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Chicago Tribune ON PRO FOOTBALL
October 03, 2003
By DON PIERSON
A little more than a year ago, Mike Webster died at age 50. The toughest of the tough Pittsburgh Steelers, Webster was said to have suffered brain damage much like a “punch-drunk” boxer after too many undiagnosed or ignored concussions.
Homeless for a time, Webster pleaded no contest and was put on probation in 1999 for forging prescriptions for the drug Ritalin.
A little more than a year ago, Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and talked about being unable to leave his house.
In August, Mike Ditka revealed he suffers from erectile dysfunction and has agreed to become an NFL spokesman for the new drug Levitra.
Now former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the gregarious character on Fox’s pregame shows, breaks down crying while talking about being clinically depressed.
Maybe the NFL isn’t such a macho world after all.
Bradshaw was in Chicago to promote the drug Paxil, which he and Williams now take. His sense of humor still intact, Bradshaw said he broke down in front of HBO cameras after a long interview and admits he gets emotional at times when discussing a subject shunned by most males and taboo inside locker rooms.
But he agreed that if the Bears had won that 1970 coin flip for the first pick in the draft, he really might have had something to be depressed about. Instead, he won four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers.
Still, he remembers most of all that he was never happy. Laughing, joking, smiling, but never happy.
“Never. Nothing ever pleased me. Nothing. I remember the outbursts of emotions, the anger. A lot of anger,” Bradshaw said. “I remember sitting there so many times in Pittsburgh, you know what I was wishing? I was wishing for my career to hurry up and get over with so I could get out of Dodge.”
He didn’t know he was depressed and didn’t have anyone with whom he could talk. As he got older, after three divorces, it got worse. Four years ago, Bradshaw said he thought he was going to die from a panic attack so intense he became afraid he wouldn’t die.
Even after he started taking medication, Bradshaw refused to talk about his condition. But he made a reference to it in a book and was approached by GlaxoSmithKline, makers of Paxil, who asked him to promote it.
“I said no,” Bradshaw said. “They asked if it was the money and I said no, it wasn’t money at all. I didn’t want to be laughed at. I do enough things for people to make fun of me. I thought next to being called dumb all my professional career, the last thing I need is people making fun of me.
“Some of my friends are saying now, “How much money are they paying you, boy? I’ll get depressed.” So that was what I didn’t want to have happen.”
Bradshaw said he changed his mind “for some reason.”
“I thought maybe I could help people with awareness, help men get the strength and courage. I’m a big macho guy. I thought it would be a good experience for me, and it has been,” he said. “I have run into people who have made fun of me, some of my colleagues. I’ve had people try to make light of it. Depression is not something you make light of. It’s serious.”
Dr. Harold McGrath, acting chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Substance Abuse at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, calls Bradshaw’s role “extremely important.”
“I think it’s much harder for men to come to grips with an imperfection or a flaw than it is for women who talk about these things more openly and share feelings,” McGrath said.
Recent incidents involving former Bears top draft choice Alonzo Spellman, diagnosed as bipolar, Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins, who went AWOL from last season’s Super Bowl and is diagnosed as bipolar, and former Minnesota Vikings top choice Dimitrious Underwood, who attempted suicide, called attention to the issue of mental health in a sport focused strictly on physical health. Bradshaw hasn’t played football for 21 years, so his role also emphasizes that the condition can get worse over time, especially without treatment. As a player, Bradshaw said he was able to cope by splurging on possessions.
“I’ll buy me a horse, buy me some land, I’ll buy me a tractor,” Bradshaw recalled. “Not happy. I’ll buy another horse, buy me some more land, buy me another tractor. Not happy. I’ll buy some more horses . . . then all of a sudden you’ve accumulated all this and a CPA tells me, `Man, you have too many horses and tractors and land.’ And then you just sink even more.”
Said McGrath: “He used constructive ways. Other people use terrible ways–alcohol, drugs.”
According to McGrath, depression can affect one in five people and is most often a genetic condition.
“My hope is when you see a very manly man, a very successful man, then you can say, `I must not be such a wimp if they have an illness like this.’ And people have to know it’s easy to do something about it. Talk to your primary physician,” McGrath said.
McGrath said he is “surprised you don’t see more if it in the football arena because pain medications like Vicodin or Codeine can trigger depression.”
Bradshaw is not part of the NFL-sponsored “Tackling Men’s Health” program that Ditka endorses. The same company makes Levitra and Paxil, but talking about physical health still seems to be an easier sell than talking about mental health.
Bradshaw wonders about this and breaks into that familiar grin.
“The NFL endorses a drug like Levitra. Why don’t they endorse Paxil?” he asks. “Don’t you have to be a little mentally unstable to do what we did in the NFL? Realize our lives are going to be cut short and we’re going to have arthritis? You have to be a little mentally disturbed to do that.”