Mind, Body And Soul

From mental illness to sleep disorders to religious views, NFL players cope with more than game plans.

NFL's role in mental health has increased

Mind

February 04, 2005|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

When Greg Montgomery played pro football, his skills as a punter were sometimes compromised by trembling hands, intrusive thoughts and a runaway pulse. He was suffering panic attacks that would be diagnosed as one aspect of bipolar disorder.

"My heart would beat faster and faster, my hands tingled and I couldn't catch the ball in practice," said Montgomery, who played for the Ravens in 1996 and 1997. "I lived in a fog of anxiety."

Finally, Montgomery confided in the Ravens. The club referred him to doctors who prescribed medications and counseling that helped the punter cope. Since 1991, thanks to a collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union, teams have provided psychological referrals as part of their player development program.

Montgomery, 40, is one of a handful of former NFL players who have made their bouts with mental illness public - a group that includes Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh) and Earl Campbell (Houston), as well as Pro Bowl players Harry Carson (New York Giants) and the late Lionel Aldridge (Green Bay).

Other players battling mental illness have made headlines by imploding. Three weeks after he attacked police in Miami, Barret Robbins remains hospitalized with bullet wounds in his heart and lung. He was scheduled to be arraigned next week on charges of attempted murder. Robbins, Oakland's onetime center and a Pro Bowl player, is best known for having disappeared on the eve of the Raiders' Super Bowl loss in 2003.

Three years ago, Alonzo Spellman, a 320-pound lineman who played for Chicago and Dallas, capped a troubled pro career by threatening passengers and crew on a Delta flight. He was hospitalized for psychiatric examination, then sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

Both players were also found to have bipolar disorder, a mood affliction once known as manic depressive illness. Although Robbins and Spellman had been treated, they may have been off their medications at the time of the incidents.

"Robbins obviously doesn't understand the disease itself. There are so many limits you have to put on your daily life to keep it in check," said Montgomery, reflecting on the individual's role in managing mental health issues.

The NFL has expanded its role. For the first time, during the 2004 season, players have been offered four free visits to a mental health professional. They can choose from a list of more than 100 clinicians, at least three to a city, who have been selected by the program.

Confidentiality is one of the appeals of the Player Assistance Program, because the idea is to make it as easy as possible for athletes to participate.

"If players see these [sessions] as a negative - impacting their salaries or damaging their careers or post-careers - they won't do it. Privacy is important," said Michael Haynes, vice president of player development for the NFL.

The Ravens have "no idea if any of our guys have sought assistance," said O.J. Brigance, the club's director of player development. But he hopes the program is being utilized.

"You've got players who have had deaths in their families and others who have had problems dealing with fame and fortune," said Brigance. "This program lets guys get some answers, so they aren't splintered in their thinking or concentration.

"For so long, football players have been seen as huge, strong men who don't have issues. But that's not the case."

Stacy Robinson, director of player development for the players association, sees it the same way.

"The fact is, people are more willing to admit they need help with substance abuse than with mental health," he said. "It's not so much a stigma as [it is] ignorance.

"Historically, we've been very naive about mental health."

Montgomery, the punter, recalled what attitudes were like when he broke into the NFL in 1988.

"If you don't take time to find out what your disease is all about, and you just self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, you just make matters worse," he said. "I did some of that in my manic period, with my bleached hair and tattoos and all.

"I had a blast, but ... that's not a real productive way to live."

SUPER BOWL

Philadelphia (15 - 3) vs. New England (16 - 2)

6:30 p.m. Sunday

Chs. 45, 5

Line: Patriots by 7

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