Football is pain. Professional football is, at times, excruciating.
Players endure hits that fill highlight reels and drop our jaws. Spectators experience the odd and ultimately cruel awe that comes when one body hurts another for the benefit of the team.
And NFL players know the unspoken rule: You don’t have to enjoy pain. But you sure as hell aren’t going to complain about it. They hide it with pills and tape and with splints and braces, cotton to soak up the blood and cold tubs to preserve their aching muscles.
But what about pain in the mind?
Former Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr. released a letter on Tuesday morning addressing his longtime hidden battle with depression while he was with Carolina and the Baltimore Ravens.
“Despite all of my achievements, I routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone,” wrote Smith, who was a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro first teamer. “This overwhelmed me internally and often left me mentally, physically and emotionally broken ....
“Generally, throughout much of my life, unhappiness, constant self-criticism and an inability to let old blunders go weighed so heavily on my mind. I can recall hundreds of these moments, on and off the gridiron, when I felt inept. It really took a toll on my mental state.”
A surprising revelation
Smith kept it a secret from his teammates. And he certainly hid it from his coaches. As he sought counseling in 2013, he wrote, fear of admitting any weakness even motivated him to schedule home visits because he was worried someone would see him walking into a therapist’s office.
When I approached Panthers head coach Ron Rivera as he walked off the field to talk to him about the letter, which was released halfway through Tuesday’s practice, his eyes widened in shock. And then they wrinkled into deep and earnest concern.
“I think that it’s tremendous that Steve shared that,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are dealing with that right now. And if a guy like Steve comes out and says, ‘Hey look, I’ve had that problem. I deal with that problem.’ I think it might encourage some other people to step up and get help. I think that’s tremendous.”
Right then and there on the field, Rivera pledged to devote more attention to the mental health of his players, even if they try to hide the struggles they might face.
“(Mental health) is something that I think we as coaches need to understand a little bit more,” he said. “Because we don’t know. We come from the same background as (the players), of trying to push through, push through, push through.
“And when a guy has to deal with that and he keeps it bottled up, bad things might happen. For somebody like Steve to come out and say ‘I dealt with this as a player’ and probably growing up, for me, that’s an (eye-opening) moment.”
Fighting the demons
Smith said he receives consistent counseling and is learning more than ever about himself, his demons and how to fight them.
For the first time in his life, he wrote, he feels free.
But he would never have known, had he not sought help and admitted to himself what hiding the pain was doing to him.
“It’s crucial for everyone to know that acknowledging personal struggles isn’t a sign of weakness, but one of strength,” Smith wrote. “Too often taboo, depression is shut behind closed doors — especially in a tough-guy sport like football, with a social media environment that glorifies successes and status ....
“My advice to anyone suffering from mental health issues — and specifically athletes who can relate — is this: Ask for help. Stop trying to deal with these serious matters alone. You’re not alone. Believe me.”
Smith will forever live in lore for his huge plays over the course of a 16-year career. On the field, he was tougher than a bull’s callus. His bravery was the stuff of movie scripts: Undersized scrapper, drafted late, who played like a giant.
But admitting his inner battle with depression? Admitting he needed help and then seeking it, despite the systemic demand from every locker room in the league that screams “Be tough! Push through! Man up!”?
That took the most courage of all.