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The NFL Focuses on Mental Health

My Mental Health Problems and Fantasy Football

Hayden Hurst Shares His Struggles with Mental Health

Over this past weekend, during the NFL Draft, the NFL featured a promo that I have never seen before. They had multiple players focus on mental health.  I can not tell you how proud I felt of that promo.  Last year, Hayden Hurst became a poster child for mental health. I hadn’t really followed Hayden Hurst’s career up to that point but I was all ears after hearing his struggles. I don’t know if people realize how difficult it is to talk about mental health issues. The stigma ends most conversations.  For the NFL to broach this subject, raise awareness, and allow players to openly speak out about mental health problems is astounding.  

Stigmas are powerful, they end progress. Stigma can keep people from sharing, getting better, being better.  Stigmas create more suffering. The first step is ending the stigma. Then as a society, we can work on getting better.  

Head Case

The NFL has its own head problems. There is no bigger controversy than how the NFL handled brain injuries the last 50 years. While mental health is not necessarily caused by head trauma, there is head trauma that can exasperate mental health. In other words, the NFL didn’t want to talk about it. Just mentioning mental health issues can draw a straight line to the NFL’s failure to protect players. Especially when they knew how damaging concussions can be to a player’s health.  

So when I saw Hayden Hurst and other current NFL players talking openly on a promo during the NFL’s biggest non-football event, my ears perked up. There is a direct connection between my own mental health struggles and football. They have both been a part of me my entire life. I love football, I’m a lifer. I am a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, NFL draft freak, and avid fantasy football player. It defines me. What has also come to define me are my struggles with mental health.  

Chicago Bears logo

He Has Head Problems

Recently, I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I guess I’ve known there have always been issues, I just didn’t want to deal with them. Then things got real and I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t hold on to my anger. Sadly as it may seem, this realization came from football.

I was angry all the time about both the Bears and my fantasy football team. I know how childish it is, but it felt real to me. That’s the thing about mental health, others may judge but your problems are so real they can turn into really unhealthy habits. I’m a pretty chill guy, but I’ve always been a terrible loser, and losing at football was a major trigger. 

Whether your triggers are your job, your family, your spouse, your children, your friends, drivers on the road, or yes, even fantasy football, when they are your problems they seem like they are the biggest deal in the world. Now that I have children, I couldn’t continue to be angry. It was more than football as well.  Politics, the way of the world, things that were unfair. Things would make me mad, then I would spiral and everything would make me mad. When you have anxiety and depression a lot of things seem unfair, then you get angry. Then you lash out, or worse, withdraw. I couldn’t be a whole person without addressing these issues.  

Fantasy Football is my Religion

Since 2000, I have been a fantasy football fanatic. My belief is fantasy football fanatics come mostly from towns that have not had good football teams in the last 20 years. I’m talking to you fellow Bears fans, Lions fans, Browns fans, and Bengals fans.  Fantasy football allows players to take control.  When your real team sucks, at least you had a say in how your fantasy team is doing. The problem for those with depression and anxiety is this control can lead to a lack of self-esteem, questioning yourself, and following a rabbit hole of toxic negativity that leads to one simple statement that plagues me: I am not good enough.  

Cincinnati Bengals helmet

If I am bad at something I love, how can I possibly be good at something I don’t like. I won’t ever be successful, I’m not good enough. I am a bad father, I’m not good enough. I don’t have as much money as I want, I’m not good enough.  Something so small can lead to an avalanche of terrible self-talk.  Right or wrong or silly, fantasy football was and is a trigger. I was angry at the Bears for drafting Mitch Trubisky over Deshaun Watson. I hated myself for drafting Saquon Barkley over Alvin Kamara. Big difference. I had a role in the decision. Like my wife said, if you are taking fantasy football this seriously, something is wrong. She, of course, was right.  

Toxic Masculinity

I write about fantasy football but to me, Hayden Hurst is much more than just a guy I draft.   Currently, none of my teams have Hayden Hurst on them. I wish that wasn’t so. I feel like from now until Hurst hangs up his cleats, he should be on my team. For someone that lives his life through football, Hurst is a connection for me. If this big, talented, first-round player can talk about his mental health issues, then I can too. If he can get the NFL to open up about mental health issues, then I can open up as well.  If he can break down the stigma then there is hope for the rest of us.

