Sabelhaus ends football career Bipolar disorder prompts quick exit from San Jose State

September 10, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Bobby Sabelhaus, who shattered Maryland high school passing records as a quarterback at McDonogh School, is withdrawing from college and ending his football career for medical reasons, he said yesterday.

Physically, he is fine. Mentally, he is not, said Sabelhaus, a junior at San Jose State in California. The former high school All-American says he has a mental illness that is exacerbated by his playing football. He disclosed yesterday that doctors at Johns Hopkins University have for three years been treating him for bipolar disorder, a biochemical illness characterized by abnormally high and low mood swings.

"Football was bringing me down," said Sabelhaus, 22. "I love the game, and I thought I could beat this. I'm not a quitter but I had to put my health first.

"It was time to let go."

He said he will return to his family's home in Owings Mills to focus on his medical treatment and apply to re-enter college.

"We hope he can get well and continue on with his life," said Dave Baldwin, his coach at San Jose State. Sabelhaus enrolled at San Jose last winter, following disappointing stints at both the University of Florida and West Virginia University.

After a telltale scrimmage in which his mechanics were off and his passes awry, he was relegated to third-string. Sabelhaus did not play in San Jose's opener last week, a 35-23 upset of Stanford. From the bench, he watched teammate Brian Vye complete 12 of 16 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

It was Sabelhaus' last game in a college uniform; he never took a snap.

"The fact is, this [illness] is as real as a knee injury," said his father, Robert Sabelhaus.

The doctor treating Sabelhaus was not available for comment.

Dr. Gary Sachs, a national expert on bipolar disorder, said the illness typically strikes adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19. He said it is more prevalent among teens with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, a disorder that has challenged Sabelhaus.

About 20 percent of the population has bipolar disorder, said Sachs, though only one-third of them are ever diagnosed.

"It's a highly treatable but rarely curable illness -- what we used to call 'manic depressive,' " said Sachs, director of the bipolar disorder program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"It distorts your perception. You either see yourself through rose-colored glasses or as completely devoid of talent.

"The episodes can be devastating," said Sachs, a Baltimore native who knows something about football, too, having played at Randallstown High.

Sabelhaus sought psychiatric help in 1996, after dropping out of Florida. Medication was sometimes effective, sometimes not. "Right now, it's not working," he said.

Like an injury, his illness made it impossible for him to play. "It gets to the point where you have no motivation," said Sabelhaus, who has bipolar 2 disorder, the less severe kind.

Reluctantly, Sabelhaus realized football had to go.

"I'm in a daze; it still hasn't hit me," he said.

"It's been tough hiding this. I wasn't ready to disclose it before; who would have given me a scholarship? But I've tried everything to stay in football -- you can't exhaust any more options than I have -- and it's time to move on."

He hopes that speaking publicly about his struggle will help others come to grips with their own debilitating mood swings.

"Yes, I have bipolar, but I can treat this, and I want to let people know it's all right to have it," said Sabelhaus.

"If I can convince one person to get medication, it's worth it."

Pub Date: 9/10/98

tTC

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