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Isaiah Woods starts a conversation about mental health in college athletics

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Isaiah Woods: 'I don't view myself as a hero' (2:34)

Washington wide receiver Isaiah Woods explains why he decided to quit football in order to deal with his depression issues. (2:34)

Editor's note: In June, several weeks after leaving Washington, Isaiah Woods-Renfro announced on Twitter that he was changing his last name to Woods, to honor his maternal grandfather.

Isaiah Woods' most important contribution to college football came not from a touchdown catch in November but from a tweet in May.

On the night of May 29, Woods posted a message on his Twitter page: "This is me taking steps in the right direction to becoming myself again."

In the 398-word disclosure that followed, Woods described the most difficult year of his young life. How he lost his love for football, which had brought him to Washington as a wide receiver. How he struggled to get out of bed, and how it got so bad, "I didn't want to wake up at all." How he soon learned the reasons why: depression and anxiety.

Woods revealed why he missed spring practice after a true freshman season in which he had appeared in every game and made 13 catches. He had been hospitalized while learning how to cope with "the lowest of lows." Woods noted his fear of failure and hatred of quitting, and then added that for his own health, he needed to step away from football and from Washington.

"At first, I was just going to make a general statement that you see, like, 'I want to thank the program and everything, but I will be stepping away from U-Dub football,'" Woods said. "I wrote it out, and I was looking at it and read it over a couple times, and I was like, 'No, this isn't me. It's too generic. If I'm going to do this, I want to be truthful to myself and honest to everybody else.' And then I thought about the other people out there who could be dealing with this but don't want to come out because of the stigma.

"I was like, 'OK, I'm definitely going to post this.'"

Woods isn't the first major college football player to encounter mental health obstacles. But in sharing his story, he hopes to help others facing similar challenges to find their way, whether it leads them back to the field or not.

A descent into darkness

The anxiety started soon after Woods arrived at Washington in 2015. He now knows that "difficult times" in his childhood probably contributed, but it was the setting, being away from home, along with the stress of college football, that triggered his symptoms.

The panic attacks didn't come until later in the season, usually during road trips. One struck him on the bus as Washington went to its hotel before a game at Oregon State.

"I have asthma, but a panic attack feels like you really can't breathe," Woods said. "I remember putting my head on the seat in front of me and trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my breathing down. By that time, it was too late. The last thing I remember is being on the bus and then waking up at the hotel."

The symptoms come to college football players in different ways. Clemson offensive lineman Jay Guillermo's symptoms worsened after he broke his foot midway through the 2014 season. Depression pushed him away from friends and loved ones and toward alcohol. His weight ballooned to 365 pounds, and he left school after Clemson's bowl game to seek treatment, yet returned to start on the Tigers team that reached the national championship game last season.

Former Iowa State offensive lineman Jacob Gannon had his first panic attack during a September 2014 practice and quit on the spot, walking off the field. Although he returned weeks later, after receiving an anxiety diagnosis and a treatment plan, he still had a few attacks, including one on the bus ride to a game at Oklahoma State.

Woods hid his struggles from teammates and others in his inner circle. Mark Serve, one of Woods' high school coaches and a man he calls "Uncle," recalled receiving fewer calls and texts from Woods. He initially attributed it to the typical college transition but became concerned when Woods called less despite getting more playing time, making him wonder: Why isn't Isaiah more excited?

"You think it's growing pains or they're homesick and they'll get past it," said Woods' mother, Chieko. "It's like, 'Tough it out. Kids kill for this opportunity. Why would you want to throw it away? You've worked so hard.' But he just wasn't the same kid. He wasn't my son. He didn't have that same spirit, that same energy.

"In November, he called me, and he was like, 'Mom, you don't get it.'"

Confronting the problem

Chieko urged Isaiah to contact Cassie Pasquariello, Washington's sport psychologist. Isaiah was reluctant at first, but after suffering a panic attack the night before a game at Arizona State, he met with Pasquariello.

"The first time, it was kind of silence," Isaiah said. "I didn't want to say anything. She was just asking me questions. After the first session, I was good, though. The next time we met, I started talking.

"She broke it down, what I'm dealing with: depression and anxiety."

Woods and Pasquariello began meeting regularly. He finished the season. His grades remained strong. Washington's coaches fully supported him. But despite the counseling, Woods still struggled to get out of bed. On the morning of March 28, he participated in Washington's first spring practice. That night, Pasquariello took him to University of Washington Medical Center, where he spent the next week receiving treatment.

"He was going to his sessions, it was like, 'OK, we're getting somewhere,'" Chieko said. "He was still going to school, he was on the honor roll, doing really well. Everything was fine, and then I get a call from work from him and the doctor.

"It was devastating."

Woods learned how to better cope with his symptoms.

"At first, it was kind of weird," Woods said. "You're not at home, you're not in a dorm. You're just in a hospital, and that's where you're staying now. But it was very helpful, honestly, to meet with doctors every day and map out a situation. Like, if this happens, what are you going to do? Are you going to fix the situation or change the situation and get yourself out of that mood?

"Kind of game-planning for your life."

Woods learned how to slow down his thoughts and his breathing when a panic attack came on. He was encouraged to use exercise as a distraction.

After Woods left the hospital, he started waking up without anxiety. He was nervous to see his teammates, because only two knew about his hospitalization. But they welcomed him back, offering help without judging him.

