I’m not building a cabin. I’m building a crypt.
From the introduction to My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, Ryan O’Callaghan and Cyd Zeigler hook the reader in while pulling no punches. The book outlines the story – to this point – of Ryan O’Callaghan, a former NFL offensive lineman with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. The introduction is set during the NFL lockout. With some time on his hands and some money in the bank, thanks to signing a “big payday” with the Chiefs, O’Callaghan has bought some property and is building a cabin.
On this particular day he has two companions working on the land. One is his high school friend Brian, and the other is Dustin Colquitt, the Kansas City punter. After working on the property for a good bit of the day, Colquitt has the idea of buying some algae-eating fish for the three-acre pond on the property. When he and Brian hop in a truck to head to the store, O’Callaghan is finally left to himself, and the reader is introduced to the darkness within the NFL player building to the surface. The time alone enables O’Callaghan to get deeper into the beers, deeper into the painkillers, and deeper into the true meaning of the property with the reader:
The time is coming when I will finally use one of those guns on my property. My injuries are mounting. Chiefs coach Todd Haley already has a role in taking away my starting position, a mixture of superstition and his tiff with our general manager, Scott Pioli, who brought me over from the New England Patriots. I figure I have at least a few years left in the NFL, though...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.
I’m not building a cabin, I’m building a crypt.
While at its heart My Life on the Line is the story of one NFL player’s journey, in truth it is a story told over multiple tracks. There is the story of O’Callaghan’s youth, when he was a child growing up in Northern California, cognizant of his sexuality while being surrounded by men in his family who showed, in O’Callaghan’s words, “what seemed like a deep-rooted contempt for gay men.” O’Callaghan, even at this young age, knows that he is gay, but is already starting to overcompensate to hide his identity, fearful of the reaction that would take place should he open up about who he is.
That led O’Callaghan, in part, to the gridiron. It would be his cover. His “beard,” as he termed it. As long as I played football, it would be my beard masking my loneliness. Busting my ass to succeed at the most popular sport in America was going to be a lot of work. If I could continue to graduate to the next level of this sport, as macho of a sport as it was, I would keep my cover.
So O’Callaghan started playing the game, and discovered two things early on: First, he was pretty good at it. Second, the sport, coupled with playing the role of the asshole with the “asshole aura” around him, no one would question his sexuality. Thanks to an impressive showing at a University of California football camp, O’Callaghan earns a scholarship to the Pac-12 school and as he views it, an extension of his life:
During my senior season, what spun around in my head was what to do after football. I owned my first rifle when I was just twelve. Guns were a part of my life. They were in our house, in my closet, and I knew how to use them. I had been trained at a very young age how to care for a firearm, how to use it correctly, and how to defend myself with it. My father taking me on hunting excursions was only part of my exposure to guns. Their presence in our lives was part and parcel of being an O’Callaghan. I figured even before I got to Cal that some day, when football was over, I’d need to take one of those guns and put a bullet in my head.
I guess some people talk about killing themselves in broad terms and never really mean it. I meant it. I didn’t want to die, to be sure. Graduating from high school, the way I looked at it, Cal football would keep me alive for the next five years. I’d get everything I possibly could out of the experience. I’d have as much fun as I could while always looking over my shoulder. And then it would all be over.
O’Callaghan’s story does not end at Cal, as you probably know. It turns out that he is good enough to hear his name called on draft weekend, later than he expected, but by the New England Patriots. O’Callaghan’s time at Cal coincided with the Aaron Rodgers years, and the offensive lineman did enough to merit a draft selection. But O’Callaghan also got his first true taste of the darkness that lies away from the field while in college. Some injuries and surgeries exposed him to both the rehabilitation process, and the medication process. O’Callaghan began his pattern of self-medication, both with prescription drugs and recreational drugs and alcohol, in earnest while in college and this is a big part of how his story unfolds.
How that story unfolds is best told through the words of O’Callaghan and Zeigler, who do a tremendous job weaving together the various strands of O’Callaghan’s life in the NFL. From balancing life as a rookie and trying to hide his secret, to relying on football as his beard and doing everything he can to stay healthy, O’Callaghan and Zeigler take the reader through the darkness away the field, how the NFL nearly drove O’Callaghan to that early grave he was determined he was destined for, and ultimately saved him from his personal destruction. For it would be members of the Chiefs’ organization who would finally break through to him, and pull him back from the brink of disaster.
This is an important work, at a very important time. It is true that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but I am willing to make an exception in this case. On the cover of this work is a quote from Congressman Joe Kennedy III that reads: “Ryan O’Callaghan will change lives, save lives; and make the path ahead that much smoother for those who bravely follow in his footsteps.”
That is a spot-on assessment.
This book is a must read for a number of reasons, and for a number of people. For young athletes – young people – struggling with their own sexuality and self-identity. For older athletes or professionals who are wondering about revealing their true selves and what it could mean for them professionally or personally. For those dealing with their own drug or alcohol addictions, or dealing with family members or friends with those struggles. Perhaps most importantly, this book is for family members and even parents of people who might be in similar shoes to O’Callaghan’s. To know that what they say and do even during a child’s formative years can have a huge and lasting impact on them as they grow.
This book will help people, it will change lives, and it is one that all should read.
If you are LGBTQ and considering suicide, The Trevor Project is there to help. You can visit their Web site or call their hotline at 866-488-7386.