The battle within Larry Sanders

"We don't do a very good job with mental health," said an NBA team executive as he looked down at the sad contents of his boxed lunch and sighed. "We don't have any answers, and we're not doing a good job looking for them."

This was three years ago at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in Boston. I'd asked about the status of a player who had had some early success but had fallen off the NBA map after a short stint with the exec's team.

He lamented that, too often, he and his head coach were charged with the job of evaluating and counseling guys who, in his estimation, were likely suffering from mental health conditions that professionals should be diagnosing, then treating. The exec said that he had taken it upon himself to read up on current trends in brain research but that he was in far over his head.

About 15 months later, a general manager from a different team called and vented about his helplessness with a recent signee who, he suspected, was grappling with mental health issues. The player was visiting an independent psychologist not associated with the team, but his problems persisted. The league offered mentorship from player-development specialists who were well-versed in advising players on how to handle their newfound wealth and family issues, but the GM said it probably wasn't enough. Hunting for a solution, he approached the team owner about investing in a mental health program for his new signee.

"I just gave him $30 million worth of mental health," the owner said.

Two months later, the general manager enumerated additional concerns he had, including the ineffectualness of the players' union in pushing for mental health reforms and a league substance abuse policy that punished players for smoking weed, but didn't do an adequate job of addressing underlying mental health issues that might be driving the offending player to self-medicate.

Mental health in the NBA is a difficult issue to speak about openly. Teams and psychologists are bound by a code of confidentiality, making it nearly impossible to share stories of players' successes or struggles. And as sympathetic as a team executive might be to a player with a mental health condition, his performance is ultimately judged on the productivity of those he puts in the locker room. The slightest inkling that a draftee or free agent might have a condition that could make him uncoachable or strain locker room chemistry usually means it's best to look for an equivalent talent who can perform the job without the baggage. And from the perspective of many owners -- in any industry -- mental wellness is something that's priced into compensation. Want worker's comp for your troubles? Check your direct deposit.

Skepticism has been bred on the players' side as well. A player with a torn ligament can examine an MRI result with a world-class orthopedic surgeon and actually recognize the tear. He undergoes a procedure, takes prescribed medication, goes through rehab. Along the road back to health, there are signposts -- pain, mobility, confidence in his body when he returns to the court.

With mental illness, progress is more difficult to measure. And for players who are accustomed to the more linear timetables and concrete results, that can be frustrating.

This presents a stubborn paradox for NBA teams: Mental health treatment for players can't realize maximum effectiveness until there are first-class services in place. But it's hard to sell owners, management and players on shelling out for first-class services until they're proved effective.

All the while, NBA players struggle in the shadows. Virtually everyone in the league can rattle off names of current or former players who needed serious help but never found it. A player who is getting razzed on social media for pouting his way through a season is actually dealing with the sexual assault of a loved one who lives across the country. Another player who seems uncomposed on the floor and confrontational with teammates and coaches suffers from acute anxiety and the prescribed medications are having an adverse effect. Read deeper into any story about fragile team chemistry or "off-court behavior" and there's likely a component of mental health embedded inside.

That's where Larry Sanders comes in.

The Milwaukee Bucks are a team that has tried to make strides in mental health treatment in recent seasons. About a year ago, they brought on a local licensed psychologist named Ramel Smith as team psychologist. Smith, 42, had spent most of the previous decade at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and with the state's department of corrections. Smith's office isn't more than 30 feet from the practice court at the Bucks' training facility in St. Francis, south of downtown Milwaukee. He wears team workout gear, and, unless you knew better, you'd figure he was a member of the training staff.

And that's the idea -- to impress upon players that Smith is an essential part of the operation. Even more important, the team wants players to know that Smith's services as a mental health professional are as integral to their overall well-being as any treatment being administered in the trainers' room. He travels with the team so he can observe who is gregarious, who might be expressing sensitivities, who is withdrawn.

After spending time with Smith in his office for about half an hour in December -- because of sensitivities about confidentiality, the Bucks requested our conversation be on background only -- I visited with Sanders, the team's center and second-longest-tenured player on the roster, in the Bucks' players lounge.

