Recapturing an out-of-control mind

April 26, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

LATE THIS afternoon, Greg Montgomery will stand up in front of 700 strangers and talk about life with a mind spinning out of control.

In the past, some real big shots have given this talk at the Mood Disorders Symposium at Johns Hopkins Hospital. William Styron, the author, gave it one year and so did "60 Minutes" host Mike Wallace and sitcom star Drew Carey.

Greg Montgomery was a big shot once. A few years ago, he was the punter for the Ravens. He could kick a ball 70 yards downfield, have it hang in the air so long you thought it was frozen in the deep-blue sky, and for this he was paid nearly a half-million dollars a year.

But when he speaks at Hopkins, it won't be about his nine-year NFL career and the money and the women and the good times and the roar of the crowd that followed him everywhere on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

It'll be about his fight against bipolar disorder - what used to be called manic depression - and the disastrous addiction to alcohol and drugs that resulted from trying to quiet the voices in his head.

"I was climbing the walls every single day," he said yesterday as we sat in a crowded Starbucks on Reisterstown Road. "... I really did have an `unquiet mind.' I had a constant dialogue going on in my head. I'd do anything to shut it off."

Montgomery is 36 now, out of football since the Ravens cut him in 1998. These days, he lives alone in Owings Mills and makes a living as the producer for a local rock band.

With the Ravens, he was known as the team flake, a big guy (6 feet 4, 220 pounds) with bleached white hair, tattoos, earrings and painted toenails who, everyone assumed, had a screw loose somewhere.

But what he had was a mind that never stopped racing, like a car transmission stuck in overdrive.

Anxiety and depression had dogged him since childhood, but they worsened when he came out of Michigan State as a highly touted punter and entered the pressure-cooker of the NFL.

Soon, he was drinking heavily and using pot, cocaine, Ecstasy and acid to escape the pain. He was so depressed he sat out the 1995 season after spending the previous year with the Detroit Lions, telling the media he was sitting out "on principle."

During training camp with the Ravens two years later, he was so anxious and depressed he lost 20 pounds and "was praying I'd be cut."

Then he developed an addiction to Ativan, a drug that had been prescribed to ease his anxiety.

"It was a nightmare," he said. "I was on suicide watch by myself. I would never do it, but it was a constant thought. ... I was always praying: `Please, just let me make it through one more day.' "

Warming up for a game against the Philadelphia Eagles that season, he was so jangled he couldn't even catch the football. "I dropped three or four balls. My hands were tingling so much.

"I ended up having a good game - my first punt went 60 yards. But I don't even know how I hit the ball."

He felt weirdly detached on the field, as if viewing events through a cloudy prism.

"I was always doing these `what if?' scenarios in my mind during the game. `What if I drop the ball, what if I [shank] the kick?' I'd be pacing up and down the sidelines, hoping [the offense] got a first down so I wouldn't have to kick."

His bipolar disorder - characterized by mood swings that range from soaring highs to crashing lows - had actually been diagnosed earlier that year, after his first manic episode.

That occurred on a visit to Miami Beach. One day he phoned his parents and jolted them with a long list of grandiose ideas.

He was quitting football. He was getting into dance-music and would make boatloads of money. He was starting a sports clothing line.

Shaken, Greg Sr. and Diane Montgomery flew to Florida. They urged their son to shelve his new plans and get help.

"But I talked them out of it," Montgomery recalled. "I let them know I had finally found myself. This type of energy level was so new to me, that I just embraced it."

Inevitably, though, the dark, depressive stage of the illness returned. Shortly after, a doctor delivered the news: Greg suffered from bipolar disorder.

"My reaction? I remember thinking: `Oh, good, we can treat this thing,' " Montgomery recalled. "But I was still self-medicating. And the medications [the doctors prescribed] just don't work if you're still drinking and [taking recreational drugs]."

His life continued to spiral downward. He broke his leg filming a commercial for the Ravens in the summer of 1998. Two months later, the team cut him. He tried out with a few other NFL teams but didn't catch on.

Without an income from football - and his judgment still clouded by his illness - he continued leaking money through a series of ill-advised investments.

"I've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the music business, in real estate, in the bar business," he said.

But finally, on Jan. 22, 2000, things began to turn around for Greg Montgomery.

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