Original article available in archives only
San Jose Mercury News
Thu, Jul. 24, 2003
By Mark Emmons, Mercury News, Liem Nguyen — Viet Mercury
Behind him, Barret Robbins hopes, is the inner torment that became too much to bear on the eve of last January’s Super Bowl. The breakdown. The drinking binge. The trip to Tijuana. The thoughts of suicide. And missing the Raiders’ 48-21 loss to Tampa Bay.
An All-Pro center, Robbins will be back in uniform Friday when training camp opens in Napa. In the past six months, he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and made promising steps toward recovery. Nobody knows how this is all going to turn out. But as Robbins tries to put pieces of his football career back together, his situation already has shed light on a taboo subject rarely discussed openly in the sports world: mental illness. In athletics — and especially the macho world of football — a bloody injury might be a badge of honor, but any mental impairment is perceived as a sign of weakness.
“If somebody breaks a leg, they’re given pain pills, anti-inflammatories and they’re rehabbed,” said Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, who overcame depression and became the NFL’s top rusher last season. “But if someone has a mental health problem, they’re just supposed to get over it. That’s not fair.”
Approximately 16 percent of the U.S. adult population will have major depression at some time in their life, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Also, a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General report found nearly 8 percent of all Americans suffer from brain chemistry abnormalities such as bipolar disorder.
“It’s probably the same for athletes because they’re no different than we are,” said New York-based sports psychologist Richard Lustberg.
Yet they are seen as different. Because they are so physically fit, we have a hard time reconciling that they might also have an invisible flaw.
While a few in the sports world — such as Williams and Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw — have spoken out recently, mental illness remains a highly stigmatized topic, particularly within the jock culture.
And into the locker room now walks Robbins.
His teammates are showing support — “Everybody is rooting for B-Robb,” said defensive end Trace Armstrong. But there also is the realization that this comeback attempt is different than most.
“This,” said Drew Pittman, Robbins’ agent, “is new territory for everybody.”
When Robbins was suspended from the Super Bowl for showing up incoherent at a Saturday night meeting after going AWOL, teammates saw it as the ultimate act of betrayal. Robbins, it seemed, had quit on them and they were angry.
“He let us down at crunch time,” said guard Frank Middleton right after the Super Bowl. Added linemate Mo Collins: “Whatever rock he came up from, he can stay there as far as I’m concerned.”
As time passed, it became clear that Robbins was a sick man in the grip of an illness that causes people to do things that they normally wouldn’t. Teammates such as Middleton have said they are willing to give Robbins another chance. But the initial angry reaction was an example of the misunderstood nature of mental illness, said clinical psychologist Xavier Amador.
“If he had an epileptic seizure and couldn’t have played, would anyone have blamed him?” asked Amador, a Columbia University professor and board member of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill. “This is a no-fault brain disorder. It will go poorly for him and his teammates if they don’t learn to separate the person from the illness.”
Robbins later was diagnosed with bipolar, also commonly known as manic depression and a condition marked by wild mood swings that include soaring highs and feelings of invincibility as well as crushing lows. The careers of NFL defensive linemen Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood were cut short by erratic behavior attributed to bipolar.
“It’s on people’s radar screens right now, but these types of things have been happening for as long as we’ve had sports,” Amador said.
That sports world is lagging behind the rest of society when it comes to dealing with mental health, he added, in part because the no-pain, no-gain attitude taught to athletes reinforces the idea of overcoming problems rather than seeking out help.
It’s unclear what sort of assistance the Raiders — perhaps the league’s most closed-mouth organization — are providing. Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen said Robbins is being given every opportunity to return. But the team, he added, hasn’t taken any steps beyond access to counseling specialists the team already employs.
“Barret’s got some tough hurdles to jump,” Allen said. Then he added: “Barret’s situation is more of a challenge for Barret than it is the organization or his teammates.”
