As more research uncovers the lingering effects of concussions and former NFL players open up about the struggles they face after their careers, the topic of depression and suicide among former players continues to be broached in meaningful, important ways.
Recently, several former players talked with Jim Trotter of ESPN.com about their post-playing-career battles with depression. The number of retired NFL players who face this problem might surprise some folks.
"It'd be easier to start with which ones do not have depression," former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Aaron Taylor told Trotter. "Observationally, it's a significant percentage. It varies by degree, obviously, but everyone struggles."
Eddie "Boo" Williams, a former tight end for the New Orleans Saints, told a story about nearly taking his own life in which he lay across railroad tracks awaiting a train before a homeless couple helped him up:
What was going through my mind was, you know, taking myself out, ending my life. I felt like I was a big disappointment to people. I felt like I was less than a man because of the things I was doing and how I couldn't really provide for my family like I used to. It was tough feeling like you're 3-foot-nothing when you're 6'5'. I felt like I didn't have anybody to turn to [who could] understand the things I was going through. I was at the point that I just wanted to end it all.
Even for athletes with secure financial futures, the loss of identity that often accompanies the conclusion of an athletic career can be difficult to handle. When they dedicate much of their lives to a sport, losing that sport as an essential daily routine is, in many ways, like watching a part of themselves die.
"I had saved my money. I had done well. I had businesses that I had already started," former star running back Eddie George told Trotter. "But there was that void, a huge void, of: 'Man, what am I going to do tomorrow morning when I wake up?' It was pretty much, 'Who am I? I'm no longer an athlete.'"
Dwight Hollier, a former linebacker for the Miami Dolphins and the Indianapolis Colts, endured a similar struggle to George:
I didn't know what to do. I sulked. I withdrew. I isolated myself. I just kind of went into a hole. I didn't reach out. There's a stigma with men, with macho men, with athletes, about help-seeking behavior. But I think having conversations and opening up the dialogue has lowered that resistance, and people are reaching out. People are getting the assistance that they need.
Football forces the men who play the game to put up a facade. It is a testosterone-driven world where many players feel they can't show weakness or vulnerability. It takes a great toll on the body and—for players who have suffered multiple concussions and the aftermath of those injuries—the mind. It requires a singular focus and dedication.
The NFL isn't a sport; it is a life, and leaving it behind can be difficult on many levels.
Thankfully, the league is creating more and more programs to aid those former players who have experienced head trauma or suffer from depression, and the discussion about former players dealing with such serious side effects is no longer being ignored. It's getting the attention, and sympathy, it deserves.