Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why Can't the Church Be More Like the NFL?

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” 
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John 11:38-39, 43-44

When Ryan O’Callaghan was eleven years old he was absolutely certain of two things. He knew that he was gay and he knew that he could never tell anyone that truth about himself.

As a youngster growing up in Redlands, California, Ryan O’Callaghan heard older youth and adults speak of homosexuality in derogatory terms. He was pained by the slurs and the off color jokes. And it reinforced his conviction that he could never come out to anyone other than himself.

In high school he discovered football. He was good at it and it was the perfect way to hide his sexuality. No one could possibly think that a big football player was gay.

He added two more certainties. First, he would devote himself to football. It would be his life. And second, when his football career was over he would kill himself. 

He got a full scholarship to play football at the University of California and he excelled. He  won the Morris trophy as the best offensive lineman in the Pac-12. It meant a lot because it was not voted on by fans or coaches, but by the guys who had played defense against him.

He was drafted by the Patriots in the fifth round. It was great to be drafted, but he knew that as a fifth round draft choice he was not expected to make the team. The odds were against him. But he loved the Patriots’ single minded approach. Everything was about winning. There could be no distractions. Everyone had a job to do and it was all about doing your job.

He made the team.

But after some initial success a series of nagging injuries kept him out of action and eventually the Patriots released him.

Then Scott Pioli signed him to play for the Kansas City Chiefs. Pioli had worked for the Patriots before becoming the general manager of the Chiefs and he was familiar with O’Callaghan’s ability and work ethic.

After a very promising start, the old injuries resurfaced and it looked like O’Callaghan’s life was moving toward his final chapter. 

He became addicted to pain pills. They were supposed to mitigate the pain of his physical injuries and they also helped dull the deeper pain of hiding his true self from the world. 

He bought land outside of Kansas City and built a cabin where he planned to end his life. He had several guns in the cabin. All he needed to do was to pull the trigger.

At the same time, he was rehabbing a shoulder injury at the Chief’s complex with David Price, a physical trainer. It was one last attempt to resume his career. Price saw that O’Callaghan’s behavior was becoming increasingly erratic, which he believed was evidence of a drug problem. He convinced Ryan to see a counselor, Susan Wilson, who had worked with other athletes who had drug problems.

Eventually she realized that he was dealing with more than the drug issues. She helped him to come out to her about his sexuality. But he was still convinced that no one else in his life would be able to accept him and he still saw death as the only escape.

She persuaded him to test his assumption by telling someone who cared about him and seeing what the reaction would be. After giving it some thought, he decided that he would tell Scott Pioli, whom he considered to be a good friend.

He called Pioli and asked if they could meet to discuss a serious issue. In an excellent article in OutSports.com, Cyd Ziegler describes the conversation this way:
"He had built this up like he was coming in to tell me that maybe he had done something truly terrible," Pioli remembered.
O’Callaghan trudged into Pioli’s office the next day. After a hug and some small talk, O’Callaghan turned serious. He told Pioli he had been visiting with Wilson and had gotten "clean." It was good news to Pioli.
"I’ve got something else I’ve got to tell you," O’Callaghan said. At this point he was fighting back tears. Pioli’s mind raced, wondering if his player had harmed or killed someone.
 "I’m gay," O’Callaghan said.
 His private announcement was met with immediate support from the GM. Then:
"So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?" Pioli asked.
O’Callaghan looked at him, bewildered, 27 years of fear, anxiety and self-loathing meeting Pioli’s stare.
"Scott," O’Callaghan said, "I’m… gay."
Pioli acknowledged that and asked again if O’Callaghan had done something wrong.
"People like me are supposed to react a certain way, I guess," Pioli told Outsports. "I wasn’t minimizing what he was telling me, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. He built this up and built this up to the point where he said he was nearly suicidal. What Ryan didn’t know is how many gay people I’ve had in my life."
And in that moment Scott Pioli called Ryan O’Callaghan from death into life.

In John’s Gospel the author tells the story of Jesus and Lazarus as a parable. The meaning is deeper than any literal reading could reveal. Christ is the one who calls us from death into life, and that is precisely the work of the church. And it is the work to which we are called as Christians and as human beings.

The title of the blog is intentionally hyperbolic. The NFL is hardly the guardian of virtue and the reactions of church folks are often at least as open and accepting as Scott Pioloi was with Ryan O’Callaghan.

But the story reminds us how high the stakes are.

When the United Methodist Church, or any other church, tells its young people that because they are gay their lives will be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” that it is sinful for them to commit themselves to a relationship in the same way that heterosexuals take for granted, then we are part of that great sea of condemnation that makes gay kids feel like their lives are not worth living.

Ryan O’Callaghan has gone public with his personal journey because he wants to stop kids from killing themselves.

Jesus said, “Unbind him. Let him go.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


  1. Amen !!! Thanks for this redemptive narrative !! Gives hope in a place needing hope. God Bless, Bro. Larry, Retired Elder, La. Conf.,UMC. Age 80.

    1. Thank you, Brother Larry! Thank you for reading and for commenting. Blessings!

  2. A good quote from another site: "What is worse? Accepting your child's gender identity? Or burying them because you couldn't?
    Refuse to be your child's first bully.

    1. That is an incredibly moving, and sad, comment. Thank you.