For Black boys growing up, one common dream career is to become a professional athlete. With Black men making up over 70 percent of NBA players and 57 percent of NFL players, you can imagine that there is hard work and dedication that is instilled in these now-stars at an early age in order to make it big.
Given the pressure that comes with playing a professional sport, the effects it can have on your mental health can be a lot. According to an article in APA (American Psychological Association), NFL players are more likely to experience depression, aggression, confusion, and other mental health challenges after years of playing the game. Due to this, over the last decade, there have been wellness initiatives launched on behalf of the NFL in support of players getting more resources to manage their mental health.
REVOLT caught up with former NFL outside linebacker Marcus Smith II who knows firsthand what it’s like dealing with these hurdles. From being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles to signing a deal with the Seattle Seahawks, the life coach and mental health advocate is using his story to motivate athletes to be more honest about their experiences on and off the field.
How were you introduced to football?
I was introduced to football when I was about 5 years old. I actually started playing baseball first. But with football, I loved everything about it. Until the year 2019, I played every fall from when I was 5 to age 27.
What was that moment like for you when you were finally picked to play in the NFL?
It was something I always dreamed of. I remember my dad and I would talk about it when I was a kid. I was always one of those kids where my dad would have to make me go to bed at night because I would be watching Monday night football. I would watch the whole game and wouldn’t fall asleep on it. I knew that each step I took was to help me get to my goals. So, when I went to a D1 school and was finally drafted, it was because of all the hard work I put in and everything my dad had instilled in me. I will always remember that.
With a professional sports career, there is a lot of pressure to perform at your best. When did you realize your mental health status?
Well, I want to take a step back for a second. I actually had been dealing with anxiety since I was eight years old. Nobody ever knew what it was. I remember my first anxiety attack was at my grandparents house. My parents were coming home from a date night and I had a blood pressure screener on me. My parents didn’t know what was going on with me. So since then, I masked all my emotions even while I was in the NFL. As Black men, we were taught to just keep moving and not talk about our emotions. Therapy wasn’t something that was afforded to me. So I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what I was going through. So when you are in the NFL, there are higher stakes. There was more pressure on me. When you don’t learn how to deal with anxiety, it can link to depression. So my anxiety turned into depression and I would mask my emotions. But it wouldn’t work like it used to do when I was growing up. It continued to get worse and worse.
When did you feel your mental health was at its lowest?
It wasn’t until I had a run-in with suicide. What happened was I had let things fester. I had built up frustrations and I never addressed them. In 2018, I had just signed a deal with the Seattle Seahawks. My career was going in the right direction, but I was at a point where I almost ended my own life. After that, I light clicked on for me.
There is a common misconception that professional athletes tie their identity to the sport they play. After you retired from the NFL, did you feel like you experienced an identity crisis?
So after that moment happened, I went and asked for help. When I got into therapy, I was having an identity crisis. I wasn’t playing and I walked away from the game. I tied everything that was happening to me to football. After a couple of months in therapy, I realized my mental health had nothing to do with football. It had everything to do with me and how I masked everything I ever dealt with since I was a child.
Is that where you decided to take your mental health journey more seriously?
A year and a half after I started my healing journey, I had a chance to go back to the locker room. In the locker room, a lot of my teammates came up to me and told me that it took a lot of courage to seek help. They even told me that they were dealing with the same thing. That really struck a chord in me. We all think everyone is fine, when in reality, everyone is dealing with similar mental health struggles. After learning that, that is when I started the Circle of M.
Tell me more about The Circle of M.
The Circle of M is a nonprofit organization where we unmask the feelings that cause anxiety and depression. I’m not a therapist, but I am a certified life coach. I present myself as a bridge to help guys find the resource they desire whether it’s therapy, meditation, or life coaching. The reason I started The Circle of M is because I would have people reach out to me after I was vulnerable enough to step away from the game.
Do you feel there are enough spaces for Black men, especially athletes, to talk about mental health and personal struggles that they experience?
I think that we are getting a lot better. There are more safe places for us to speak out. With shows like “The Pivot” and “I AM ATHLETE,” those are safe places for guys to come and speak about things. However, as far as what I bring to the table with The Circle of M, it is specifically for life coaching and mental health. What we try to steer away from is creating a dark space. When people talk about the dark side of mental health, you don’t want to hear that all the time. People want to hear about the light at the end of the tunnel. So one thing I ask is, how can we make mental health cool? We see that when it comes to fashion, music, culture, etc. other people like to mirror it. So how can we bring mental health in the mix? But right now, I am starting to see more Black men speaking on relationships, mental health, and things we go through on a daily basis in order to help each other.
What is a huge misconception about healing that you hope other athletes learn through The Circle of M?
One big misconception is that you can heal quickly or if you go to therapy for two weeks, then you’re healed and there’s no way of going back. But healing is something that happens over a long period of time. People don’t even realize that our parents are still healing from trauma that they received from their parents and so forth. These kinds of things are passed down to us. So we really have to think of healing as something we need to do on a daily basis in order for us to be mentally stable. We don’t realize certain energies, certain triggers, or certain behaviors can bring us back to that anxiety. If we do not know how to recognize when those moments happen, we pass that on to our kids and the cycle continues. I’m starting to see in my daughter that she does certain things that I used to do when I was younger. So it is important for me, now that I have the education behind it, to teach my daughter and my son the right way how to do or react to certain things.
What are some future goals for The Circle of M?
Right now, I have the podcast and I post weekly on Thursdays on our youtube channel. For The Circle of M, I wanted to start off with bringing awareness. If you are not aware of what you are going through, you may not be able to put a name to it or recognize the signs until you hear someone else express they are going through the same thing. Now that we are in our second year, I want The Circle of M to be more solution-based. We are in the process of finding partnerships and solutions that can help guys be able to combat some of their mental health issues. Being able to have a group of therapists or life coaches in a facility for guys to have access to, if need be.
What is a positive lesson that you learned from football, that athletes can apply, when it comes to managing their mental health?
I would say what I have learned is that success is not a destination. Success is a mindset. Oftentimes, through the communities we come from, success looks like the cars, jewelry, and houses. Success looks like an actual place that we have to get to and then when we get there, we ask ourselves ‘what do I do now?’ Through my healing process, I’ve learned that success is not a place at all. It’s a journey. Where you are right now in life, you are already successful. I feel that as an athlete, if you mirror that mindset of life being a journey with your mental health, it will help you to continue to go through life and use it as a pedestal to where God will take you later.
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