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Rub Some Dirt On It

Football is hard. I hate it sometimes. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally tasking, and toughness is non-negotiable. On the defensive line, we like to say that we’re built a little bit different. We’re bigger than the average human with our lightest guy weighing 230 pounds and our shortest guy standing six feet tall. We have to eat more - way more - than everyone else to maintain our size. I’m talking upwards of 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day. Our schedule is different, too: alarms are set for before 6 AM and seven to eight hours per day are occupied solely by football. This game demands a lot from our bodies and livelihoods, and it takes even more. Yet, the thing that really separates us is intangible: our mentality. You do have to be a little bit different to put on pads and run into other large humans over and over again. You do have to be a little bit different to wake up at 6 AM when its freezing and you have two exams that day and are running on three hours of sleep. These aspects of life wear on us and, for however much we would like to act invincible, we are not. Getting physically beat up is one thing, and we are used to that, but mental strain is something that a football player is frequently unprepared to deal with and unable to acknowledge. Perhaps there is growing awareness about mental health issues among male athletes, but the age-old stigma of what it means to be a man and a male athlete still abounds. We are supposed to be tougher, mentally stronger, never meant to show weakness to our teammates or opponents, because by hiding it, we think we can control it or make it disappear.

Since the day I was born I’ve lived a blessed life. I have a fantastic, wonderful family, and a support system filled with people of the highest character. During my junior year of high school, my team made the state semi-finals in football. I got my first scholarship offer in December 2014, and by the end that year, I had twenty-eight schools to choose from. I committed to play football at Yale the summer before my senior year. My team then won the state championship, I knew where I was going to school while everyone else was stressing about college applications, and I had my first serious girlfriend. I felt like an absolute king. I went through the normal adjustment process my first year at Yale, but I was playing in games as a freshman, I was still dating my girlfriend, and I was studying at one of the greatest universities in the world. I was riding on cruise control. Last summer, I got in great football shape, hung out with my best friends, my family, and my girlfriend. I was prepared to come back to Yale for a great sophomore season. Then, after two and a half years of coasting, I came crashing down.

Four days before I was set to come back to New Haven, my girlfriend decided that she wanted us to take a break. I couldn’t (and can’t) blame her because she needed to do what was best for her and I understood that. The next week in August was our first contact practice of fall camp. I was playing well and felt great until I crashed helmet-to-helmet with a running back. Hard. I broke through the line, thought I was free to get the ball, and was completely caught off guard. The impact was unlike anything I’d ever felt. My head exploded. Immediately, I had a pounding headache and knew something was very wrong. I walked slowly off the field and took a knee, feeling dizzy, weak, and dazed. I’d never been diagnosed with a concussion before and sensed it might be my first. Later that day, the team doctor confirmed my premonition, and gave me a minimum recovery time of a week. I was told it would take even longer to work back to full go. I would now have to sit and watch as the progress I had made in my sport faded. Beyond these immediate concerns, I also worried about my future health. The brain is not designed to take the hits that one takes playing football, and many former players struggle greatly with mental and physical health issues. I was scared. I slowly unraveled. I couldn’t sit in on meetings because the screen hurt my head, so I sat in the locker room and tossed a tennis ball against the wall. I didn’t go out on the field at practice, but instead rested my head in a dark training room. I was lonely. Over the next two weeks my physical symptoms did not improve, and I was still profoundly lonely. A few people knew how I was feeling, but they did not know the extent of what was actually going on in my head. I had no idea what to do about it.

A football player’s natural inclination is to keep everything in, present a strong front, and believe that any problem will fade. My problems did not fade. My concussion did not fade. One morning in late August, our head coach asked me to come into his office for a regular check in. In the meeting, he said he had heard about my personal situation and asked me how I was coping. I was taken aback. Then I lost it, breaking down and letting out everything I’d held in. It was the first time I actually acknowledged the mess in my head and admitted, out loud, how my concussion and relationship troubles were taking a steady toll on me. I was unable to cope with such negative things in my life after years of having almost none. I walked out of the office terrified. What if I got another concussion? What if these mental health issues persisted for the rest of my life? What if the break with my girlfriend was permanent? I fell into a depression, became anxious, and starting having panic attacks. I wore hats to class because I would sweat profusely and I didn’t want anyone to see. I left class with soaked hair. My appetite vanished and I went long periods without eating (trust me, that’s significant). However, I started to reach out to my friends and leaned on them early on. I met with my dean twice a week to vent and to hear a caring voice. My roommate was instrumental in bringing me back to myself, more so than he’ll ever know.