The NFL is a macho male, toxic masculinity sport. When I played football in high school, if I got hurt, the attitude was so what, that’s part of the game. Rub some dirt on it and get back out there.  Football never had time for feelings. My father’s generation is the shut up and play generation. So I inherited, acquired, and accepted that mentality. You don’t talk about your feelings, we are all going through shit, that’s life, suck it up and move on.

My generation (millennial) is changing that perspective. We are open to hugging our children and not yelling at them. We are open to asking more questions, accepting what are children are and not demanding they do as we say. My father’s generation was physically beaten but they had to be open to not hitting their children. My generation was yelled at, but we have to be open to biting our lip, letting the anger pass and hugging our kids through their pain. Someone has to stop the cycle.  

Breaking the Cycle

We must get over the man-up attitude. You can push through physical pain but its easier than when you are dealing with your mental pain. I can hear the eye rolls now but the truth is the old way doesn’t work. In Hayden Hurst’s situation, both his uncle and his cousin committed suicide. This is what happens when we tell young boys to hold it in, man up, don’t be a pussy. This is how stigma is created and how pain is amplified. I too have known men that have committed suicide. They had issues with substance abuse or other issues they didn’t want to deal with. It was easier for them to end the pain then talk about the pain.  

Stigma is a hard barrier to breakthrough but it starts with awareness. It starts with a different perception of how to handle the crazy emotions all humans feel. Now that I can make the connection from NFL athletes with mental illness to my own life I don’t feel so alone. Much like Hayden Hurst, drinking was a big trigger.  More like drinking let my guard down and my anger out.  So now drinking is gone. I am on medication, I meditate, I write and I am getting better.  

Fantasy Football Therapy

I will probably never meet Hayden Hurst, but he has had a profound influence on my life. He will never know how much it means to me to know an NFL player has spoken openly and honestly about mental illness and how that has plagued him. I am not alone, we are connected and to have that connection in my football universe is life-changing.  

Hayden Hurst may never be on a fantasy team of mine, I’m trying I swear Hayden, but I will always remember him.  Hayden Hurst may never be a Chicago Bear but I will always remember him. He will stick out the way Barry Sanders does for his greatness because the joy I feel for watching great players do incredible things now compares to the joy I feel knowing it is okay to not be okay. More than that, It is okay to talk about our issues. To address problems, not to burden people with my pain, but to relieve myself from my self-hatred. There is a better way forward.  

I never thought football, fantasy football, in particular, would find a connection to my mental health problems. But it’s there. These players that we put into our lineups are so much more than numbers or helping us win championships. They are people who have problems. Once we celebrate this fact it brings us even closer to the game.  

No longer will my players just be variables. I also want to know about the person on my squad.  What are they going through? What have they gone through? Do they feel loved and supported by their organization?  Because in the end, breaking stigma, talking about it, dealing with your issues, and not holding them in, is freeing. It opens up a new world and if elite athletes can get through the pain, address it, deal with it, they can then make that pain work for them to levels of performance that are unbound.  

Thank You

So thank you NFL for being open about mental health. Thank you for bringing to light what so many people deal with. Thank you for saying, you are good, you are enough, you can speak about your pain, it is okay. The NFL and Hayden Hurst in particular have cracked open the door and revealed a larger truth. It is okay to talk about your problems. It is okay to open up. If we are going through things and need help it is better to speak to that pain than to hold it in. You will still be loved. You will still be supported. And yes, the NFL will welcome you and offer ways for you to get better.  

In honor of Mental Health month this May I will be giving to Hayden Hurst’s charitable organization (https://www.haydenhurstfoundation.com) and continuing to cheer for him and for everyone else that has mental health issues. Because we are in this together and together we will win. No matter how well our fantasy team does.  

Be well everyone, be kind, take care of one another. Seek help if needed, it is okay and there are people there who will listen. Find help, find your peace, and speak your truth.  I promise things will get better from there.  

Written by Keith James

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