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Game face isn't the only face

Former Lombardi Trophy winner Aaron Taylor describes his personal experiences with anxiety and depression


Aaron Taylor

I was 17 when I arrived on Notre Dame’s campus in Au­gust 1990 as a prep All-American offensive lineman. By the time I graduated and left South Bend three-and-a-half years later, I had a B.A. in sociology, was a two-time All-Amer­ican, won the Lombardi Trophy as college football’s most outstanding lineman, and was a first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers.

It was the classic story of “local boy does good,” with me playing the quintessential overachiever whose success was the result of equal amounts of talent and hard work.

Unfortunately, all was not as rosy as it appeared. Hidden just behind the accolades, trophies and championships was a young man suffering from anxiety and depression.

I later discovered that many of my issues stemmed from the internal pressure I placed on myself to reach some unat­tainable level of greatness as a way to mitigate the effects of an early childhood divorce and a variety of other challeng­es. I brought these issues with me to campus, but no one was the wiser as my “game face” helped hide my condition with relative ease … even from myself.

Beginning in college and throughout my profession­al career, I battled depression with the same regularity as blitzing defenses, but the external opponents were much easier to deal with than the internal ones. Due to fear of looking weak or being judged, I hid my condition from those closest to me, including my coaches and teammates.

I was in my prime and supposed to be living my childhood dream, but I was slowly spinning out of control. I drank heav­ily in a desperate attempt to cope with the pressure I felt, but as my play stayed at a high level and my grades didn’t suffer, all was seemingly well in my world. Even though I lived my life in the spotlight, I was suffering in silence.

Looking back over the course of my career, I wasn’t alone. Many of my former collegiate and professional teammates have since shared with me that they suffered similar fates, for many of the same reasons.

But there are steps all of us can take to keep that from happening.

To minimize the chances of a negative consequence in a football game, defensive players are taught a heightened awareness for critical situations such as a big third down or short-yardage/goal line plays. Making an “Alert!” call was a reminder that danger lurked. From a student-athlete mental-health perspective, I say danger lurks in the follow­ing areas, and everyone in the athletics department should make an “Alert!” call when they see trouble.

The locker room is a sacred place, but not a safe place.

Locker-room banter is one of the things that I miss most about playing football. At its best, it’s a way to find some relief from the sports pressure cooker. At its worst, though, it can be detrimental to those involved, as illustrated by the well-publicized hazing story involving two Miami Dolphins teammates, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. It doesn’t pay to be vul­nerable in the locker room, so athletes quickly learn to keep their emotional armor on well after the pads are off.

In sports like football, toughness is celebrated and weak­ness is despised. We do what’s necessary to navigate this “manly” environment, and that means masking our feel­ings. Players learn to “suck it up,” “rub some dirt on it” and “gut it out,” usually with positive results. We’re so condi­tioned to doing this that we often default to such behavior in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, masking emotional issues doesn’t work as well in the game of life as it does helping us play through a high ankle sprain.

It also helps explain why so many emotional and men­tal-health problems go unnoticed. Players become masters at keeping their game faces on all the time, often until it’s too late.

Coping with athletics mortality.

While there’s much more on how injuries affect mental health later in this publication, I want to share with you how it affected me.

Toward the end of my career, I used to pride myself by saying, “Football is what I do, but it’s not who I am.” That was a lie. In reality, football was my life. Every thought, effort and action was somehow related to helping me con­tinue to develop as a player.

That’s why it shook my world to the core when I rup­tured my patella tendon during a pass-blocking drill in only my fourth practice with the Packers. As I lay there holding my knee and the “lollipopped” quadriceps just above it, I was scared to death that my childhood dream of an NFL career had ended before it had even begun.

When I sustained my injury, I was in a lot physical pain, but the emotional pain of that day and the ensuing months was even more excruciating. Even though I was quickly told I’d be able to play the following season, on a gut level I knew my body, and therefore knew my career would never be the same. As a result, unbeknownst to me at the time, my psyche had been as damaged as my failed kneecap.

Making matters worse, as my ability to play football came to a screeching halt, the Packers didn’t skip a beat. The drill we were doing was moved 10 yards away, and practice continued as usual for everyone … except for me. It was the most alone and vulnerable I’d ever felt as an athlete, and this brutal first encounter with my athlet­ics mortality is when I took my “frosty beverage” coping strategies to the next level.

Athletes often identify their self-worth with their abil­ity to perform, so to become injured is much more im­pactful than something detectable by an MRI. Our teams often become our expanded family – a place of familiarity, significance and consistency. For many athletes, an injury leaves us feeling “apart from” versus “a part of” the team. We’re inside getting treatment, when all we want to do is be part of the practice outside.

