynn Swann.

Both Bradshaw and Swann are in the Hall of Fame. I am not. Although, I was friends with Franco Harris for a brief time, and he invited me to his Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, in the summer of 1990. That remains a high point of my life. Franco was the MVP of Super Bowl IX in 1975. It was the Steelers' first Super Bowl win. He rushed for 158 yards, which was a game record at that time.

As I got older, my love for the Steelers hasn’t diminished, but I don’t follow the game half as much as I used to. Life and other activities pushed football off the top burners. I’ll still watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, and probably root for the 49ers because of the amazing story of the team’s quarterback Brock Purdy.

I always look forward to talking with retired NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan who came out after he retired. He played for the New England Patriots during their heyday in the mid-2000s and retired in 2011 after playing for this year’s AFC Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2019 he wrote a terrific book, albeit searing and graphic, My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life.

While I only pretended to play in the Super Bowl in the small backyard of my house on Marmion Drive in Pittsburgh, Ryan actually played in the big game when the Patriots played against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. The Patriots shockingly lost that game which was their only loss in a near-perfect season.

I asked O’Callaghan what that was like, first going to the Super Bowl, and then the game not turning out like you'd hoped.

“I mean, honestly, getting there is the biggest battle. That's the toughest part,” he explained during a recent conversation. “The season now is longer than it was when I played, so I can only imagine exactly how the players' bodies feel – it’s hard on you. But this week and last, they’ve had two weeks to recover and get ready.”

What was that week before the big game like? To many of us, it’s just an overload on the media’s part, and this year we have the specter of Taylor Swift hovering over the whole game. “It's a very long week, so they arrived early in Las Vegas to begin prep and because they need to be in town for media day, along with practicing and getting acclimated and everything else.”

O’Callaghan said that he assumes the teams are staying off the main strip to cut down on distractions. “Don’t get me wrong, it's a fun week. It's really what you make of it. You know, I know, Coach Reid (Kansas City Chiefs head coach) is always about avoiding distractions and you know, not getting involved in the parties, and if you have people coming down with friends and family, you have to let them do their own thing.”

“I think that was really the big thing that was preached to us by Coach Belichick (the long-time New England Patriots coach) when we played. just go there and do your job and don't worry about everything else.”

For O’Callaghan, a big distraction was his sexuality. I asked him if that affected all the excitement around the Super Bowl. “Yeah. I always say that my sexuality was the big cloud over the first 30 years of my life. It was genuinely hard to truly enjoy a lot of things and take in the significance of any moment. Obviously, I realized how big the Super Bowl is and everything, but at the moment, I was just kind of going through the motions.”

Speaking of gay players, after Carl Nassib retired, the NFL was left with no out players, will that change next year or anytime soon? “Well, there's nobody who's openly gay,” he pointed out. “But yeah, there's guys that are closeted and just living their life and their teammates, if they know, accept them. They’re just not public about it, but they are there.”

And is it fear of the players who don’t know or the fans that prevents them from coming out? “I think that's an internal fear. I don't talk to many people these days who've had a lot of negative reactions when they've come out. You know, all my teammates, when I came out, were more than accepting. So yeah, I don't doubt that someone could come out on really any team and do just fine. Like I said, there are guys who are living their lives and doing just fine with their teammates. That’s important to remember.”

O’Callaghan added that we’re reaching a point in society where younger people don't feel the need to play football as a cover anymore like he did.

“So many of this generation don’t have to act macho and hide. Young people are just fine being who they are. And if they want to do theater, they do theater, I’m sort of generalizing here and I hate going for a stereotype, but that perception that we had when we were younger is going away.”

“In the past, a lot of guys would play football, like I did, so they could fit in. Well, you don't have to do that anymore for the most part. So that's naturally going to lead to less closeted players. And I think that's a good thing.”

For O’Callaghan, he sees it firsthand when he travels around to talk to high school students. “I typically start by asking everyone in the audience, ‘Who has a gay relative?’ and half of them will raise their hands. And I always bring up if one of your classmates came out: ‘Would you have a problem with it?’ And then basically, I don't think anyone's ever raised their hand.”

I couldn’t let O’Callaghan go without asking him the question that is perplexing football fans across America, and that is what does he think will happen to his former Patriots coach? Belichick, one of the NFL’s greatest coaches of all time, left the New England Patriots late last year, and everyone is taking bets as to where he will end up next.

“Well, he definitely doesn't need to coach for money,” O’Callaghan joked. “You know, I think as a player, you play football, basically your whole life and then when it's done, you're like, ‘Okay, what do I do?’ Even as a coach, you reach a point, like, this is what I've done. This is my identity. What do I do next?”

“I think it's hard to just take a step back and just get out of it. I think it's up to Bill to figure out how many more years he wants to coach? At the very least, I think we all know he'd be a fabulous front-office consultant because he’s an exceptional evaluator of talent. You know, if a team hired a young coach, and they want to give him a mentor type thing, that might be good for Bill, but ultimately it’s up to him.”

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.