Depression, Suicidal Ideation Plagues NFL Players

It’s hard to imagine at the height of an outstanding National Football League Career, as one catches the winning pass in the end zone, that there may come a time that the same football player is wondering what the purpose of his life is, or even is contemplating suicide.

But many say that’s exactly what is happening. Being a professional football player is all-encompassing — the action, the schedule, the fanfare, the high of the game, and, of course, the rigorous exercise involved, which is a known mood-booster. When one is injured or retires, and the stadium lights grown dim, and there’s no roar of a crowd, it may be very hard for the player to reintegrate into society as a retired football player, and that transition from fame may prove more difficult than many are able to comprehend.

Most people aren’t faced with their careers coming to an end at age 35 or 40, but that’s often the case for professional football players. Fans move on to the new, up and coming players, leaving the retired football player wondering if anything about him matters other than the game. And if there’s no game, what is there?

It’s a situation that many players are teams are opening up about and beginning to address. Eddie “Boo” Williams opened up to ESPN about how life deteriorated after his four year stint with the New Orleans Saints. He’d had the same routine, fan base, and limelight for so long — not to mention he loved what he did everyday — that when that ended, his life spiraled out of control. Many studies have suggested that the head injury from repeated impacts may actually cause the player’s brains to change chemistry, leading to increased risk of depression and suicide.

Williams said it all came to a head after he had been kicked out of his house after drifting into depression and womanizing. He found himself driving to railroad tracks for several days, and one day, he climbed upon them and laid down.

“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-foot-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.”

Williams was saved when a homeless couple found him and talked him off the tracks, but many others have not been so fortunate. The NFL has seen too many of its players take their lives in recent years, among them Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Paul Oliver. Many others are saved when concerned relatives or friends come forward and demand they get help. Larry Burns is the director of the Crosby Centers, a mental-health based facility that helps many with cognitive and mood disorders, including many ex-NFL and current NFL players. He says the depression they face is debilitating and real.

“Several guys have come in here that have had ideations of suicide. They have two children, a beautiful wife, and the wife walks in the bedroom and he’s got a gun in his mouth and he’s 28 years old. It’s countless. It’s not one, it’s not two, it’s many. Individuals who’ve had guns lined up and writing, telling his buddies, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore,’ and [the friends] go and break into his house and find out he’s got guns and he’s looking to plan the end of his life.”

Fortunately, there is help, such as Crosby Center, but the first step is for men who are conditioned to be “macho” to accept that they need help and reach out. The fact that football players are starting to talk about the pain and the incidence is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction.