Analysis

NFL trailblazer Carl Nassib made enduring impact on nonprofit The Trevor Project

Tune in to NFL Network after Thursday Night Football on Dec. 23 for the latest episode of NFL 360, which will also provide an in-depth look at the work two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora is doing through The Uprise -- a football program serving athletes from struggling Nigerian neighborhoods.

Former NFL offensive lineman Ryan O'Callaghan heard Carl Nassib's announcement back in June and immediately felt surprised.

O'Callaghan spent his entire football career hiding his sexual orientation. He knew a lot of other gay players who never disclosed theirs, either, but Nassib, the Las Vegas Raiders defensive end who came out to the world in an Instagram post, broke the mold. O'Callaghan was grateful for Nassib's courageous message, along with the $100,000 donation Nassib was making to an organization that has long been helping the LGBTQ+ community.

As the first active NFL player to come out as gay, Nassib immediately had a huge platform to reach people, and he used it to bring more attention to The Trevor Project, a non-profit that offers vital support to young LGBTQ+ people, including crisis intervention, suicide prevention services and resources and guidance targeting mental health issues. Nassib opened doors for others to walk through with that social media post -- and he did just as much to raise the awareness around this particular organization.

The NFL matched Nassib with a $100,000 donation of its own. Traffic on The Trevor Project's website spiked by 350 percent in the days following Nassib's announcement, and the organization is well represented in a feature on Nassib's influence that will air Dec. 23 after Thursday Night Football on NFL Network's NFL 360.

"The Trevor Project really has had a big presence in our community for a long time," said O'Callaghan, whose six-year career included stints with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to 2011. "They're serving a critical need. You can look up the statistics for depression and suicidal thoughts and actually committing suicide within the LGBTQ community, and it's way too high, especially compared to the average American. The Trevor Project has been there for a lot of people. Even back when I was closeted, I remember calling their hotline once."

One of the most eye-opening stats The Trevor Project illuminates is that LGBTQ+ youth who have at least one accepting adult figure in their life are up to 40 percent less likely to report making a suicide attempt. It's a fact that speaks to the isolation and despair that can come with hiding one's true self from the world. In fact, O'Callaghan started embracing football in high school because the sport provided useful cover for him when it came to protecting his own identity. By the time he was deep into his pro career -- and battling an addiction to painkillers -- he was so depressed that he openly admitted that "my plan was to end my life when football was over."

It's quite a contrast from the calm Nassib projected when he acknowledged his own sexual orientation. He'd already had a few conversations with officials at The Trevor Project about his upcoming decision, but even they were touched by how much impact he packed into that casual delivery. Kevin Wong, the vice president of communications at The Trevor Project, said the message was "so authentic to (Carl)" while adding that "suicide is the second-largest cause of death among LGBTQ young people, and they're four times more likely to attempt suicide (than the average American). They also face more rejection and bullying, and those are added stressors. When you have a celebrity say identity-defining things, it has an impact. You want to make sure your words are meaningful, and Carl's words had meaning."

The words meant a lot, as did the overwhelming response. Support came from inside the Raiders organization and outside, too, as Nassib's jersey became the league's top seller shortly after his announcement. That type of positive reaction helped The Trevor Project in ways that are crucial. The mere sight of a gay NFL player living openly creates so much optimism that, as Wong said, "When you see somebody talk about their truth, it makes you feel better about yourself."

To O'Callaghan, this is critical progress. The idea of telling somebody he was gay began to consume him in his teenage years and manifested itself in different forms. He tried to show his toughness by bullying kids in high school, when he'd literally walk down hallways shoving fellow students aside. Years later, he spent numerous sleepless nights dwelling on possible scenarios that could compromise his secret, such as how he'd handle a woman flirting with him in front of his NFL buddies at a bar.

O'Callaghan needed a lifeline like The Trevor Project long before he ever sought it out. If not for a compassionate trainer with the Kansas City Chiefs -- a man named David Price -- O'Callaghan actually might have taken his own life. Price noticed O'Callaghan's erratic behavior and referred him to a trusted psychologist. O'Callaghan's intense depression had reached a point that such an option felt like his only chance to save his soul.

O'Callaghan went to therapy. He opened up to the psychologist and eventually told her about his sexual orientation. That decision later led to conversations with his family and Scott Pioli, the Chiefs' general manager at the time. Those people, along with other teammates and friends, offered O'Callaghan the very thing he thought he'd never receive as an out gay man: unwavering support.

The people who work at The Trevor Project hear these types of stories every day. They hear kids struggling with their identities, fretting about potential consequences and contemplating the notion that it's better to die with a secret than live with one's truth. Every young person in the world spends their formative years wondering how they're going to fit in. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, that question comes with a concern that such a place might never exist.

This is especially relevant in sports, even more so in football. The common belief for many years was that an NFL locker room wouldn't be accepting of a gay man, given how long it had taken for a player to be out, and given some of the stereotypes of the LGBTQ community held within popular culture. Based on all accounts over the past six months, the Raiders are proving that is not the case.

The NFL now has a new face for progress. The Trevor Project has more eyeballs on it and more opportunities to connect with young people who continue fighting their own battles. Wong said that every donation or act of support that comes to the organization is vital because it shows a high level of compassion: "There are many people who are so moved by what Carl did that they want to show action."

That means those same people become allies to the LGBTQ+ community and the struggles of its young people. O'Callaghan echoed that sentiment.

"Someone like Carl coming out normalizes being gay for a lot of youth," O'Callaghan said. "It gives a lot of kids someone they can point to and say, 'Hey, he's gay, too. I bet you wouldn't make fun of him.' It does go a long way."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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