Most of us have little inhibition when it comes to expressing our feelings to friends or family regarding any personal issues we may be dealing with. Letting it all out is therapeutic. Now, imagine when negative thoughts come around and you have no option to slow down to talk to someone about what is challenging you, or seek an outlet to help put your thoughts into perspective. Outside pressures are forcing you to continue performing at a high-level both at your job and in your relationships while internalizing those thoughts and feelings.
Welcome to the NFL. Unfortunately, professional football players and athletes alike are taught from a young age to suppress anything that may be perceived as a sign of weakness on and off the field. When players reach the big league, those pressures increase because millions have invested in their ability to perform and remain physically and mentally strong. After all, a sign of weakness will likely cost you your job.
Needless to say, some players need more attention than others when it comes to managing their mental health. Although support and resources have improved in the NFL, it is a far cry away from where it ought to be. Due to that, some players will continue to fall through the cracks of the system and continue to make headlines with their troubled behavior, while others will get the help they need and use their public platform to spread mental health awareness in hopes of eliminating the stigma that continues to thrive across the league.
Read below for 15 NFL players that you did not know lived with disorders and what (if anything) they are doing about it.
16 15. Virgil Green
From time to time, the NFL’s decision to suspend a player for violating the league’s substance abuse policy is a questionable one. In respect to Broncos tight end Virgil Green, it sounds downright wrong as the very substance he was suspended for using, is the one he needs to treat his mental health. Green has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and was suspended without pay for his 2011 rookie season’s first four games for using a prescribed ADHD medication that he had not received league approval for. For a guy that was punished for trying to stay on-top of his mental health regimen, he took the suspension surprisingly well. Virgil even apologized via Twitter to his teammates, the organization, family and friends for not seeking prior approval, which would have avoided a suspension altogether.
It is possible that Green didn’t realize it was a banned substance, or simply forgot to seek prior-approval, however, it’s worth considering that due to the stigmatic nature of mental health across the league, maybe he just didn’t want his peers and coaches to know of his mental health issue and see it as a vulnerability.
15 14. Jamaal Charles
When you think of running back Jamaal Charles, you’ll likely think of his feats as a three-time Pro Bowler, two-time ACL tear(er), and now as a free agent following the Kansas City Chiefs cutting him to free up $6.2 million in cap space. Not many of you know Charles as a kid whose childhood was plagued with a learning disability that followed him well into his adult years because he flat-out didn’t want to speak about it. He just recently felt comfortable enough to share his learning struggles publicly by giving a moving speech at the opening of the 2015 Special Olympics. That moment further pushed Charles outside of his comfort zone and he chose to further share his story on a different platform. With the help of author Sean Jensen, Charles’ story is told as the fourth book of the Middle School Rules children book series.
13 13. Arian Foster
Retiring last season, four-time Pro Bowl star running back Arian Foster battled substance abuse issues throughout his NFL career. He was struggling with keeping up with the public facade that follows being a pro football player; physically, financially, and mentally strong. Submissive to his ego, he began to self-medicate his depression with alcohol, which provided a temporary escape but ultimately worsened his symptoms. His turning point was when his then-wife asked for a divorce. Despite not being able to save his marriage, Foster was no longer afraid to ask for the help he needed.
Following his retirement, he was made the first inaugural member of Project 375 co-founded by New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall to promote awareness and funding for mental health issues. In addition, Foster is playing consultant for startup company PeerWell. Their recently launched app ReHab helps athletes who are recovering from knee and hip replacements. 30-year-old Foster has had 14 surgeries to date, and understands the importance of controlling anxiety associated with a major surgical procedure. It's something he wished he had more help with during his time in the league.
12 12. Titus Young
The most recent news involving former NFL wide receiver Titus Young is his arrest in January 2016 for which he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and felony battery following a street fight in Los Angeles. During the time of his arrest, Young was supposedly completing his time as an inpatient at a San Diego Mental Health facility, which was part of his sentencing for attacking his attorney and four other patients in May 2015. His battle with mental health began following a concussion in 2011.
He was prescribed the antidepressant Seroquel, which is used to treat bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. Without his medication, Young experiences hyper-vigilance, mood swings, and emotional instability that specialists conclude are a result of repeated blows to the head that Young endured during as a football player. If convicted for the assault, he could face up to four years in prison plus an additional five years due to his priors.
11 11. Tim Tebow
Now a baseball outfielder for the New York Mets, former Heisman trophy winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has a family history of learning disorders. His father and brother have both struggled with their abilities to read and process information. Tebow’s learning disorder: dyslexia, which he was diagnosed with in elementary school. To succeed, Tebow adopted alternative learning styles that took a more hands-on approach (shying away from intensive reading) that allowed him to excel on-field. Although Tebow confesses that he needs a little extra time to memorize plays, he gets it done, and done exceptionally as his earlier football career mirrors. Tebow stresses, “There’s a lot of people that have certain processing disabilities and it has nothing to do with your intelligence, which I think is a big misconception that people have.”