The nature of team sports, much like the military, re­quires closing ranks and marching on; no one has time to stop and worry about the fallen warrior because there’s still a job to do, a game to win, a hurdle to surpass. While injured players are often missed, human nature and the culture of sport dictate that the team moves on without them. The corresponding feeling of being “left behind” often manifests itself in unhealthy behavior.

The emotion of demotion.

Although I can never say a player beat me out, I sure know what it’s like to be replaced. The day after my injury, the Packers acquired a long-time veteran, a guy I watched play as a kid for my beloved 49ers: former All-Pro Guy McIntyre. To say that experience was surreal (and devastating) is like saying a screen door on a submarine could be a bit of an issue.

To players, a demotion is a personal blow to their psy­che and sense of self-worth. Imagine if you arrived at work and were unexpectedly told that someone else would be taking over, someone who was believed to be better equipped to handle the job.

It’s no different for athletes who lose their starting job or are forced to contribute to their teams in a diminished role. “Helping the team any way I can” is good coach-speak, but it can have much greater effects on athletes than they often acknowledge.

Riding off into the sunset.

Most athletes don’t think about the fact that they’ll be ex-athletes much longer than they’ll be current athletes. Few among us ever take the time and effort to explore this reality and devise a “Plan B.”

Regardless of how an athlete’s career ends – retire­ment, graduation, injury, etc. – the transition into “pri­vate life” can be rough. Many athletes find themselves unprepared for what comes next, both fiscally and emo­tionally, because they don’t have a post-career plan in place. Most of us just don’t want to think about a reality that doesn’t include the games that we’ve dedicated our entire lives to playing.

Aaron Taylor was an offensive lineman at the University of Notre Dame from 1990 through 1993. The San Fran­cisco native was a unanimous first-team All-America selection in 1992 and 1993 and won the 1993 Lombardi Award as college football’s most outstanding lineman. He was drafted by Green Bay Packers in the first round of 1994 NFL draft, playing on team that won the Super Bowl in 1997. Aaron played for the San Diego Chargers in 1998 and 1999 before retiring from professional football. He has since been a television analyst for CBS College Sports and ABC Sports. He currently provides player transition services for the NFL Players Association.

Student-athlete mental health: how you can help

By Aaron Taylor

Looking back at my situation, I’m glad it happened the way it did, as it’s given me the experience and perspective needed to serve as a mentor. I’m now a transition specialist for a company the NFL Players Association contracts with to provide support services for athletes in transition. In this capacity, some best practices have emerged that may prove helpful in many of the areas I’ve noted above.
From my perspective, athletics department personnel should strive for the following to address the mental health challenges student-athletes invariably face:
TREAT THE PERSON, NOT JUST THE INJURY: Be mindful that athletes will keep their game faces on. Remember that looks can be deceiving, and there’s often more going on than athletes are able or willing to discuss. Continue to stay interested in their emotional well-being as much as their physical rehab.
HELP DEVELOP EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: In an appropriate and safe setting, discuss some of the potential emotions that can accompany injuries. I’ve found that Kubler Ross’s Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) is an appropriate and applicable model.
BE VULNERABLE FIRST: Relating a personal story of when you were thrown a professional curve ball or got hurt playing sports yourself can often be the permission a player needs to open up. Noting how you felt and what helped you cope can help stimulate their own development of a healthy coping strategy. If appropriate, it may also help to share what didn’t work. The more honest and relatable you are, the more honest they’ll likely be with themselves.

CREATE AN EMOTIONALLY SAFE TRAINING ROOM: When possible, create a training room culture where athletes are allowed to take off their emotional armor. If the situation permits and protocol allows, tell athletes about the benefits (and mandated privacy) of a licensed sports psychologist or campus therapist. Be empathetic whenever possible, and remind student-athletes that acknowledging their feelings takes a tremendous amount of courage and toughness that the average athlete doesn’t have.
MANAGE EXPECTATIONS: Athletes are inherently driven and accustomed to knowing what to expect. Leverage this innate skill by being honest and realistic with them, yet optimistic when appropriate.
LEAD THE CHARGE: As primary caregivers, take the initiative to educate your colleagues and other institutional stakeholders (such as coaches, administrators and athletic trainers). Consider implementing a mental health awareness program and corresponding protocols in your athletics department.
University of Tennessee team physician Chris Klenck does a good job of suggesting how to do this in Chapter 6 of this publication.
There’s no fail-safe method to preventing student-athletes from experiencing mental-health issues, but there are plenty of opportunities for us to help them navigate the tough times and emerge as the success story we’ve promised.