Mind Games: How Mental Illness in Sports is No Laughing Matter…

Being “Crazy” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

“Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.”

— Nora Ephron

Editor’s Note: I originally started this blog on September 29, 2009, but got sidetracked by life and never got around to finishing it.

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — To be a professional athlete, you have to be a special. Physical gifts, mental toughness, strong will, and a competitive fire are all key to success. And, well, you also have to be a little crazy. You have the zany old-school craziness of late Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych talking to the ball, and grooming the mound. You have the outlandish behavior of Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who declared himself the “greatest of all time” when he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record (with Brock standing next to him), slid into home plate after hitting a home run for his 3,000th career hit, and often spoke in the third person.  You have the nuttiness of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee who amongst other wackiness claimed that his marijuana use made him impervious to bus fumes while jogging to Fenway Park. o_O This type of eccentric behavior behavior is good for a laugh, doesn’t really hurt anybody, and actually adds to the appeal and charm of a player. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. This blog deals with the not-so-sunny side of nutty that goes either unnoticed in pro sports or, worse, is ridiculed by those who don’t understand it.

One of the more recent high-profile athlete arrests, because you know an athlete gets arrested once every 10 days, is the rather peculiar tale of Delonte West, the sometimes starting point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers. West was speeding up a Maryland highway on his motorcycle when he happened to cut off a police officer. The cop chased him down and pulled him over to find him in possession of three guns: a Beretta 9mm, a Ruger .357 Magnum, and a Remington 870 shotgun, the latter of which was hidden in a guitar case like something out of the Godfather. Where was he going with three fully loaded heaters? We’ll never know…thankfully. However, what came to light from this is that West suffers from Depression and Bipolar Disorder.

Being bipolar, which is also described as being manic-depressive, can lead to sudden and occasionally violent changes in mood and behavior. West says he’s been dealing with this “mood disorder” most of his life and has been on anti-depression medication and has sought therapy. Well, whatever it is, it hasn’t exactly worked. But being Bipolar is not an uncommon thing in pro sports.  Many athletes have had manic episodes in recent memory, often with bad endings. These would include Barrett Robbins, the former Oakland Raiders offensive lineman, who confessed to having manic episodes during games and infamously went AWOL during Super Bowl week in San Diego in 2002. Robbins slipped out of the hotel the night before the game, caught a cab to Tijuana, and went on an all-night bender. He didn’t play in the game the next day, and the Raiders got smashed in the Super Bowl.

There’s former Michigan State Defensive Lineman Dimitrius Underwood. Underwood was a stud defensive end for the Spartans during the late 1990s, but the coaches (including Nick Saban) knew that he was not all there. It came to light when he freaked out after being drafted. He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings and signed a 5 year, $5.3 million contract on August 1, 1999. He subsequently walked out of training camp on August 2, 1999, claiming he had a mental conflict over “playng football and serving his Christian faith”. A month later he attempted to commit suicide by repeatedly slashing his throat and claiming that he “was not worthy of God.” o_O After landing with the Miami Dolphins, he escaped from a mental institution. He eventually ended up with the Dallas Cowboys and after three decent season attempted to kill himself by running into oncoming traffic. He also did jail time for assault and aggravated robbery.

There’s Ron Artest, currently playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. His erratic and violent behavior has plagued the NBA for 10 years, yet rarely translated into craziness off the floor (save for an incident where he was once assaulted by his wife). His biggest claims to fame are his admitted claims to drinking Hennessey in the Locker Room while with the Chicago Bulls, and that little thing known as the Malice at the Palace in 2004.

If there isn’t a group of more mentally stressed athletes out there, they would have to be Major League Pitchers. Take for a prime example a name that will raise the ire of many people here in Detroit: Dontrelle Willis. Willis was a bona fide star with the Florida Marlins. He was the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year, a runner up for the NL Cy Young Award in 2005. He became the 12th Black Pitcher to win 20 games that same year (the first since Oakland’s Dave Stewart 15 years earlier). He is the rare pitcher that can actually hit…and hit for power. When he was traded to the Tigers in 2007, my jaw damn near hit the floor. But something seemed amiss when he got here. And in his first start as a Tiger painted a picture very familiar to me.

When Pitchers lose “it”, they tend to lose “it” quickly. Rick Ankiel comes to mind. But what happened to Dontrelle was something completely different. His first 2008 start came against the White Sox. It was brutally apparent something was wrong. He took a no-hitter into the 6th inning, but through five innings, he also had five walks. Walks number six and seven preceeded an RBI Double and Willis was gone from the game. His concentration was shot. On the mound he had a look of uncertain fear. In his next start, again against the White Sox but this time in Chicago, Willis walked the first two batters he faced, and threw a wild pitch to the third before being pulled with a “knee injury.” He didn’t have a knee injury. He was suffering from an anxiety disorder. And I knew it.