Today, Tebow schedules speaking engagements with dyslexic children to share his experiences. Oh, and fun fact, while at the University of Florida, Tebow was permitted an extra 30 minutes to finish exams because of his dyslexia- he declined the extra time.
10 10. Charles Haley
Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Charles Haley used to be the only player in NFL history with five Super Bowl rings (Brady just matched Haley with his Super Bowl LI win). Now, he is known as one of few NFL players (past and present) that uses their celebrity to share of their experiences with poor mental health. Haley is bipolar and was diagnosed in 2003 (three years after having retired) and admittedly stresses that his diagnosis should have been made much sooner as he ignored many earlier signs of the illness. He recalls constantly feeling as though someone was going to attack him, and responded by attacking first. Being on the attack, caused him to lose his job with the San Francisco 49ers because he was too difficult to handle and would constantly lash out at his teammates and coaches.
Today, he mentors kids and professional athletes as a mental health advocate. Adding author to his resume, Haley’s book Fear No Evil: Tackling Quarterbacks and Demons on My Way to the Hall of Fame is a humbling read as he shares of his family’s and self-forgiveness.
9 9. Martavis Bryant
In the 2016 season, when Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant received a 10-game suspension for failing to appear for drug tests, fans were evidently outraged. The young 25-year-old receiver’s character was harshly questioned and football fans alike wanted to know why such an talented player would throw their career away over the use of a recreational drug, especially having already completed a four-game suspension the prior season. Those questions were eventually addressed by not Bryant himself, but by his agent, who informed the public that Bryant would self-medicate with marijuana to treat an ongoing battle with depression.
It has now been over a year since commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended Bryant, and while he waits for a decision to be made regarding his reinstatement, he has spent some free time with the New York Giants All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham Jr, in which he described their conversation as “legendary” on Instagram. Although we have heard very little regarding his battle with mental health from the mouth of Bryant himself, the pictures he’s been recently sharing on his social media feeds shed light on a hopeful future as he continues to train in preparation for the 2017 season.
8 8. Brandon Marshall
Recently signed to the New York Giants, wide receiver Brandon Marshall is one of few active NFL players that uses his public platform to share his experiences with mental health issues. Prior to being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011, Marshall was known for his conflicts on and off the field; heated disputes with teammates, violent altercations with his wife, and police encounters. These incidents led Marshall to spend three months in an outpatient program at MacLean Treatment Center where he received his diagnosis.
Marshall realized that his purpose was bigger than the game of football and that he wanted to end the stigma of mental health in and around the league. He took that ambition and co-founded Project 375 with his wife Michi Marshall, which helps promote awareness of mental health, initiates discussion panels/ speaking engagements to end the stigma, and raise funding for treatment.
7 7. Aldon Smith
Aldon Smith is another player that isn’t a stranger to league suspensions. Currently, as an outside linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, Smith has battled mental health issues that have surfaced during several encounters with the law. In 2014, Smith was suspended for nine games due to an incident that took place at the Los Angeles International Airport in which he was described as being belligerent and uncooperative with a TSA agent that reported Smith confessed to be carrying a bomb. Although the charges were eventually dropped due to an insufficient amount of evidence, from that point forward, not even Smith himself can deny his poor decision making and reckless behavior were signs of a deeper problem. Failing to tackle his mental health issues, Smith was released from the San Francisco 49ers in August of 2015 when he was arrested for an alleged hit and run. And the story remains the same, because as recent as March 9th, 2017, Smith was detained for driving under the influence.
Although he has never publicly announced that he is struggling with a mental illness, his personal history makes it hard to ignore. If somehow Smith is reinstated into the league for the 2017 season, his agent may need to negotiate a trade on his behalf, because with the Raiders moving to Vegas, that is the last environment an individual who is struggling with their mental health should be.
6 6. Terry Bradshaw
Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Hall-of-Famer and current co-host of FOX NFL Sunday, Terry Bradshaw spends his downtime as a speaker expressing to his audiences what is means to achieve success both mentally and physically. No one can deny that Bradshaw is THE guy to teach lessons of mental perseverance as he was diagnosed with clinical depression back in 1999. He has been on medication ever since to balance the serotonin in his brain, which helps him immensely in leading an upbeat life.
The medication doesn’t do all the work, however, as Bradshaw still needs to remind himself every day that sharing his feelings with his support system is part of his ongoing treatment. He describes the end of his football career in one way as his escape from the stigma surrounding mental illness in the league; allowing him to disclose his pre-game anxieties and substance (alcohol) abuse struggles attempting to self-medicate.