"I was pretty surprised," Woods said. "It just felt good to have that brotherhood. That time is when I felt most loved."

A difficult decision

After being released from the hospital, Woods met with Pasquariello, Washington wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan and Huskies head coach Chris Petersen to discuss the next steps. Woods had options, including redshirting the 2016 season, but the coaches didn't pressure him to return.

The entire conversation, Woods said, was "about me feeling better." Petersen and Pasquariello declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the private nature of the situation, but Woods and those close to him repeatedly praised Washington officials for their response.

"Any parent wants their kid to go somewhere to have that support," Chieko Woods said. "They're not just a football player. They're a kid. And they're somebody's kid. That's what meant the most to me."

Colleges are becoming better prepared to handle mental health issues with athletes. In March, the NCAA's Sports Science Institute published "Mental Health Best Practices" for its member institutions.

The document notes that estimates of mental health incidents among college athletes are "relatively similar" to those among non-athletes. It also outlines procedures for identifying possible mental health conditions and referring athletes to qualified practitioners, and includes mental health screening surveys.

"It's on the upswing," said Marty Martinez, a psychologist at Iowa State who has helped Jacob Gannon, basketball star Royce White and other Cyclones athletes facing mental health challenges. "There's a lot more awareness on the part of ADs and university presidents that there's a great need for this and a responsibility."

Woods received the support he needed at Washington, but had to decide whether he wanted to remain there and on the team. The decision consumed him, but in a good way.

Away from the college football grind, he had time to process. He thought about how he no longer woke up anxious, rushing off to the practice field or the weight room.

"I realized that I didn't really have the passion for football anymore," Woods said. "If I played, I was scared I would be in the same situation. I would just start the whole cycle over again."

The pursuit of happiness

Woods' decision initially didn't sit well with those around him. Chieko, Serve and his best friend all wanted him to stay at Washington. When Isaiah returned to Los Angeles, Chieko saw him "shut down a little bit," and they rarely spoke.

He eventually began to open up. Mother and son talk like they used to. Chieko knows depression is a day-to-day process, and she's careful not to bombard Isaiah with mental check-ins.

Woods lives a simple but stable life, living with his mother and 5-year-old sister, Charli. As part of his agreement with Chieko, Isaiah continued to take classes at Santa Monica College. He also works at an ice cream shop in Venice. His co-workers provide a team feel, and talking with customers helps him with his depression.

"He just needed to be able to take a step back and hit that reset button, step away from football," Chieko said. "I know Isaiah's such a talented football player, but in the end, I need my kid to be healthy. He's never been able to have a life. It's always been push, push, push."

Isaiah still talks with Pasquariello, and they're working to find a therapist near his home. He hopes to enroll at Cal-State Northridge this fall. Several junior colleges have reached out about playing football, but Woods is pursuing other interests, like fashion. He recently launched his own line of hats, called Wavegod.

The slogan: Surf your own wave.

"We probably talk more now than we ever had," Serve said. "Going through stuff like this can take you one of two ways. You can completely tank and all of a sudden become this hermit, or you can find ways to rediscover yourself. I definitely think it's helping him. He's growing up faster.

"It's a different guy, not different as in bad or completely different. It's a better version of himself."

Finding his voice

If football isn't in Woods' future, his career stat line will look like this: 13 games, 13 receptions, 178 yards and one essential conversation started.

His May 29 tweet has received almost 500 retweets and more than 1,700 likes. He continues to receive direct messages from those who have heard his story.

"I've had to take a minute to step back and be like, 'Wow,' because I really didn't expect any of it," Woods said.

After the tweet and Woods' appearance on "SportsCenter," other Washington students reached out and told him how his story helped them with their own mental health struggles. Football players he knew at other schools praised his courage.

"He reached out and touched a lot of people around the world that deal with those things," Washington tight end Darrell Daniels said. "He just opened up another side that people don't see in football players. That was a great thing."

Clemson's Guillermo had a similar response after sharing his story of facing depression. As the clock wound down during a game last season, an opposing lineman asked to speak with him afterward.

The lineman told Guillermo how depression had consumed him, and how grateful he was that another player spoke out publicly about the issue.

"Mental health is one of those things that has a bad stigma, especially in sports, and it's something that needs to change," Guillermo said. "It takes people's lives every day. It's not just college football. It's college students, any athletes. It's everyone.

"But I do think it's getting better [with] stories like this that people can read and know they're not alone. It made me so proud, even if I helped that little bit."

Chieko said she hopes Isaiah's story also inspires parents. After Isaiah went public, she heard from many parents on Facebook who described similar issues with their kids.

"We could have had an open forum and gone through this together," Chieko said. "Kids are getting stressed out and killing themselves. There are options. Parents need to know it's OK to talk about it and not be embarrassed."

Isaiah's May 29 message concludes with: "This isn't the end of me, just the end of a certain chapter. I will conquer this, and not let the situation conquer me. I'm on a journey to find my happiness again."

The journey is ongoing. As Guillermo notes, "Depression doesn't just go away. It's not like a cold."

But Isaiah Woods is headed in the right direction again.

"I wake up in the morning feeling better," he said. "I'm more motivated in general, things I want to accomplish. I would say I'm back on track, but I feel like I'm better than that.

"I feel like I'm in a completely different space than I have been in my life."

ESPN's Chantel Jennings contributed to this story.