Pittman, the player’s agent, credits the Raiders with handling things “much better than anyone could have expected.” But Amador and Lustberg said team officials are kidding themselves if they haven’t taken special measures not only to assist Robbins, but to help his teammates understand bipolar.
“I’d be happy to do an all-day workshop with them for free, and if I don’t, somebody should,” Amador said. “If management has not done that, they’re asking for trouble.”
In some ways, Robbins’ case is a textbook example of how the stress of performing on a public stage can trigger episodes of any mental illness.
“The naivete of athletes can be astounding,” Lustberg said. “They don’t realize that when they sign that big deal, the public is going to be watching them, that they’re going to be scrutinized and there’s going to be pressure. They don’t understand the demands of the job.”
Williams certainly didn’t.
When the New Orleans Saints traded eight draft picks to obtain his rights in 1999, Williams seemed to have everything, from fortune to fame. But he began to exhibit behavior so odd that he eventually was saddled with the nickname “Ricky Weirdo.”
Williams was so intimidated by the media that he would wear his helmet during interviews. He felt so overwhelmed by the fear of being recognized in public that he couldn’t even imagine going to the mall.
“Or it would take me an hour just to get up the nerve to hop in the car,” Williams said. “Many times I would get halfway to the store and make a U-turn because I just couldn’t go through with it.” Relief came when a therapist diagnosed him with social anxiety disorder and prescribed an anti-depressant.
Still, Saints Coach Jim Haslett was less than sympathetic, saying “What the hell is this?” when Williams told him of his condition. But after he was traded to the Miami Dolphins, Williams became the league’s top running back.
“If I hadn’t gotten help, I don’t think I would have been able to lead the league in rushing and enjoy the success I’ve had,” Williams added.
Although his condition is different, Williams said if more attention were paid to mental illness, Robbins’ problem “could have been nipped in the bud” and he would have played in the Super Bowl.
“The telling thing to me is, `What does he do now?’ ” Williams said. “If he gets a handle on this, then the sympathy for him will go way up. But if it happens again, he’s not going to get any sympathy.”
Spellman and Underwood provide examples of what can go wrong. Both ended up out of the league when teams decided they weren’t worth the trouble, and both have had scrapes with the law. Spellman was sentenced to prison this year for creating a disturbance on a plane flight.
“What a waste of a very talented young football player,” said Amador, who testified at the trial that Spellman needed help, not jail time. “Robbins needs to understand that treatment works. He can have a long career in front of him, or he can end up like Alonzo Spellman.”
Proving himself again
Robbins, 29, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound product of Texas Christian, had a history of mental health issues before January’s Super Bowl. He had missed the final two games of the 1996 season for undisclosed reasons. Pittman said Robbins then had been misdiagnosed with depression.
But last January in San Diego, Robbins really fell apart.
It began Super Bowl week with feelings of fear. Robbins, who has talked extensively only with ESPN about what happened, said he left the hotel that Friday night and began wandering aimlessly, describing the feeling of helplessness as if he were driving a car and the steering wheel and brake pedals didn’t work.
He spent 31 days in the Betty Ford Clinic. A self-described alcoholic, he no longer drinks. He’s under a doctor’s care for bipolar — which does not have a cure but is treatable with medication.
He attended a mini-camp last month and has apologized to teammates. But what happens now? Just how enlightened is the sports world when it comes to dealing with problems such as this?
Defensive end Armstrong, who also serves as president of the NFL Players Association, said many teams, including the Raiders, are doing a better job of assessing the situation than in the past.
“A lot of these problems were misdiagnosed as something else — like if a player had a substance-abuse problem or was just difficult to work with,” he said. “Now teams are recognizing the real problems or at least are addressing them when they come up.”
Pittman said if there’s a silver lining to Robbins’ troubles, it’s that he may have created more awareness about mental illnesses in general, and bipolar in particular.
“I think some of his teammates showed ignorance in some of their comments,” Pittman said. “But who am I to point fingers? Nobody understands this. I’m sure he has good friends who still feel sorry for him, but who also still don’t understand it.”
