Depression prevalent in ex-players

Depression after football (6:29)

Jim Trotter sheds light on just how serious the problem of depression is among football players transitioning out of the league. (6:29)

During most of his four-year NFL career with the New Orleans Saints, tight end Eddie "Boo" Williams took the same route to work. He'd head down Airline Drive to Stable Drive, then make a looping left and follow the road to the training facility.

In 2010, five years after his career ended, Williams found himself retracing that path on a sweltering summer afternoon. Only this time he turned right instead of left and wound up at a series of train tracks, where for two days he slept in a cement alcove that shimmied as boxcars passed overhead.

Retirement had not been kind to him. He had lost not only the one consistent source of income he had ever known, but also his identity. The roar of the crowd and the high of being a professional football player were faint memories. Instead of catching passes, he was catching hell -- the low point coming when his fiancée kicked him out of the house because of his drinking and womanizing.

"The tracks were a familiar place that I knew," Williams says. "They were the only place where I knew that no one would be and I would be by myself. I was just trying to figure some things out on my own, which I couldn't do."

On Day 3, he climbed onto the tracks and dropped to his knees. He closed his eyes and said a prayer, asking God to take care of his family and have mercy on his soul. Then he lay down and waited for a train to come.

"What was going through my mind was, you know, taking myself out, ending my life," he says today. "I felt like I was a big disappointment to people. I felt like I was less than a man because of the things I was doing and how I couldn't really provide for my family like I used to. It was tough feeling like you're 3-foot-nothing when you're 6-foot-5. I felt like I didn't have anybody to turn to [who could] understand the things I was going through. I was at the point that I just wanted to end it all."

In January, Williams returned to the scene for the first time since a homeless couple saved his life by helping him off the tracks. As he stood there, his thick legs turned to Jell-O and tears began streaming down his face.

"It's painful," he says. "It's a place where I never thought I would be, a place where I never thought somebody such as myself would try to hurt himself. It brings back so many memories of where I was in that time of my life, and I never want to go back again."

The depression Williams experienced after leaving the game is painfully common. Some of it stems from struggles with a loss of income, or diminished adulation, or the sudden isolation of no longer being part of a team and the camaraderie it brings. Even players who make a successful transition to the "real world" experience withdrawal pangs.

Asked how many retirees suffer from depression, former Packers offensive lineman Aaron Taylor says: "It'd be easier to start with which ones do NOT have depression. Observationally, it's a significant percentage. It varies by degree, obviously, but everyone struggles."

For decades, depression was only discussed in the shadows. Speaking about it publicly was viewed as a sign of weakness. But today, a light is being cast on it by retirees, their families, the league and the NFL Players Association because of life-threatening consequences -- a point that has been magnified with recent revelations linking depression with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head.

CTE affects a person's ability to manage his emotions and to think critically. For individuals who've spent much of their youth and adult life chasing one dream while heeding the football mantra of "one play at a time, one game at a time, one day at a time," that reality can make coping with life after football exponentially more difficult.

"I wanted to leave winning a Super Bowl, rushing for 2,000 yards, then having a press conference and crying at the podium," says Eddie George, a running back who spent eight seasons with the Oilers/Titans franchise before retiring in 2005 after one year with the Cowboys. "I wanted to have that moment, you know? But that didn't happen. I'm sitting at my kitchen table with my cell phone, just waiting for my agent to call for an opportunity with a team. And that's when I realized it was over.

"I had saved my money. I had done well. I had businesses that I had already started. But there was that void, a huge void, of: 'Man, what am I going to do tomorrow morning when I wake up?' It was pretty much, 'Who am I? I'm no longer an athlete.'"

George had known he wanted to be a pro football player from the time he "came out of the womb." His father loved the game so much it was all he talked about at times. Running backs were his favorite, and Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson were like royalty to him.

"He's like, 'Boy, did you see how he toted the rock?'" George recalls. "Everywhere I went I had a football in my hand. I knew that's what I wanted to do because my father always talked about it. He never had the opportunity to live out his dream, so I wanted to carry that out so he could talk about me the same way and I could fulfill that dream that for him."

George's passion for the game grew with each year that he played. After the Oilers selected him out of Ohio State 14th overall in the 1996 draft, he became consumed with chasing greatness. He wanted fathers to talk to their sons about him in the same way his dad spoke to him about Brown and Simpson.

He ran for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first five seasons and for more than 1,000 yards in all but one of his years with the Titans. In his fourth year, he helped Tennessee reach the Super Bowl, a feeling that still brings a wide yet distant smile to his face despite the 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

"It was close to watching your child come into this world," George says. "It can't compare with that -- that's God, that's a beautiful thing. But to watch that dream come to fruition when you come out that tunnel and you see the lights flashing and you see the Roman numerals painted on the field. You see your team's logo and the other team's logo painted in the end zones, and you know it's just you two battling for the Lombardi trophy. I'll never forget it."

As suddenly as the Titans' dreams of a Super Bowl win ended 1 yard shy of the goal line, those types of games, those types of opportunities and those types of relationships with teammates come to a crashing end, forcing players to confront the question they knew would come eventually yet still feel unprepared to answer: What now?

