ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Most days after practice during his freshman year at Virginia, Eli Harold would return to his room inside the Gooch/Dillard dorm, turn on some music and lie on his bed. In the dark. Alone. For hours.
He knew what was going on. Kind of. Yet controlling it was not something he could handle.
What used to be enjoyable wasn’t anymore. His personality -- once gregarious and fun -- disappeared into a solitary sadness. He would go out occasionally. It masked his feelings -- what he didn’t want to talk about with anyone, what he still hasn’t shared all that often, even now as a linebacker in the NFL, first with the San Francisco 49ers and now with the Detroit Lions.
He has been open about his past. When Harold was a junior in high school, his nephew Forrest Harold died of an enlarged heart while playing rec basketball at Old Dominion. Then less than two months later, his mother, Sheila Korvette Harold, died of pancreatic cancer. What he hasn't been as open about is that he didn’t have the capability to cope. Throughout the rest of high school, he didn't understand what he was going through. Then he got to college. And he sank.
“My freshman year in college, I had hit a point so low, it was like every day was just dark,” Harold says now. “I hated football. I hated friends. I hated everything. It was just -- I was being a follower. I was drinking, and I never really liked drinking. I was a follower, doing things that I know weren't me and -- I don’t know, man.
“I really had to find myself.”
When, years later, Harold became one of the 49ers who knelt along with Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid to raise awareness about social injustice and protest for change, he received hate mail in which hundreds of people called him racial slurs. He handled all of it -- because after what he had been through, that was nothing. Words slid off of him. He built his shell. He knew real loss, real pain.
While not clinically diagnosed, Harold said he dealt with depression throughout his freshman year and part of his sophomore year due to the two deaths that he never really understood how to mourn. By sharing the story of his battle with mental health for the first time, he is hoping it might help others open up with what they might be going through.
"Of course, and just like men, we're taught to be alpha males, you know what I'm saying. I feel like it helps," Harold said. "When [the NBA's] DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love had spoken out about it, I felt like a lot of guys, a lot of professional athletes, took a deep breath and a sigh of relief, because they didn't want to be that first guy to open up about it.
"And no one really ever wants to be the first to do something. Not saying that you are a follower but that it opened up a gate for other grown men to express their feelings about the situation."
Harold couldn’t cry. Everything he felt inside, everything he wanted to say, could have come out in the tears, but he just couldn’t do it. For years. From the time his mother died in January 2011 during Harold’s junior year of high school until he left Virginia, it wouldn’t happen.
His mother had meant everything to him. When she was sick and in the nursing bed in her room at their home toward the end of her life, Harold sometimes crawled into bed with her just to be close.
“She didn’t have enough strength to stand up,” said Chris Scott, Harold's high school coach. “He was like a little teddy bear. He’s the biggest 6-foot-3, 230-pound teddy bear in the state of Virginia. He might be the No. 1 football player [in the state], but he loves his momma dearly.”
Sheila Korvette Harold had raised her son well. Taught him strong values. Harold calls her “one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. The most positive person.”
“She raised me to be a straight and narrow, tough guy,” Harold said.
Harold wasn’t told how sick his mother was until close to her death. He was still coping with his nephew’s death when his mother had taken a downward turn. Scott said that after she died, it was Harold who carried his mother down the stairs of their home to ensure no one dropped her.
After her death, he went through his high school life somewhat unaware of what he was feeling. Scott and others at his high school knew this day was coming, so they discussed how they would make sure they were around for him. They spoke often to Harold’s older brother, Walter Ray Harold -- a pastor two decades older than Eli who was dealing with the death of his son, Forrest. Eli moved in with Walter’s family. They were all there if Eli ever wanted to talk.
He didn’t. At least not about what he was really feeling.
Eli Harold would have conversations about life with Scott and eventually his college coach, Mike London. They, along with Harold's brother, were father figures to him since his biological dad was never really in his life. So they’d talk. But he wouldn’t truly open up. He wouldn’t -- couldn’t -- explain what was truly going on, what he was really feeling.
“I had maybe cried, like, five times from the time that she passed away up until I left college. I could count on one hand how many times I cried,” Harold said. “I really didn’t know how to deal with grief. I didn’t know how to; I was always taught to bottle it up.
“Like being a young, black man, we always suppress our sadness and all the things that we go through. A lot of guys really don’t know how to let it out. I always held it in, man, throughout college and early on in my career. It’s been hard for me to deal with things and express my sadness to certain situations.”
During his freshman year, as he was slipping, he wasn’t sleeping well. His grades, when he went to class, “were horrible.” The winter of his freshman year was the worst, a consistent low for weeks where the routine would be the same: Get up, go to his workout, maybe go to class, go home, stay in the dark. Living by himself, no one else could see it.