"Dobbs There's no book. There are no guidelines. There's really not much guidance. Everything at once -- family, home ... life. Then, being a professional who has to perform on the court. It's intense: The minute something happens, it's on the Web. A million people are talking about it. Privacy is completely taken away. It's almost like that privacy is exchanged for money. But you can't buy peace." Larry Sanders

Before departing from the NBA and releasing a five-minute video documenting his battle with mental health issues, Sanders had spent all five of his NBA seasons with the Bucks. He had seen how the team's mental health services had evolved over that time as a young player who had wrestled on occasion with what we often term "off-court" issues. In 2013, he was cited twice in January for animal cruelty for leaving his dogs outside in the freezing cold, then in November was involved in a nightclub brawl, for which no charges were filed. In 2014, he tested positive for marijuana for a third time, which triggered a five-game suspension while sidelined with an injury.

After that suspension, Sanders defended his usage passionately. And from the outset of our conversation, he spoke candidly of his mental health struggles and put them into the context of his playing career.

"People don't take into account that we're all very young men," Sanders said. "Scientifically, the brain doesn't stop developing. ... A guy comes into the league and it's nine or 10 years before his brain stops developing, for them to be settled with their true emotions, their cognitive reasoning, their rationality. This is the last thing to develop. But we're put into these positions where we're put on a pedestal. But chemically, we're not even fully developed yet."

Science generally backs up Sanders' claim about brain development, as there's a trove of research that has determined that the brain doesn't reach full maturity until a person is in his mid-20s. In describing his condition, Sanders said his goal was to start a meaningful conversation about the burdens faced by those who suffer from mental health issues and to dispel popular perceptions: stigmas that dog those who deal with depression and anxiety, the language in which we talk about "head cases" and "mentally soft" players in sports and, in particular, notions that the fame and financial rewards that accompany life in the NBA should compensate for any suffering. Eleven weeks before reciting his testimonial for the video, he voiced many of these thoughts over lunch.

"I get put in certain situations now that I never did before -- we all do -- and we have to learn how to maneuver in those situations. There's no book. There are no guidelines. There's really not much guidance," Sanders said. "Everything at once -- family, home ... life. Then, being a professional who has to perform on the court. It's intense: The minute something happens, it's on the Web. A million people are talking about it. Privacy is completely taken away. It's almost like that privacy is exchanged for money. But you can't buy peace."

Sanders said he'd started seeing a psychologist after his first positive test result for marijuana, which requires a player receive treatment, during the 2013-14 season. He had torn a ligament in his right thumb and had his left eye socket fractured. He was prescribed Vicodin for the pain, he said, but hated it. In lieu of traditional painkillers, he said, he turned to marijuana.

"I'd had a good run of not violating, but after the eye injury, because I didn't want to use the Vicodin," Sanders said. "The effects it has on the body -- there's a lot of medication out there that will really [screw] you up. For me, my health, my safety. That's important."

That he preferred it to synthetic painkillers, which he maintained presented a high risk of addiction, was the extent to what Sanders had to say about marijuana. "I like to take a more natural approach," he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 16,000 people died from prescription painkillers in 2012. Research on whether marijuana can serve as an effective painkiller has been inconclusive, and you can find clinical studies that back up just about any point of view, including the idea that marijuana doesn't treat pain so much as the emotional response to pain.

Although Sanders prefers marijuana's natural quality and feels its effects are gentler, it's exceedingly difficult to find a professional clinician who will back him. They maintain that whatever effects it might have treating pain, marijuana unequivocally does not help mental health or performance and can exacerbate a condition such as depression.

"It has the potential to damage the brain," says Ira Glick, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford who has consulted for or worked with the NBA and NFL. "[Sanders] should have a competent physician to manage his pain problems, as well as diagnose and treat his mental and/or psychiatric problems."

Sanders said he didn't want to get caught up in a conversation about marijuana policy or its potential to treat chronic pain. If anything, he said, marijuana usage is merely a symptom of the much more debilitating mental health issues.

"Larry is right about that," said a league power broker familiar with Sanders' situation. "The league's substance abuse policy isn't structured to distinguish between mental health issues and substance abuse issues. The treatment plans are as much punitive as designed to truly help. There's got to be a better answer than the one we have."

By no means is Sanders qualified to explain the chemical complexities of the human mind, but scientists on the cutting edge of brain research and sports medicine aren't laughing at Sanders' explanations. Ask them about the relationship between athletic performance and mental health and they'll frame the issue in language that's eerily similar to what Sanders volunteered.