A couple weeks after my meeting with Coach Reno, things had not markedly improved. I was on the cusp of returning to practice, but my depression and anxiety were worse than ever. Everyday felt like a marathon I dreaded having to get through, and my mind was wholly consumed with negative thoughts. Distractions were quick, fleeting solutions — short-term fixes to a long-term problem. For our first game of the year against Lehigh, I did not make the travel roster for the first time in my career. It was upsetting, but I expected it. The scariest part about not traveling, though, was the prospect of having a weekend without the majority of my friends at school. I would have no available distractions. Instead, I had a lot of time to sit and think and let my mind wander to bad places. I had another panic attack in my friend’s room the Thursday before the team was scheduled to leave. I quietly left the room and began to walk back to my dorm, tears rushing down my face. I put headphones in and called my dad, telling him I felt I needed to quit football. I called Coach Reno and relayed the same message. He pushed back and wouldn’t let me fully quit.

My parents came to New Haven that weekend. Instead of playing football on Saturday, I followed the game on Twitter and watched the bulldogs dominate Lehigh from afar. It was surreal. The next week, I slowly began some semblance of a mental recovery process. I became myself again: smiling, cracking jokes, finally able to participate in football and itching to get back on the field. Football once again became a blessing for me, providing not only joy and happiness, but also an outlet for my emotions. I played in the second game against Cornell. This week was just the beginning of me redefining myself and what made me happy. I had to, and continue to, work hard to find my way.

Football’s archaic culture is not suited for conversations about mental health. The game values stoicism over all else. Physical weakness will “get you beat” and mental lapses lose games. The sport demands a level of performance that is consistently excellent, and players are pressured to perform at all costs. In the same way that a player will hide physical health issues, he will surely suppress any sign of mental weakness. Some coaches try to understand, but there is a unique dynamic in college sports. The young student-athlete’s performance directly influences a coach’s well-being. Winning pays, and money puts food on the table. It’s a job, and coaches have incentives to simply keep players on the field. Athletes accept that a coach will do whatever it takes to win. The coach-player relationship is not strictly financial, and most coaches do indeed have the best interest of their players at heart, but it is a complicated relationship. In a high-stakes situation, the outcome of a game often takes precedent. Thus, vulnerable young men bottle their emotions, play through emotional and physical pain, and create ticking time bombs. It is not in the nature of any athlete to want time off. As a result of both the coach-player dynamic and an athlete’s own desires, there is no outlet for football players to express their inner feelings, and there must be a space for emotional release.

You cannot just rub some dirt on depression and “toughen up.” You cannot walk off a panic attack. Rest and relaxation will not make anxiety subside. Fundamental change has to occur. Change at the professional level is a different beast entirely, given that the NFL is, first and foremost, a business. The NCAA, however, has an obligation to its student-athletes to develop and implement better practices with regard to their athletes’ mental health. Sports psychologists should be as crucial to a staff as team medical doctors are. Some programs have hired sports psychologists, but they should be the standard, not the exception.

The NCAA also has an obligation to be leaders in effective concussion protocol. Football careers end, but the brain we carry is the only one we get. Much progress has been made in recent years in terms of educating and increasing awareness of concussions. However, vast room for improvement remains, especially in the areas of treatment, recovery, long term effects, and prevention. For example, a kickoff, the play that begins a football game and that follows any score of points, becomes a collision of eleven huge men sprinting full speed down the field into eleven other men attempting to block them. It is arguably the most violent contact in the game. There is no reason that kickoffs should still exist. While they account for less than 5% of the plays per season, kickoffs yield a far greater percentage of concussions. A simple movement to increase touchbacks (one team kicks the ball into the end-zone, resulting in no return and, more importantly, no violence) reduced concussions by 40% from 2010 to 2011. Small, fundamental changes can alter the way football is played for the better. There is a choice to be made: remain silent and watch young men risk their futures, or foster change and establish a safer standard of play.

Right around the final weeks of the season, my girlfriend officially ended our relationship. All semester, I’d been hanging on to the hope of reuniting. It crushed me, but in some ways, it was the closure I had needed for months. The breakup set in motion a more complete recovery process. My panic attacks and anxiety have subsided, but I still struggle with bouts of depression. The feeling of abandonment is hard to push away and, like many others, I was not expecting to face it. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone, but in many ways I needed to go through it. I needed to learn how to deal with that type of loss and that type of pain, and know that it was indeed okay to do so.

My story is just one among millions of male athletes and football players who struggle with mental health. I encourage everyone to be open when you are struggling. Tell friends, family, coaches, and anyone that cares. Seek a therapist. Starting the conversation is the first step to combatting and changing the toxic culture in football that demands toughness at all costs. The costs of not doing so are too great.

“But yet we rejoice in our suffering because we know suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope will never disappoint us.” Romans 5: 3-5

By Josh Keeler. 

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