"I really didn't know how to deal with grief. I didn't know how to; I was always taught to bottle it up." Eli Harold
Eventually, he realized he was no longer himself, that “something was weird.” He did research, reading up on the symptoms, causes and descriptions of depression. He believed he had it. He went for help. He saw a therapist that Virginia employed -- once.
“I told him I don’t like talking to people, I don’t feel comfortable telling you what I’m going through,” Harold said. “He had prescribed me some sleep medicine because I wasn’t sleeping. I was really going through it, man. I was really, really dealing with some tough stuff. My whole freshman year. I was going through it, man.
“I never told my family. I haven’t even gotten in depth with my wife of telling her what I really, really was going through. You know what I’m saying. It was tough.”
While he wouldn’t express what was going on to Scott and London, they knew something was up. Scott’s mother had died when he was young, so Scott understood. It’s why Scott tried just being there, letting Harold know he could always talk. London was the same way.
“When you have things in succession of things that happen like that, those are traumatic and dramatic experiences, and I don’t doubt that there was a sense of depression,” London said. “In the weight room, on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, great. But you go back to your room and you close your door and it’s just you and your thoughts. That’s a tough thing sometimes.
“So what you can do is extend, tell him you love him and extend your hand in terms of what else can you do for them.”
Even now, Harold can’t figure out what got him out of his darkness. Success on the field could have helped; he became a starter and led the ACC with 15 tackles for loss. So too could have been meeting his girlfriend and future wife. But he really doesn’t know. He just knows he was so low and then he wasn’t.
“I don’t know, man,” Harold said, snapping his fingers. “It just happened.”
Harold’s deeper past is why he coped well during his time in San Francisco, where he’ll return Sunday for the first time since being traded to Detroit last month. He loved his time with the 49ers, and he still refers to the trade as “tough” because he thought his job was safe and because his wife -- who is the one person he has opened up to about his college depression -- is eight months pregnant.
During his rookie year with the Niners, though, he struggled. His stress -- now being a professional football player -- rose. Seeing families together brought back memories of his late mother and the father who was never in his life. He felt the sadness briefly returning at random moments -- a day here, a few hours there.
“Seeing so many happy families all the time and my teammates’ families would be there at the games, stuff like that, man, kind of got to me early on,” Harold said. “I kind of developed a shell, you know, that I could deflect a lot of the negativity and things that I dealt with.”
That shell helped him manage. His mother raised Harold as a strong man who should believe in what he stood for. It was that shell that aided him when he wanted to effect change.
For everything he has been through, he never experienced anything like what happened to him after he decided to kneel during the national anthem alongside Reid and Kaepernick. The backlash was swift. And harsh.
“It was tough in the beginning. I was getting all kinds of hate mail. N-word every day. I was called that word about 500 times in two months. It was crazy,” Harold said. “I deactivated my Facebook. I was getting it on Instagram. Was getting it on Twitter. I blocked over 200 people on each. I lost at least 7,000 followers on each social media [platform].
“It was, and being a young guy, it kind of got to me a little bit, but at the end of the day I just told myself, ‘Hey, I’m doing this because I really, firmly believe in it.' There needs to be a change in our society, and the whole point of the protest with Colin and then Eric and myself was to spread awareness and get people talking about the conversation. And it did that in no time.”
In protesting for what he believed in -– he reiterated it had nothing to do with the national anthem or the flag or the military, explaining he has two uncles who are Vietnam War veterans, a cousin who was in the Army and multiple friends in the military -- he knew how his mother raised him. And knew he was trying to raise awareness for an issue he cares about, helping those who are “less cared about in our society.”
While Harold goes by Eli, his given name is Medgar Elisha Harold -- with his first name recognizing the late African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers. He said his mother named him that because “he was a strong, black man and obviously she wanted me to hold those characteristics.”
Harold said his name wasn’t part of why he protested (something he has decided to not repeat this year for reasons he won’t disclose). The way he was raised, to stand for what he believed in, was.
“Thinking back, how my mom raised me to be a strong man,” Harold said. “Knowing that I’ve been through way worse than someone calling me by a name. That’s nothing. I’m not going to let that define who I am. I’m not going to let what those people are saying about me define who I am.”
After all he had been through, all he had fought through, he wasn’t going to let someone calling him names affect him. He knew what he believed in. He also knew what he went through, physically and emotionally, to reach the point he was at. And he came out on the other side of things. He hasn't had a moment like his freshman year at Virginia in a while. He understands how he copes -- one thing he won't share with the world.
"I feel like I've been through so much in my life, and I'm only 24," Harold said. "There's nothing that can happen to me that hasn't already happened."