If a player tears an ACL, the menu of treatment options is pretty well-defined, and for an NBA player, that treatment will be top of the line. If the best provider practices in Germany, book a ticket. Want a second opinion? Be our guest. Surgeons Neal ElAttrache and James Andrews are practically celebrities. Teams will spare no expense to provide whatever resources are needed or desired for the player's rehab.

The field where mental health and sports intersect is in its relative infancy. Sports psychologists started popping in with regularity a couple of decades ago, but most of them worked in the realm of performance -- say, for a guy who was having trouble finding the strike zone or converting free throws. If a player had issues that stretched outside the boundaries of the field of play, he'd be put in touch with a person from the league's player development program, the group that helps to mentor players on life management skills, or be given a referral to an independent medical professional.

Recently, more teams such as the Bucks have brought on full-time specialists, but this development is still very new. Many teams still believe that, in the words of one general manager, "It's dangerous to have someone on staff" because the presence of a mental health professional can breed "mistrust."

"There is often a view that sports psychology and mental health are on two different ends of a spectrum, and it's important to impress upon players that's not the case," says Chris Carr, sport and performance psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, who has consulted with the Pacers. "When a team performance psychologist is incorporated into the player's support system -- along with athletic trainers, physical therapists, strength coaches -- it allows each player the best opportunity to deal with their full psychological 'health' without stigma being attached."

This much we now know: When people suffering from a condition such as depression experience acute stress, this can affect the composition of their brain. When there's trauma -- incidents of abuse carried from childhood, or even something like, say, the trials of overcoming a potential career-ending injury -- that can compromise cognition. Disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder require professional treatment that's no less regimented and aggressive than the world-class care athletes receive when they're rehabbing a knee injury or a torn Achilles.

"We talk about physical injuries all the time, such as a torn rotator cuff, and know that untreated injury can lead to serious concerns and possible surgery," says Dr. Laura Marin, the medical director at the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Hospital. "The psychological equivalent would be something like major depression; if left untreated it could lead to more serious symptoms, such as weight loss, impaired concentration, loss of energy and motivation, suicidal ideation or substance use. This requires more intense treatment."

As a kid, basketball never nourished Sanders. He was thrust onto the court as a high school sophomore because his mere presence beneath the hoop offered instant rim protection. But jock wasn't Sanders' tribe. He was both freak and geek -- an introvert who spent hours with a drawing pad and skateboarding the streets of Vero Beach, then Fort Pierce, Florida.

"Basketball wasn't ever my therapy," Sanders said. "It wasn't there for me as a little kid. It wasn't my go-to -- 'Go shoot some hoops.' For me, it was 'Go draw a picture. Go create some art.'"

Sanders said his difficult home life was a source of anxiety from an early age. At a young age, Sanders, along his mother and sister, vacated the house they were living in, moving around from a shelter to crashing with relatives.

"It was something I knew was there, just from observing him, and one conversation with his mom," Kareem Rodriguez, Sanders' coach at Port St. Lucie High School, said. "Unfortunately, his experiences are similar with a lot of young men. You knew he'd seen things, even if he didn't talk about them."

During the fall of Sanders' sophomore year of high school, a member of the basketball team saw him towering over a crowd at an open house for extracurriculars at Port St. Lucie and alerted Rodriguez. Like a lot of kids in central Florida at that time, Sanders drew inspiration from Tracy McGrady, only Sanders didn't have any discernible skills. Rodriguez was already establishing a few other post players, so he assigned Sanders to the JV squad, with which he caught up on Defense 101. Toward the end of that season and the beginning of his junior year on the varsity team, Sanders took off.

"He was so much of a factor creating missed shots," Rodriguez said. "The opposing team couldn't get to the rim. They just had to start throwing stuff up because he was there. It allowed us to take more chances. Our experienced guys got out on the wing and denied. His presence allowed us to create an entire identity defensively based on everyone trusting him in the back."

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Sanders established himself as a menace in the lane and grew to 6-11. He became even more aggressive as he built confidence that, as the most intimidating player in the gym, he had great control over what transpired on the floor and, in particular, in the paint. To some extent, this spilled over to his demeanor away from the floor in that, in the right context, he developed his inner extrovert, so to speak.