The way I know this is because I have an Anxiety Disorder. I have been suffering from anxiety attacks since 2006. It can be one of the most intensely awful things to go through. Willis just happened to be going through it on live television and in a stadium with 43,000 people watching. The Tigers didn’t acknowledge it until a year later. It is similar to the one that cost Zack Greinke of the Kansas City Royals two years of his career. They can strike without warning and are often a combination of hormonal and chemical imbalances brought about by stress. Willis had a game on June 4, 2009 where it was very obvious that he was having an Anxiety attack on the mound. He enters the bottom of the 3rd inning against Boston, with the Tigers leading 3-0. After cruising through the first two innings, he gets two quick strikes on Jacoby Ellsbury, then accidently hits him with the 0-2 pitch. Willis, clearly flustered on the mound, then walked the next batter Julio Lugo. After striking out the next batter, he then proceeded to walk Dustin Pedroia, J.D. Drew, and Kevin Youkilis. His pitches were getting progressively worse, including multiple ones flying wildly out of the strike zone. By the time Jim Leyland pulled him from the game, he’d walked in a run w/out giving up a single hit. The Red Sox scored 5 more runs and won the game 6-3. Willis made two more starts in June and wasn’t seen again.

I have heard the numerous talking head slap-nuts and average ass-clown fans ridicule Willis as being mentally weak and soft, and saying that the anxiety disorder is a phony illness. I call bullshit on all those. Until you have gone from laughing at a TV show, or reading a book, taking a nap, or eating dinner to falling into the fetal position in tears, don’t speak on what’s real. If anyone pays attention to the beginning of the Spider-Man or X-Men movies, you may notice that Marvel Comic graphic with the comic pages rapidly flipping. That’s what an anxiety attack is like. Everything around you is going 100 mph and you just want it to stop. Some people get nauseous. Your heart starts racing. You may be unable to catch your breath or see straight. You may get extremely hot or cold. It basically renders you incapable of walking. I rushes over you like a hurricane. It feels horrible for 5 or 10 minutes, then subsides for a couple of minutes, then the back end gets you even worse before it finally ends. Now, go through that 3 times a week (or a day), and tell me how “phony” it is.

I’m by no means not excusing any athlete’s erratic, violent, and criminal shenanigans. I am simply explaining some of the reasons some of these dudes are just plain goofy. I can guarantee Terrell Owens has some form of a mental disorder, and I’m not trying to be funny. Cats like Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson are whores for attention, but I doubt he’s legitimately nuts. But before we write off high-profile people with issues such as Anxiety Disorders, Depression (something else I have suffered from), Bipolar Disorder and others as “weak” and “crazy”, think of what kind of a circus their minds are. Think of how no amount of money and fame is gonna calm down the instability in their heads. When you clowns like to say that athletes and celebs “are people too”, you are correct. But so are the one’s who have mental health issues. And BTW, I’m referring to the cats who have legit issues, not the assholes who just can’t stay out of trouble.

My issues are ones that most people wouldn’t readily notice, but I am dealing with them as best I can. It’s not easy because I never know when one will rush over me. I just take it one day at a time. Don’t worry, you won’t hear of me blazing up the Lodge Freeway on a Ducati 848, strapped from head-to-toe like the Punisher (that’s partially because I’m not a motorcycle guy), nor will I streak into a crowd of people punching white dudes over a drink getting thrown on me. I simply ask for understanding of what I’m dealing with, because you never know what’s going on in someone’s head. And if you have a friend or family member suffering from a mental health issue, don’t shun them or treat them like their less of a person, just try to be there for them and support them, even if they just need someone to talk to or calm them down during an attack. Black people, I’m especially talking to YOU! No one is “normal”. It’s just that some of us are more abnormal than others.

Until Next Time, That’s The Way It Is. Saturday, March 13, 2010.

The 112th day since the Detroit Lions’ Last Victory

Take Care, God Bless, Always Dare to Be Different, and G.O.M.A.B. Σ

P.S.: Daylight Savings Time Starts Tonight. Don’t forget to Set Those Clocks Forward an Hour at 2:00a or you’re gonna be an hour early for everything tomorrow. #kbye

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Jay Scott Smith

What’s Happening! The name’s Jason…but for the sake of this blog, you can call me Jay or Jay Scott. I am a 37-year-old Journalist, Detroit Native, Man of Sigma, and Charismatic Enigma…That About Covers it for me! lol You wanna get in contact w/me, well, here you go! G.O.M.A.B. to my Blu Family! (ΦΒΣ/ΖΦΒ)

2 thoughts on “Mind Games: How Mental Illness in Sports is No Laughing Matter…”

  1. Very informative piece.

    I was wondering, do athletes go through a battery of psychological exams before entering the league or as a part of a yearly requirement?


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