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Athletes fight toughest opponent: mental-illness mind games

The little blue pills Ricky Williams used to pop were like nicotine patches, leaking bravery into his blood stream. They enabled him to face the world without a helmet, and nobody calls the NFL’s leading rusher “Ricky Weirdo” anymore.

Russ Johnson, the Mets’ newest infielder, spent last spring obsessing over the number 13 as a harbinger of evil. Soon he was hearing voices and acting strangely. Seven months removed from treatment for anxiety and depression, Johnson now chooses to find equilibrium in his religious faith, rather than lean on any pill.

Mike Tyson, long ago diagnosed as a manic-depressive, admits he stopped taking his medication because it made him impotent, and curbed his murderous edge. Society is the worse for it.

As fast as they run, as hard as they punch, even elite athletes can’t escape the disease once it hooks its talons to the brain and jiggles the neurons. Whether dodging the highs and lows of bipolar/manic depression, or battling the curses of social anxiety, athletes are no different than the rest of the human population when it comes to mental illness.

Nearly 8 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers a disorder characterized by changes in the brain’s chemistry, according to a Surgeon General’s report. Manic depression, a medical condition that affects a person’s ability to reason or function properly, can be as debilitating as blindness, often leaving its victims literally paralyzed. There is no cure, only management through medication and/or therapy.

Some 50 years have passed since Jimmy Piersall suffered a nervous breakdown during his rookie season with the Boston Red Sox and was treated with electroshock therapy to zap his sickness. Every time someone like Dolphins running back Ricky Williams speaks about his experience with mental illness, the veil lifts slightly, the stigma takes a slight whack. Then progress gets pummeled back to the stone ages by people who continue to view depression as such a wimpy disease.

After all, “mental toughness” is chapter one in an athlete’s bible. It was easier to believe Barret Robbins had gone on a wild bender during Super Bowl week than think he could slip into a depression so dire, it would cause this 6-3, 320-pound Pro-Bowl center to miss the biggest game of his life. The Raiders told him to go home, his teammates kicked dirt in his face and comedians like Jay Leno couldn’t wait to tune up the laugh track.

Robbins is bipolar, a disorder that is often accompanied by irrational behavior and a predisposition for inflicting bodily harm to oneself. He went public with his illness in 1997, and after Robbins released a statement, the man who spent thousands of hours crouching next to him on the offensive line was still professing bewilderment at Robbins’ condition.

“We never knew B-Rob as a depressed guy,” guard Frank Middleton told ESPN Radio. “He always seemed fine to us. Is it true or is his agent doing some covering up of some of the problems or issues that he had? We’re still on the fence right now.”

Under the umbrella of Player Assistance Programs, the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball all have procedures to help athletes who can’t help themselves. There are outreach facilities, doctors and social workers on call 24 hours, seven days week, confidential medical assistance at their fingertips.

Yet making that first phone call can be tougher than hurdling Madison Square Garden. Mo Collins, another unsympathetic Raider, unintentionally hit the nail when he encouraged Robbins to crawl “back under the rock” from which he came.

Winston Churchill once likened his bouts with depression to being buried under a thousand boulders, suffocation a much kinder solution than facing a social stigma like no other.

“It’s not a macho disease,” said Dr. Joel Goldberg, director of counseling services for the New York Giants, one of the teams that has been proactive when it comes to monitoring players’ mental health. “It’s OK to be an alcoholic or drug addict, but somehow it’s not OK to be depressed.

“Nobody stands up and says, ‘I want to be screwed up.’ Nobody asks to be mentally ill. Maybe people will be encouraged to know pro athletes are going through the same challenges as others in the mainstream.”

When Kendall Gill was a SuperSonic, he couldn’t shake a prolonged bout of blue moods. He was exhausted, sometimes despondent, always confused. So he called Dr. Lloyd Baccus, medical director of the NBA’s Player Assistance Program, who suggested Gill might be clinically depressed.

“No way, not me,” Gill thought. “Not this athlete.”

Baccus referred Gill to a mental-health professional, who indeed identified the same diagnosis. Seattle management asked for another opinion. After the second doctor concurred, Gill sat out five games. Coming to terms with his illness took much longer. “I had many of the symptoms, but I didn’t want to see it. It was a long time before I could admit I was depressed,” says Gill, now with the Timberwolves.