"When he started to gain some notoriety, if young kid came to say hello, or parent with a child, or an interviewer, he was so personable," Rodriguez said. "He'd be nice to the kids. He had quotes for the newspaper. It was amazing to watch him switch from being a shy person to being a budding superstar who could bring people in."

Managing his intensity has been an ongoing project for Sanders, something that has continued with the Bucks, who chose him at No. 15 in the 2010 draft. Rodriguez recounted moments when it was difficult to contain Sanders' temper -- a teammate getting hit hard on a breakaway, or a call going against him. At the pro level, there's only so much a coaching staff will tolerate from a young player, so Sanders had to get creative.

"I remember in my rookie year, he started getting a few [technical fouls]," Bucks big man John Henson said. "What he started to do was write Bible verses on his hands. If a call didn't go his way, he'd look at them and it would calm him down."

Eleven days after Sanders sat in the players lounge talking about the trials young athletes face with regard to their mental health, he logged his last minutes with the Bucks in the team's home loss vs. Charlotte on Dec. 23. For the remainder of the month, his absence was listed as an illness. On Jan. 2, Bucks coach Jason Kidd volunteered "personal reasons" for Sanders' presence on the inactive list.

Four days later, Sanders showed up to the Bradley Center in Milwaukee before a Bucks game against Phoenix. He denied reports that had circulated on social media that he didn't want to play basketball anymore and told the media, "I'm trying to get to the root of a lot of issues and get them corrected. Without getting them corrected, I don't think basketball is something I could do."

The next day over the phone, Sanders spoke about how he wanted to define accomplishment in life and finding his true self -- and how that had nothing to do with money. His thoughts were more discursive than our previous conversation had been. He spoke at length about how traditional ways of defining happiness cause people to distort their pursuit of actual happiness. Asked how he would respond to those who felt that he was squandering his talent or betraying his commitment to his team, he said he didn't have an answer and added, "There's no reason to listen to the conversation."

At that point, Sanders agreed that it would be useful for him to put a few of these ideas, along with the more general views he voiced in the players lounge about mental wellness and the challenges faced by young pro ballplayers, into a self-authored letter. A drafted letter composed of language he used was passed back and forth, with Sanders tweaking language here and there. For example, he wanted to make sure he didn't speak in absolutes and requested the language be moderated accordingly.

Sanders wanted some time to write a strong conclusion. Then, on Jan. 16, he was hit with another suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy. The letter would also need to address this new development, and about a week later we met for breakfast in Milwaukee.

At breakfast, Sanders was approached by a 50-something financial analyst from suburban Milwaukee. Sanders' large frame had just folded itself into a chair at a window table in the cafe inside the Pfister Hotel.

The consultant apologized for the interruption, then paused for Sanders to give him an OK before continuing. Sanders smiled at the guy, as if to say, "It's OK, man. Two strangers can engage each other in a hotel restaurant without a security clearance." The smile reassured the man, who gently set his business card face down on the table in front of Sanders. He then flipped the card over and pointed to a message scrawled in pencil on the back, which the consultant chose to read aloud.

"Larry, you're a great ball player with a huge heart. Get back soon."

Sanders politely thanked him. The man nodded, apologized again for the interruption, then walked back to his table across the restaurant.

"There are people out there who don't judge, who just want to support," Sanders said. "They genuinely care and they express that because they can relate. They see the humanity in the situation. They say, 'Ah, I've been there.'"

As he worked on a turkey sausage and cheese croissant with green tea, Sanders discussed more specifically than he had on the phone how he'd been spending his time since leaving the Bucks. Sanders described the weeks since Christmas as "a mental and spiritual training camp." He spent the first few weeks of January at his Milwaukee home among friends and family or in solitude, with a good deal of time devoted to meditation, often led by an instructor, and yoga.

"A lot of meditation," Sanders said. "It's been awesome. Meditation isn't about control. It's about surrendering, about letting your mind run free for a little bit. You just sit there, as a supervisor of your thoughts. You just observe them. It's a very strange spiritual experience, just allowing them to be there."

He declined to speak about his 4-year-old son, who is staying with family for the time being, and his mom, who he says has "seen enough in her life." He said he occasionally ventured out to a friend's apartment building, where he uses the treadmill for light work.

"The one thing I want people to understand -- I've been doing a lot of work," Sanders said of the period after his leave from the Bucks. "I've been productive with my health and well-being and my spirituality. That's important to me. It goes beyond everything else."