5 5. Barret Robbins
Former Pro Bowl center for the Oakland Raiders, Barret Robbins is infamous for skipping the Super Bowl in 2003. His reason for skipping? Robbins convinced himself that his team had already won and left the team hotel in San Diego to begin boozing in celebration. Now, what is interesting to know is that prior to playing Super Bowl hookie, Robbins's family along with the Raiders organization knew of his mental health struggles. He was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder when attending TCU.
In an interview with HBO’s Real Sports, Robbins shared that prior to his diagnosis, he used to deal with his mood swings by consuming alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and steroids. Even more interesting, is that despite skipping the Super Bowl, Robbins managed to regain his starting position with the Raiders the following season. Ultimately, he was released for testing positive to steroids. And today, Robbins in an inpatient at a mental health facility in which he was sent to following an arrest in August 2016 for having publicly punched a mother and her daughter in Florida.
4 4. Stanley Wilson II
The son of former Bengals running back Stanley Wilson Sr. and former Lions defensive back Stanley Wilson II is continuing down a dark path as a result of his mental health issues as he was arrested in February 2017 for forcing himself into a stranger’s home and the police finding him completely naked upon their arrival. Prior to February, Wilson II had already been arrested twice for similar accounts in which he was found trespassing naked on neighboring properties. There has been no public announcement regarding a mental health diagnosis, however, these arrests are a clear indication that Wilson II needs treatment.
Since leaving the league, he has tested positive for methamphetamine, which violated the conditions of his release from jail following one of the earlier arrests for trespassing and indecent exposure. With the failed drug test, he was ordered to participate in a drug rehab program for which he has only attended one session to-date. Hopefully things turn around for Wilson II before he ends up like his father who is currently serving 22 years for stealing 130,000$ worth of property in 1999 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his trial.
3 3. Tyler Sash
CTE has been found in former New York Giants NFL safety Tyler Sash, who passed away at the age of 27 of an accidental overdose of pain medications in his Iowa home on September 8, 2015. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma. It has been associated to memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression and dementia, and may not rear its ugly head until months or years after the trauma.
Sash was cut by the Giants after his fifth concussion in the the 2013 season. Returning to his hometown, he was arrested in 2014 for public intoxication following a police pursuit while driving a motorized scooter. Despite being a graduate of the University of Iowa and his celebrity status within his community, he had a very difficult time gaining employment post-NFL tenure due to his inability to remain focused on the job. Leading up to his death, Sash was taking strong pain medication to treat a shoulder injury that required surgery, which ultimately led to his passing. His family donated his brain for CTE research.
2 2. Jovan Belcher
Another former NFL player that suffered from the brain condition CTE is Jovan Belcher. Belcher was a 25-year-old linebacker for the Kansas City chiefs that committed suicide at Arrowhead Stadium in front of his coaching staff, a short-time after murdering his 22-year old-fiancee Kasandra Perkins with whom he shared a child. Belcher and Perkins had been introduced through Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, whose wife was a first cousin of Perkins. Autopsy reports detailed that Belcher had double the legal driving alcohol limit in his body. Now, one can only assume what was the reasoning-force behind the murder-suicide, but there is no denying that Belcher’s personal history was riddled with mental health, anger-management, and substance abuse issues.
While in university, and on more than one account, it was reported that Belcher would react in an overtly angry and violent manner to what would normally be considered trivial relationship issues. To add, he used performance enhancing drugs that increased his impulsiveness and decreased his ability to think rationally. The incident sparked league-wide conversations on increasing their responsibility in providing support for a player’s mental health.
1 1. Davone Bess
Former NFL wide receiver Davone Bess experienced his share of traumatic experiences in his childhood that would undoubtedly impair the mental health of an individual if left untreated. At only 10 years old, Bess witnessed his uncle’s murder at a birthday party. Several years later, he lost his scholarship to Oregon State when he was sentenced to almost two years in a juvenile detention center after allowing a friend to put stolen items in his car. With his troubled past behind him, Bess graduated from the University of Hawaii as a star on the gridiron, and earned an active spot on the Miami Dolphins roster.
Sadly, while with the Dolphins, his family hospitalized him in 2014 against his will following a series of bizarre and violent behavior that led to six police officers restraining him. Before the erratic behavioral episodes began, Bess had no prior psychiatric history and wasn’t using medication. A month after his hospitalization, Miami traded Bess to the Cleveland Browns without disclosing a word of his mental health struggles, which resulted in much scrutiny towards the organization as many believe the Dolphins abandoned Bess at his time of greatest need. It didn’t take long before the Browns placed him on the non-football illness list due to emotional distress and eventually releasing him. The 31-year old Bess was sentenced at the beginning of March to one year of supervised probation after pleading no contest to an endangerment charge in Arizona.
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