A level field Ravens: Punter Greg Montgomery has struggled with the emotional highs and lows of bipolar disorder, but so far, he has adjusted successfully

December 18, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Candles light the room. Orange ones, green ones, tall ones, short ones. Greg Montgomery opens the doors to the terrace that overlooks the Inner Harbor and says, "Look at the ceiling."

As a soft breeze plays with the candles' flames, a golden silhouette in the shape of a flickering Aztec sun dances on the ceiling. One more warm, artistic display by this gentle man who is better known as the Ravens' sometimes goofy, always unconventional punter.

It's easy to see the unconventional. When national television networks come to talk to him, they play up the bleached white hair, the tattoos, the earrings and the pranks. When Baltimore magazine puts together the perfect body, Montgomery's manicured feet, complete with painted nails, are included. They are all part of this man, who at 33 is in his ninth year in the NFL.

But there is more to Montgomery than his sculpted, 6-foot-4, 215-pound body.

He is a perfectionist who strives every day to overcome bipolar disorder. It is a condition, formerly known as manic depression, in which he experiences soaring highs and devastating lows.

Though he has always had bouts of depression and anxiety, Montgomery didn't experience a real manic episode until this spring. That experience, followed by an equally low depression, finally enabled doctors to diagnose the disorder.

Ravens physician Dr. Andy Tucker said the disorder is thought to be caused by the rise and fall of serotonin levels in the brain.

Montgomery is now being successfully treated with the prescription drug Zoloft, which keeps his moods level.

From 1 to 2 percent of the general population have the condition, says University of Maryland psychiatrist Don Thompson.

But not too many are willing to talk about it. Montgomery is, and he gave his doctors permission to participate in this article.

"I don't see it as a negative," Montgomery says, lounging on a comfortable white couch in his 12th-floor apartment. "If anything, it's good. Intelligent people get it and, believe it or not, it's made me smarter."

Not everyone who suffers from bipolar disorder is smart. But some very well-known, intelligent people have had it -- Winston Churchill, poet Robert Lowell, columnist Art Buchwald and television newsman Mike Wallace among them.

The one thing all bipolar sufferers share, however, is emotional extremes that cause them great pain and cause their families and friends great worry. Because of that, Montgomery said he wants to share his experiences to give people hope.

Not what you see

Montgomery spent his early childhood in Shrewsbury, N.J., the son of a Wall Street investment banker. He is the oldest of three children, and though he was protective of his brother Steve and sister Margot, he sometimes drove his mother to distraction.

"Greg was always very physical, hyperactive and aggressive," says his father, Greg Sr. "He was also very smart and was just more driven to perfection. He'd tie his shoelaces just so, making sure they were exactly even. He'd pull his belt so tight it almost tore him in half. And he tested his mom, Diane, to the limit when it came to discipline."

And yet, when his 6-year-old sister came home from the hospital after an operation and was in obvious pain, it was Greg who reached out his hand to her.

"He was about 10, and he could see I was in a lot of pain," Margot recalls. "He gave me his hand, crunched up his eyes and told me to just squeeze as hard as I needed to whenever it hurt. I'll never forget that. And when I was addicted to heroin and cocaine and I was getting sober, when he was playing with the Houston Oilers, he came to be with me without batting an eyelash. He has always been there for me -- for our entire family -- because it's important to him.

"It's always amazing to me that he gets all this publicity because of his outrageousness, and no one seems to know about his gentleness."

It's not a side he shows to everyone. It's not a side everyone wants to get to know. Often strangers see Montgomery's bleached hair and pierced tongue and move to avoid him.

"I'm told I'm very unapproachable," he says, the candlelight reflecting in the yellow lenses of his glasses. "I'm very intense, and some people are a little intimidated by that."

The attack

His family had seen him down before. In high school, he had loved playing hockey and being a linebacker. But a back injury forced him to become a punter, and he wasn't happy with that.

At Red Bank (N.J.) High, he refused to wear his letter jacket his junior year because it had a "P" on it for punter.

"Even in college, sometimes, he'd be down, upset because he was 'nothing but a punter or kicker,' " his dad says. "He still wanted to be a linebacker."

So the downside was familiar. The high side wasn't.

In the spring, after the Ravens' minicamp, Montgomery suffered a manic attack while visiting his girlfriend in the South Beach area of Miami.

"When the manic stage hits, you are bulletproof," says Greg's father. "You are the best at everything. It's a very scary phase."

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