Steve Smith sat in a hospital bed in uptown Charlotte, his leg lifted and bandaged.
It was 2015, and the former Carolina Panther, then a member of the Baltimore Ravens, had torn his Achilles tendon. As the clock neared 9 p.m., Smith’s mind started to wander to his past, and all the bad plays he had ever made. Smith, a perennial NFL all-star receiver, began beating himself up.
“I’m sitting there, and deciding to go back to all the passes that I’ve dropped,” Smith said. “If I didn’t drop, I probably wouldn’t be sitting in this hospital trying to get this surgery, recovering from this surgery. I’m thinking, ‘Why am I going back that far?’
“I started to realize, ‘Man, something is wrong. This is not right.’”
In time, Smith learned he was clinically depressed. On Tuesday, he spoke to more than 400 people at the fifth annual Wake up for Wellness breakfast sponsored by Mental Health America of Central Carolinas. In his keynote remarks, Smith recalled his moments of depression and the importance of seeking help.
“I went to the deeper depression of, ‘I must be broken. Why me? What did I do? What’s going on?’” Smith said. “I just started to realize that I needed to seek help.”
The 16-year NFL legend was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro. He led the league in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns in 2005. Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe are the only other NFL players to achieve that triple crown.
Smith is the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards (12,197), receptions (836), and total touchdowns (67). In 2011, the wide receiver became the 35th player in NFL history to accumulate 10,000 receiving yards.
However, throughout his playing career, Smith said he never felt more alone.
“On the outside you’ll see a tough exterior. But on the inside, I’m just broken or I believe even more broken than the average man. ... Because when the stadium goes dark and the cheers stop, you’re still looking for that pat on the back,” Smith said. “Throughout my whole career, I struggled with that.”
When Smith first started seeking counseling, he said he was so worried about the stigma surrounding mental health that he had the counselor come to his house. But as the years of therapy have gone by, Smith said he has come to see the value of being more open.
“I started to realize that I’m not broken,” he said. “I’m not being sent back to the manufacturer ... I get up every morning and figure it out.”
The theme of Tuesday’s breakfast was “Be Bold.” Smith’s frankness about his condition made him the ideal speaker, said Kathy Rogers, executive director of the sponsoring agency.
“Because of the stigma around mental health, we often feel vulnerable and afraid to talk about it,” Rogers said. “We want people to be bold in speaking out about mental health... To me, being vulnerable is being bold.”
Smith called on his audience to do what they can to help erase the stigma he once felt about his own mental well-being.
“My question is that at what point are we going to stop having breakfast, stop talking about it, stop checking off our list, and start doing something about it?” Smith said. “That’s what we really need to do.”