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Rocky’s World: Talking mental health and football

It’s time to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health.

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Kansas City Chiefs v Washington Football Team Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

You will be hard-pressed to find a more competitive environment than professional sports. By default, the NFL is designed to seek out an opposing player's weaknesses and exploit them. So it's no wonder that players might be hesitant to speak up about their struggles out of fear that they may be used against them.

But over the past month, multiple players have done just that, coming out publically to discuss their mental health.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley and Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson recently decided to temporarily step away from football and address issues they were/are dealing with. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. has also spoken openly about his mental health struggles.

“I was going through some things, man,” he recalled. “In life, you know, people think these NFL players are bulletproof or whatever. We’re taught growing up to just hold it in and go on about your day — and keep distractions away. But I got to the point where I was like, ’I can’t shake this,’ and I had to tell my coaches [and] the people that I work with.”

When you hear people talk about their mental health, there are recurrent themes that present themselves. Some of these are fear, anxiety and pain.

In his sit-down interview with Jay Glazer, Lane Johnson said that his anxiety gets so bad at times that he vomits blood.

Former Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was a guest on The Athletic's Football Show Thursday morning when he spoke about anxiety. It's an intelligent interview that I encourage you to check out.

In the interview, Schwartz spoke candidly about how the worst part of his week was playing football on Sundays because he was so worried that he would make a mistake and let somebody past him and that they would injure Patrick Mahomes. He calls Mahomes the savior of Kansas City and says that the pressure to be the one to keep him safe is nearly unbearable.

There are a million different reasons why a person may be struggling with their mental health, but there is one thing that is an absolute fact — life is hard.

Scratch that.

Life is beyond hard. Sometimes life can feel impossible.

Men have a hard time speaking about mental health, especially their own mental health. Growing up, we are taught to exude a sense of invincibility.

If we are injured, we are told that we are okay and to walk it off or rub some dirt in it.

If we are scared of doing something, we're told that we don't have the guts to do it.

Think about that for a second.

From an early age, men are told that to ignore and push through the pain. And that if we show fear, then we lack what makes us a man.

Many NFL players come from neighborhoods where the greatest sin a boy can commit is being soft. You have to act like you are hard 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I used to manage a group home in Kansas City. We had an 11-year-old boy who we called Snoop. He weighed maybe 70 pounds soaking wet. He was sent to us because he had carjacked a lady using an airsoft pistol on her way to work. He then drove the car to his grade school and dumped the weapon in the school dumpster. The police were called when his teacher saw Snoop pull into the parking lot, park the car and head into class.

I know this is going to sound strange, but Snoop was a sweet kid. He was always willing to help with chores and was polite when he addressed you — that is, unless you were one of his peers and you crossed him.

Then a switch would flip, and Snoop would become aggressive. It wasn't that Snoop liked getting in fights. It was a defense mechanism. He hurt others before they could hurt him.

The neighborhood that Snoop came from is the same type of neighborhood where many NFL players have grown up, where a premium is placed on physical toughness. Emotional intelligence is not in the vernacular.

There is immense pressure for NFL players to succeed. Not only for their teams and fan bases but also their loved ones. In many cases, these players are hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families.

As Chiefs fans, we have seen firsthand the effects of mental illness.

On December 1, 2012, I was driving down I-70 on my way home from work. As I passed by the Truman Sports Complex, I saw police sirens in the parking lot. I turned on the radio, and they reported an active gunman at Arrowhead Stadium. Later we would find out that the gunman in question was Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher.

Belcher confronted his girlfriend Kendra Perkins, shot her, and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium. After speaking to then-general manager Scott Pioli and then-head coach Romeo Crennel, he turned the gun on himself took his own life.

It was reported that moments before he pulled the trigger, Belcher said the following to Scott Pioli:

“You know that I’ve been having some major problems at home and with my girlfriend. I need help! I wasn’t able to get enough help. I appreciate everything you all have done for me with trying to help … but it wasn’t enough. I have hurt my girl already and I can’t go back now.”

Most situations will not end up like this. But being honest, most is not good enough. While the responsibility for what occurred that day will always be on the player, the Chiefs and the NFL share an obligation to do what they can to support and offer services to their players.

To their credit, the Chiefs have been proactive in this, hiring Dr. T (Shaun Tyrance) to counsel players on and off the field. When talking about Willie Gay's situation, Andy Reid credited Dr. T as part of why Gay has made progress in his situation.

“We’ve got Dr. T (Dr. Shaun Tyrance) here, which we’re glad we have, and so he’s able to talk to him and address the problem. I think that’s a beautiful thing. So many people keep this hidden and then disastrous things happen. I’m just glad he came forward with it.”

While licensed professionals are crucial to a person's journey to health, loved ones in their lives play an equally important role in supporting the person, which is why it's fantastic to see players like Tyreek Hill coming out publicly to defend their counterparts against uneducated views.

Addressing your mental health is not a sign of weakness; it takes a strong person to admit they are in pain.

Criticizing somebody for seeking help says more about you as a person than it does about the emotionally injured.

When somebody we love is suffering, our first reaction is to fix whatever is happening, but the brain is a complex and wild thing — often, there is nothing we can do to fix it.

But we can be present.

Sometimes when you're in a dark place and the world is beating you down, all you need is someone to stand beside you and say, "I know everything is bad right now, and I don't know how to make it better, but I'm here, and you're not alone."


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Live Online Chat

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.

SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline, 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)

Get general information on mental health and locate treatment services in your area. Speak to a live person, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.

For other mental health resources, visit:

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