On the field, 2012 has been one of the most compelling NFL seasons in recent memory, but the last 12 months off the field have been unspeakably awful.
Future Hall of Famer Junior Seau killed himself last March. Titans wide receiver O.J. Murdock committed suicide during training camp a few months later. Garrett Reid, the son of Eagles' coach Andy Reid, died of a drug overdose in August. In December, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself in front of his head coach. Then, before year-end, Cowboys' practice-team defender Jerry Brown was killed in a car accident in which teammate and friend Josh Brent was driving while intoxicated.
After the Murdock tragedy, the NFL decided to put together a crisis plan for teams and loved ones to follow when the unthinkable happens. Troy Vincent, a 15-year NFL veteran who's now the league's director of player engagement, was tasked with leading the project.
Through this program, the NFL offers members of its community face-to-face sessions with a mental-health professional, a self-check quiz to help gauge what, if any, assistance one might need and a phone number that's open to players, coaches, former players and family to call for help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In an effort to engage those who might be in need of help, Vincent penned a letter on Dec. 28 to the entire NFL community:
"As the initial shock of tragedy subsides, we must remember that none of us has to face our challenges alone," Vincent wrote. "If you're dealing with financial or legal issues, a difficult career transition after retirement, chronic pain, relationship problems, substance abuse, sleeplessness, or depression, you don't have to deal with it alone: Support is here, and it's confidential."
Vincent is making an effort to be proactive, reaching out to players before they need help, and urging them to contact him if they do. But when asked how often he gets calls from active players who are in trouble, Vincent's answer is simple and chilling:
The signs of trouble often come in complex ways. On the premiere of HBO's documentary series "Hard Knocks" over the summer, then-Dolphins receiver Chad Johnson broke into a coach's meeting and said his wife wouldn't let him back in the house. Johnson is known as a cut-up, but the look on his face in the scene was clearly pained. He was met with stoned silence. Johnson was asked to leave. Later, Johnson told a teammate that he was going to get arrested.
A short time later, Johnson was taken into custody for domestic abuse and subsequently cut by the team.
Murdock's cry for help was much more urgent. In the middle of the last night of his life, the wide receiver sent apologetic text messages to former coaches and even a reporter.
"The club had the impression he was at home," Vincent says. "Home had the impression he was at work. And O.J. was in a crisis. There was no indication that was taking place. That's the challenge."
Vincent wants players to know there is place for them to turn when their life starts to feel "out of control." The program he's developing also tries to identify who's at risk following a tragic event. In some cases, like the Belcher murder-suicide, this is painfully clear: a baby no longer has a mother or a father. What support does the child need? In other cases, however, there may be a need for support where it's not overtly requested.
When Garrett Reid died of a heroin overdose, Andy Reid returned to the Eagles almost immediately. The impact of the tragedy is likely to linger – even as Reid leaves Philadelphia for a new job far away from where his son lived and died.
The 90-plus-days category for the crisis plan calls for a re-assessment of "high-risk individuals and their evolving needs." Just because media coverage has waned doesn't mean attention should wane. Sometimes football is a short-term form of self-medication that masks deeper grieving. One of Vincent's main goals in putting together a long-term plan is to make sure victims and loved ones aren't ignored later on.
And the program is there for those who are no longer in the league, but find they need help coping with life outside the NFL, be it mentally, physically or financially. The day Seau's autopsy results were released, revealing he suffered from CTE, a condition that can lead to memory loss, dementia and depression, former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar spoke out about his struggles in the post-NFL world. Kosar said for years he's suffered insomnia, slurred speech and ringing in his head.
"There are hundreds, if not thousands of guys who are dealing with issues and pain and stuff,” Kosar said during press conference he held at a Cleveland-area hotel. "Literally, I think a lot of them are losing hope."
Kosar has finally found help at a wellness center in Tampa, Fla., but it took him years to find it.
(Wednesday, the Seau family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL, alleging the league hid the dangers of repetitive blows to the head.)
Vincent reaches out to players all year long, with questions varying from "What's on your mind?" to "How does your body feel?" The answer he usually gets is, "I'm good." That phrase, "I'm good," grates on him more than any other.
"We don't want to assume somebody's OK when they say 'I'm good,' " he explains.
Football is a sport steeped in toughness and machismo, and its players aren't conditioned to admit sadness, loneliness, or despair. When asked during training camp if he'd ever consider reaching out to the league for support in a time of trouble, Jets safety LaRon Landry produced a polite smile. "That's what my family is for," he replied.
As Landry's comment suggests, players don't necessarily trust the league not to use perceived "weakness" against them, and Vincent readily admits he never would have reached out during his playing days.
"There was no such thing as seeking out assistance when I was a player," Vincent says. "In Trenton, New Jersey, where I'm from? You want to go see a shrink? That's a no-no. Taboo."
Vincent assures complete anonymity, yet he's still an NFL executive, and how does anyone know for sure the coaches won't find out if a player is having dark thoughts?
"This is not an 'I got you' [service]," Vincent explains. "This is not a tattletale. I understand there are trust issues."
So Vincent's goal is to chip away at stigmas, ignorance and fear. Maybe a player or a spouse rings the help line. Maybe a chance meeting with Vincent during Super Bowl week starts a conversation that goes on into the offseason. Maybe, in following this new post-tragedy protocol, another crisis is headed off. All Vincent can do is keep getting the word out and hope a viable safety net emerges.
That's why the league's new plan calls for "monthly messages to families" about what the NFL provides in the way of resources. There's even a section calling for crisis counselor to be an option in training camps when players return after the summer. Vincent believes a league plan shouldn't just be a flurry of pamphlets after someone has died. It should be a steady reminder of available help.
"We want to get away from football," Vincent says. "We're talking about people. We're talking about human life."
A new year is starting and another offseason is days away. Careers are ending and questions are pressing: "What do I do with my life? Who am I? Can I make it without football? What's my worth?" Vincent, who believes his own life was saved by his faith, says he prays that the next player in crisis will reach out to someone, anyone, to listen.
"If a player spoke to the right person," he says, "we would hope it would at least take the edge off for the individual to realize there's more to live for. Let's talk about it."
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