In football and in life, few people have hit the lottery the way Steve Smith Sr. has.
Smith played 16 years in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens, gaining 14,271 receiving yards and 81 receiving touchdowns while making five Pro Bowls and earning two All-Pro honors.
“Pretty good, right?’’ he said in a letter that was posted on NFL.com.
But the letter wasn’t about his success on the field. It was to reveal that Smith suffered from depression despite all of his success on the field.
It’s easy to think the people suffer from depression are dealing with failure. But it happens to successful people, too.
It is always a plus when a star athlete goes public with his depression because it may help others to seek help.
Not that Smith is alone in going public. Michael Phelps, Jerry West and Terry Bradshaw are just three of the many examples of star athletes going public with their depression problems.
Noting that Brian Dawkins touched on the issue of mental health at his Hall of Fame induction, Smith wrote, “It’s crucial for everyone to know that acknowledging personal struggles isn’t a sign of weakness, but one of strength. Too often taboo, depression is shut behind closed doors — especially in a tough-guy sport like football, with a social media environment that glorifies successes and status.
“The first time I stepped into a counseling session was in 2002, when I saw a sports psychologist.” he continued. ”I was able to retain what helped me reach my peak performance and able to get in the zone, shutting out the noise and negative thoughts on the field. I did that with flying colors, but I wasn’t able to grasp that concept in my life outside of the game. I couldn’t quiet the noise and negative thoughts in my mind. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the game at the end of the 2016 NFL season that I really began to take ownership and understand my personal journey with depression.”
Despite all his success, he said he never truly enjoyed those moments, never felt genuine delight in his accomplishments
He said he often thought, “What’s wrong with me?
“Despite all of my achievements, I routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone. This overwhelmed me internally and often left me mentally, physically and emotionally broken. Thinking back to when I experienced these emotions most significantly, several specific moments come to mind …
“One goes all the way back to the 2003 NFC Championship Game, when we, the Carolina Panthers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles. I should have been elated that we were headed to the organization’s first Super Bowl in its ninth year of existence. Yet, I couldn’t get over the fact that we didn’t perform well statistically in the 14-3 win, and hadn’t effectively thrown the ball, with just 101 passing yards in that game. I was so upset I couldn’t even get myself to hold the conference trophy. We earned the opportunity to become world champions, but in that victory, I felt defeated.
“Generally, throughout much of my life, unhappiness, constant self-criticism and an inability to let old blunders go weighed so heavily on my mind. I can recall hundreds of these moments, on and off the gridiron, when I felt inept. It really took a toll on my mental state.
“In 2013, my final year in Carolina, I hit a point where I was so overwhelmed that I wasn’t sure what to do or how to handle my emotions. Small things in my daily life impacted me in a big way, and I was a cynic of everything and everyone. It was at that point I decided — with hesitancy — to try counseling for non-football related matters for the first time in my life. So I went; rather, I had my counselor meet me at my home, because I feared someone would see me walking into a session in a public place. I really had a hard time realizing just how much I wasn’t able to handle emotionally. My responses or lack of responses in those early sessions were an indication of what was going on inside.
“I continued counseling sessions when I got to Baltimore the following year. I saw small changes in myself, but even more, I started seeing all my flaws. That’s a hard thing to accept for anyone. After tearing my Achilles midway through what was to be my final season, I remember sitting in the hospital bed, recalling dropped passes from 10 years prior. Mind you, at the time of my injury, I needed just 49 catches to hit 1,000 for my career.
“But now, a year and a half has passed since my last NFL game, and for the first time in my life, I finally feel free.
“I’ve learned through hours and hours of counseling — and am still learning — so much about the battle I fight within. I find myself, as an extreme introvert defined by my counselor, looking for excuses on how to avoid large crowds and retreating during public appearances, big events and even family gatherings. Being in public is a constant struggle, not because I don’t want to attract attention or think I’m “important,” but because of my inner battle.
“This is all proof that I still face my demons often, but I’m gradually learning how to cope with them. How to understand them. And one thing has become abundantly clear: The best thing I ever did for my well-being was to seek help. I needed someone to help me comprehend how my mind deals with disappointment, grief, failure, etc. — and, most importantly, how to prohibit that critical voice inside my head from defining who I am on an everyday basis.”
Smith was certainly candid in admitting how difficult it was for even a star athlete to cope with depression.
He may help others struggling with the disease not to feel alone and to seek help. He probably helped him by going public, but it will be a bonus if his public admission helps others.