"Many athletes find themselves unprepared for what comes next, both fiscally and emotionally, because they don't have a post-career plan in place," Taylor wrote last year in a first-person column for NCAA.org. "Most of us just don't want to think about a reality that doesn't include the games that we've dedicated our entire lives to playing."

It's a reality that can be difficult to face.

"I didn't get low to the point where I was contemplating taking my life," George says. "But I can see how some players, some people can get to that point."

Larry Burns has heard the stories firsthand. He's the director of the Crosby Centers, a San Diego-area mental health facility that diagnoses and treats individuals dealing with cognitive issues. Many of his recent clients have been active and retired NFL players, including Williams, who now represents the Crosby Centers.

Burns says he sees players suffering from depression and anxiety to the point where they are unable to function in everyday living.

"Several guys have come in here that have had ideations of suicide," Burns said. "They have two children, a beautiful wife, and the wife walks in the bedroom and he's got a gun in his mouth and he's 28 years old. It's countless. It's not one, it's not two, it's many. Individuals who've had guns lined up and writing, telling his buddies, 'I can't deal with this anymore,' and [the friends] go and break into his house and find out he's got guns and he's looking to plan the end of his life."

As stories like these continue to find their way into the light -- and as the connection between CTE and depression becomes more clear -- the number of active and retired players seeking help is increasing. The NFL declined to provide specific statistics, but did say it has seen increased participation in its player engagement programs, including one headed by Dwight Hollier, a former linebacker with the Dolphins and Colts.

The topic is of particular urgency to Hollier because he lived it. He thought he had done everything to prepare himself for life after football, including getting his master's degree while still active. Yet he battled a sense of loss and longing for several years after leaving the game.

"I didn't know what to do," Hollier says. "I sulked. I withdrew. I isolated myself. I just kind of went into a hole. I didn't reach out. There's a stigma with men, with macho men, with athletes, about help-seeking behavior. But I think having conversations and opening up the dialogue has lowered that resistance, and people are reaching out. People are getting the assistance that they need."

The assistance program Hollier runs works with current and former players as well as members of their households.

"You're deemed as a gladiator when you play," George says. "You have to hold your emotions in check, so you suppress a lot of that. So now when your career is done, you kind of carry that same thing with you, that old way of thinking. You have to open yourself up to a new way of saying, 'You know what? I'm weak in this area, and this is where I need help.'"

It took years for George to finally accept that he needed help. Once he began attending counseling sessions he realized that part of his pain was his attempt to live someone else's dream -- namely his father's -- instead of his own. One of his outlets became theater acting in Nashville, Tennessee, something he continues to do today.

"You want to go ahead and say that you gave the game up and you're done with it and you're at peace -- and you may be," George says. "But there's a part of you that dies, and part of death for the person that survives is grieving. If you don't go through that grieving stage, then you're dealing with some [serious] issues. So you gotta allow yourself to go through that. You gotta peel back the onion. You gotta be willing to say, 'OK, this was very real for me. Where do I go now? How do I function? How do I let go? Is there a certain ceremony I need to have to say that this is the end for me and I can move on from this?'"

The struggle to find direction and purpose after football can be seen on the face of Gina Seau, whose ex-husband, 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, shot himself to death in May 2012. It was later discovered that Seau suffered from CTE, which might explain not only the depths of his depression, but also his inability to connect with others later in his life -- such as in 2010 when he spent several days at Gina's home after driving his SUV off an ocean bluff outside San Diego.

"After he drove off the cliff, he couldn't sleep and we would talk," she says. "I was saying that, 'This is a chance, that you have another chance. You're lucky to be alive. You're lucky you're not in a wheelchair or something horrible didn't happen to you. You can walk away from this incident, and God's given you another chance. Let's make it count.' I was trying to be positive and help him see that there's a lot to live for, and there's a lot of good things happening around him, and I was met with a really blank stare. It's like he was looking at me but not really connecting."

At first, Gina thought his behavior may have been a reaction to the accident. Now she believes that it was part of his depression.

"The longest we would ever go without communicating was several weeks, but on this occasion we didn't hear from him for 2½ to three months. I asked him, 'Where have you been? What's been going on?' He just said, 'G, I'm just in a really dark place.' His exact words I remember were, 'I'm so dark that even picking up my surfboard doesn't make me happy. That wouldn't even put a smile on my face.'"

The NFL fraternity has seen too many of its brothers take their lives in recent years, among them Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Paul Oliver. There even have been incidents on the college level, such as Kosta Karageorge of Ohio State. Before shooting himself, Karageorge left a note for his mother saying that his head was messed up from concussions.

Williams hears the names and shivers. He's scared not only at how close he came to having his name on that list because of his depressed state, but also at how many others are struggling to stay off it.

"Depression is real," he says. "Guys are out there thinking about killing themselves every day. I mean, not too long ago I reached out to one of my friends, a former teammate, just to reach out, just to check on him and see how he was doing. He called me back and told me that God must've made me call him. I asked him why, and the answer was that he was sitting down with a .45 in his lap, contemplating blowing his brains out. That just made me cringe, because I was at that point one time. I know what he was feeling. Like I said, I know what Junior Seau went through, because I was there mentally. I was there. And it's just a part of the game that you wish that wasn't there."