Sanders explained that, in mid-December, it became clear that the work in question couldn't be accomplished within the framework of the NBA season. Around that time, he said he started to feel achy and physically unwell, then declined even more after the Dec. 23 home loss to Charlotte.

"The thing about me is that I'm an all-or-nothing kind of guy," Sanders said. "I can't go in and not be fully there. I want to give it my all, out of respect for the work. That's why people admire when they watch. They feel like a guy is working as hard as he can. So I just want people to know that I'm working as hard as I can now, too."

After that loss, Kidd held a particularly tough practice in an effort to jump-start the team.

"Coach Kidd had it like we were in boot camp," Bucks forward Jared Dudley said. "He had us running, and he wanted to let everyone know how their role was defined."

According to Dudley, Sanders walked out of practice abruptly, before the sprints. Teammates had to pursue him to come back inside.

"It seemed weird at the time," Dudley said. "In this league, you're going to have players and coaches who disagree. That's the nature of the game. But I just thought that was odd."

A day or two later, Sanders left the team. Dudley reached out to Sanders by text, but he didn't hear back, which he said was uncharacteristic.

"He got along with everyone," Dudley said. "You could tell he was artsy. But he was a great guy. He went out with the guys, for dinner and stuff. I would just say that things started to change at the very end."

Back at breakfast, Sanders said his goal was to start a meaningful conversation about the burdens faced by those who suffer from mental health issues and to dispel popular perceptions: stigmas that dog those who deal with depression and anxiety, the language used in sports to characterize such people and, in particular, notions that the fame and financial rewards that accompany life in the NBA should compensate for any suffering.

"I want to open that door for guys," Sanders said. "It's hard for people in my field to respect mental health. We say that the game is 90 percent mental, but yet mental health doesn't get the respect of, like, an ACL. The game is 90 percent mental, but we're going to ignore your mental health."

Sanders declined to describe his vision of what such a solution should look like because, he said, he's not a mental health professional. He did introduce some small-scale suggestions. He said he'd love to see a network of meetings in every NBA city -- similar to Alcoholics Anonymous -- where players can gather in support of one another away during down time on an off day or after shootaround at a site away from the arena. Many players find solace at chapel, but Sanders said he'd prefer something nondenominational that doesn't occur just moments before tipoff, when guys are consumed with their pregame routine.

"We need a culture of support," he said. "A place where we can come together and there's no judgment."

One of Sanders' pet theories is that elite defensive players are particularly susceptible to mental health conditions because playing defense at an NBA level demands a strong degree of nervous energy. As evidence, Sanders points out Ron Artest and Dennis Rodman as examples of players who, like him, are wired differently.

"Anxiety is a big part of playing defense," Sanders said. "I think there's a reason defensive players are the guys who fall into that category. They use that anxiety."

As plates were cleared, Sanders volunteered his plan. The next morning, he was scheduled to check into a mental health facility 45 minutes from Milwaukee to get more intensive treatment for his depression and anxiety. It would be a 30-day program run by top-flight professionals that could finally provide him with the care he sought. As he described the daily regimen of counseling, he seemed at peace with the decision.

Weeks before he admitted in video that he checked into a facility at Rogers Memorial Hospital, Sanders asked that the news of his enrollment there not be made public. He acknowledged that, in some respect, the request contradicted his belief that mental health issues needed to be destigmatized. But as long as he was pursuing advanced treatment, he didn't want the issue shrouded by any buzz generated by the public admission of his status.

Sanders' stint at the mental health facility was brokered by several parties, including his representatives, the National Basketball Players Association and the Bucks. As a provision of his drug suspension, Sanders was required to receive drug treatment, but, according to sources, his agents and the players' association pleaded with the league to have Sanders treated under the purview of mental health rather than substance abuse.

"That wasn't an easy fight," said a source close to the situation.

According to two sources close to the process, Sanders had stopped returning the Bucks' phone calls and, before his drug suspension kicked in, had stopped going to practice and meetings. The Bucks had worked with the league to offer Sanders multiple mental health referrals but eventually became frustrated enough to consider more punitive measures, like a suspension from the team.