It was tougher still for fans who couldn’t understand how someone with wealth, skill and fame might possibly be tortured. Gill was in a Seattle grocery store when a man turned to him and said, “How can you be depressed playing a sport you love?”

If only it could be tucked under a mountain of gauze and ice, thought Gill, or willed away by escaping into a psychic zone. Because they perform before a congregation of millions, athletes often struggle to keep their condition a secret rather than be branded with the offensive tattoo of “mentally ill.”

“It’s a business consideration as to what they let known with regard to their psychiatric history. They have to make the decision about how it’s going to affect their career, whether their employer or future employers are comfortable with treatment and the condition,” Baccus said.

A survey conducted in the late 1990s by the National Mental Health Association found that 54 percent of those polled viewed depression as a “personal weakness.”

Nonetheless, the numbers of image-conscious athletes willing to toss away the stigma as if it were an outdated sweatsuit is steadily increasing.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Shayne Corson, Hall of Fame thoroughbred racer Julie Krone, skier Picabo Street and former Mets pitcher Pete Harnisch are but a few who have spoken openly about their depression.

Wendy Williams, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion diver, wanted to fling herself off a cliff before a friend convinced her to get help. Stephane Richer, forced out of hockey for one year because of depression, used to drive his Porsche 911 as fast as 120 mph with the intention of committing suicide. Katrina Price, former basketball player, shot herself with a 12-gauge shotgun, just one of the estimated 20 percent of people afflicted with bipolar disorder who kill themselves.

Jason Caffey, Milwaukee Bucks forward, never reached that point of no return, possibly because he had watched people around him tread through depression’s cesspool. Mental illness plagues his mother’s side of the family; Caffey still can’t shake the image of his cousin, in the throes of an anxiety attack, stabbing a mattress with a knife. So when Caffey’s own two-year struggle reached a crescendo, when it was clear only to him that his emotional state was frazzled, he disappeared from view, smack in the middle of the NBA season.

Twenty-four hours later, he took his illness to the public.

“I didn’t want the team to put it out there that I was a deserter or was tripping,” he has said. On the contrary, general manager Ernie Grunfeld sought out a psychiatrist to educate himself, and the team, about the social anxiety disorder Caffey was battling.

Open the medicine cabinet of a depressed athlete and there lies the double-edged sword. Mood-altering medications such as Paxil and Effexor (used to treat anxiety disorders) or Prozac and Zoloft (often prescribed for manic depression) can adversely influence job performance and sexual function. The side affects, severe headaches, insomnia, dizziness, lethargy, apathy, can be crippling, can strip away the fine layer that separates the best from the rest.

For someone who’s bipolar, the alluring invincibility of the manic, unmedicated phase is irresistible. “It’s like ‘Who needs meds when they’re strong enough to fly?'” says Williams, the diver. Others whisper of coaches and administrators who would rather players go unmedicated, rather than lose that precious edge. The potential for lawsuits could be explosive.

“You want to make sure the athlete is taking the least amount of medication required on one hand to alleviate the mood disorder, but on the other hand not create side effects like lethargy and uncoordination,” says Baccus. “The loss of hand-eye coordination might not be a problem for most people, but it’s critical for someone like a pro basketball player coming down a court trying to hit a three-point shot.”

Doctors prescribed anti-depressants, but Johnson prefers to seek his recovery in the book of Revelations rather than potions in a bottle.

Ricky Williams took Paxil for 14 months, until the gaze of friends and strangers no longer felt like a powerdrill ramming his forehead. The meds, coupled with therapy, led to a revival on the field and off, and now Williams engages in activities previously thought unimaginable, like signing autographs and picking up his mail without fearing he might run into neighbors.

His greatest fear, notebook-wielding reporters, has been left in the dust. The visor-wearing, monosyllabic Williams who used to curl up in his locker as a New Orleans Saint, dreadlocks cloaking his face, stood in the open, without helmet, sweat from his best game as a professional dripping down his cheeks, a few months ago, following the Dolphins’ win over the Jets, and cheerfully talked about his greatest feat as a member of the human race.

“I thought I was a monster, that I’d never be good at anything,” said the man who won the Heisman Trophy, but could not enter a shopping mall. “I got the help I needed, worked out my mental and emotional kinks, and you know what? It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, ever. It feels soooo good.”