After Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins spoke at length in recent weeks about dealing with depression, former NFL receiver Steve Smith opened up about his own battle.
Smith, writing for NFL.com, talked about battling depression through his great career with the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens. Smith wrote about not enjoying any of his football success because he would constantly focus on his failures, and how he eventually got help.
Dawkins and Smith were among the toughest players of their generation, and the common message between the two is that it’s not a weakness to seek help for mental health.
“My advice to anyone suffering from mental health issues — and specifically athletes who can relate — is this: Ask for help,” Smith wrote at the end of his story. “Stop trying to deal with these serious matters alone. You’re not alone. Believe me.”
Steve Smith says he’s an extreme introvert
Because Smith could be boisterous on the field, it was surprising to hear him discuss how he says he’s an extreme introvert who would avoid big crowds and dreaded public appearances. That’s due to his “inner battle,” as he described it.
Smith, who retired after the 2016 season and works for the NFL Network, said during his career he “routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone.” He brought up the Panthers’ win in the NFC championship game at the end of the 2003 season, in which he said he couldn’t even hold the trophy because he was so upset that he and the Panthers’ passing game was held down in a 14-3 victory.
For all of Smith’s great moments through a career that could lead him to the Hall of Fame, he said he never enjoyed any of the accomplishments because he constantly dwelled on the failures.
Smith sought help when he felt overwhelmed
Smith said he felt so overwhelmed in 2013, his final season with the Panthers, that he finally sought help. Because mental health is not something often discussed in the tough-guy world of the NFL, he said he had a counselor come to his house to avoid risking being seen publicly going to a meeting.
While he said he is still learning through the counseling sessions, he feels free.
“Generally, throughout much of my life, unhappiness, constant self-criticism and an inability to let old blunders go weighed so heavily on my mind,” Smith said. “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.”
Smith added that the best thing he ever did for his well-being was to seek help.
Smith hopes his message helps others
Some so-called football fans can be cynical about the players they supposedly root for. It’s common to hear gripes about “millionaires playing a kid’s game” that they say they’d play for free.
The truth is that the NFL isn’t an easy life. It’s rough physically and mentally taxing as well. It’s a high-profile job with good annual salaries and great perks, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s a results-based business with very little job security; it’s an incredibly stressful profession. Those who trivialize it as a kid’s game would never consider that.
Smith’s discussion about his struggles shine a light on how difficult that world can be. It was startling to see him write about all the self-criticism he had through his career, considering he was one of the most successful players of his generation. He said his biggest regret is not being more open and discussing his struggles during his career. Perhaps other players, dealing with the same issues in a taxing profession, will feel more comfortable seeking help if they need it.
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