Ultimately, all parties came together for "a grand compromise," according to one of the sources. Sanders would receive independent treatment, meaning the facility had no relationship with the NBA or with the Bucks. It was an arrangement agreed to by all parties but facilitated solely by Sanders' representatives and the players' association.

The NBA Player Association's general counsel, Gary Kohlman, declined to comment for this story.

"We view it as a shared responsibility, one that includes the player, as well," NBA spokesman Michael Bass said. "We've worked hard to remove the stigma associated with mental health and the notion of 'getting help' for players, but that's an ongoing process and one that the league, teams and [players' association] are committed to."

"People come to me and say, 'Coach, I'd love to be in his shoes.' I say, 'You might want to be in his shoes, but you wouldn't want to be in his mind.'" Kareem Rodriguez, Larry Sanders' high school basketball coach, on Sanders

During the first two weeks of his stay at the facility, Sanders sounded upbeat. He texted about Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's truculence with the media during the lead-up to the Super Bowl, which he said gave him insight into his own temperament (though Sanders has always been far more communicative and friendly with the media). Sanders said he was continuing his regular meditation and enjoying his sessions with professionals on staff at the facility.

However, more than a week before his scheduled departure from the facility, Sanders checked out, much to the consternation of those who helped orchestrate his treatment program. The plan was to stay four weeks, but Sanders departed more than a week before his scheduled departure and flew to the Caribbean.

"He says he wants the best treatment, but then he rejects the treatment," said an involved source who was disappointed because he said Sanders' advocates went to great lengths to find him a treatment regimen that would allow him to address his issues.

Soon after he departed the facility, Sanders instructed his agents to seek a buyout from the Bucks, against their advice. For his part, Sanders didn't have anything unkind to say about any parties involved in his treatment, including the Bucks. Those who have been working closely with him to arrange for care said that the team's management, after some initial resistance, had been responsive to Sanders' situation. At the time Sanders signed a four-year $44 million contract extension in August 2013, the Bucks agreed to extend Sanders mental health protections. This meant that, should Sanders suffer from conditions that could be diagnosed as mental health-related, he'd be protected under the terms as long as he complied with a mental health treatment plan -- just as is the case contractually with the recovery from physical injury. In other words, he would have gotten paid even if he didn't play basketball.

Sources who have been active in arranging care for Sanders worry that the financial security that comes with the buyout of his contract with Milwaukee for "about 40 cents on the dollar" presents a real risk that he won't seek the treatment he, by his own admission, desperately needs and will fall into a routine of bad habits. One of these sources agrees with the characterization that surfaced in December reports that Sanders no longer wanted to play basketball.

"This is an important issue, but Larry is not the person to be the public face of it," the source said. "He says all the right things, now he has no credibility. You have to ask, 'Does he sincerely want treatment, or just to be left to do whatever he wants?'"

If he had remained under contract with the Bucks, Sanders still would have been able to draw a paycheck despite not playing as long as he complied with a mental health treatment plan, according to sources. Now that he's off contract, there's no structure in place for him.

"He could've gotten paid, gotten full treatment, support," another source close to the negotiations said. "But that would've meant going to practice, getting coached, being part of the team, stop smoking weed, doing the treatment."

Some close to Sanders' situation are unsurprised by his actions. They portray him as a guy who excels at framing themes like these eloquently, but more to service his own image than to bring light to a misunderstood issue.

"He says all the right things, and a lot of these things are right on, no question," one source said. "If guys had access to better treatment, and people were more open-minded about it, we'd have a much healthier league. But I don't think he buys it."

A couple of agents I've spoken to regularly about the issue of mental health in the NBA have been watching the Sanders situation closely. Both expressed concern that Sanders' pursuit of a buyout could be detrimental to the cause of getting elite mental health care for NBA players going forward.

"I have a real fear that teams will stop negotiating those mental health protections in the future," one leading agent said.

Sanders' high school coach, Kareem Rodriguez, expressed concern for Sanders moving forward. Rodriguez has remained in contact with Sanders and conveys a certain protectiveness of him as he shares details.

"I'm extremely worried about him," Rodriguez said. "But I believe he's very aware of what his struggles are, and I hope he's focused on getting the helps he needs. It bothers me when I read things about him that's not true. They don't know his struggles.

"People come to me and say, 'Coach, I'd love to be in his shoes.' I say, 'You might want to be in his shoes, but you wouldn't want to be in his mind.'"