Williams is an example of how a life, and a sports career, can be turned around.
“It feels good to transcend running a pigskin up and down a grass field,” Williams said. “I know that when people are going through this, they feel like they’re running in place. And for them to see that I can improve, it gives them hope that they can do the same.”
But while the Raiders have a history of sticking out their necks for wayward players, Al Davis also isn’t running a social agency. The goal is to win football games. If Robbins can’t help them do that — or worse, gets in the way — he probably won’t be wearing the silver and black.
Like in nature, Darwin’s survival-of-the-fittest axiom is unrelenting. As Allen put it: “We’re going to try and help players as much as we can, but within the team concept.”
Raiders Coach Bill Callahan already has said Adam Treu is the starter at center. But he adds that Robbins “has been very aware of what he needs to do to earn the respect of his teammates, and he has been diligent about that.”
Robbins also is coming off arthroscopic surgery to his right knee. Add to that his bipolar condition and he has a lot to overcome.
“That’s in the past now,” he said last month of the Super Bowl incident. “We’re trying to move on. I know I am.”
Mercury News staff writers Dennis Georgatos and Craig Lancaster contributed to this report. Contact Mark Emmons at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5745.
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Fearful’ Callahan supports Robbins
January 30, 2003|By Michael Hirsley, Tribune staff reporter.
`Fearful’ Callahan supports Robbins – Page 2 – Chicago Tribune
Callahan said that he plans to meet with Robbins to try to “rectify the current situation. But leading up to the game, I had no idea of his whereabouts.”
He said the Raiders would “do everything we can . . . to help him, to assist him and to support him to get better.”
The first public sign of Robbins’ depression was in 1996. After he missed the last two games of the season, the Raiders hedged on the reason, first citing flu, then a reaction to flu medication, before changing it to a reaction to depression medication.
Robbins spoke about his problem in a San Francisco Chronicle article, calling it “a battle within your head. Anybody who can overcome something like that is bound to be a better person in all aspects of life.”
The issue seemed resolved, as the Raiders cited his improved mental and physical state and he blossomed into a Pro Bowl center. But when Robbins had frequent unexplained absences this season, Callahan increased backup center Adam Treu’s practice time with the first team and appeared to be ready to bench Robbins late in the season until team owner Al Davis overruled him.
Super Bowl week found Robbins seeking to be far from a center of attention. He was withdrawn, sitting off to the side during media interview sessions. The Raiders listed him as questionable for the Super Bowl because of foot and knee injuries.
As is often the case before big games, the injury report was far from complete. And Robbins is not the first NFL player to be plagued by emotional problems. Former Bears lineman Alonzo Spellman, who has a history of treatment for mental illness, pleaded guilty this month to charges of interfering with the crew on a Delta Air Lines flight last year. Federal prosecutors want him to serve four to 10 months in prison for threatening passengers and crew.
This week, at least one teammate found empathy for Robbins.
“A lot of games he was injured to the point where he was not supposed to play, and he gave it up for the Oakland Raiders and their fans,” defensive tackle Sam Adams said.
“We all have problems in our personal lives. Unfortunately, his problem occurred on a national stage. It was during a week that the whole world was watching.
“I’m behind my brother and I love him.”
Callahan says Robbins was incoherent on eve of Super Bowl
Associated Press, 2003-01-29.
Barret Robbins – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Then, inexplicably, the day before Super Bowl XXXVII, disaster struck Robbins. He was reported as missing for most of the day before the game after not taking his depression medication. When he resurfaced that night, he was so incoherent that Callahan left him off the roster. He spent 30 days at the Betty Ford Center, during which time he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or manic-depressive disorder). He’d been diagnosed with depression while at TCU, but it is common for the two to be confused in the early stages. Robbins later told his wife that he had spent most of the day before the Super Bowl partying across the border in Tijuana, and actually thought the Raiders had already won the game and he was celebrating their victory.
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The 50 Most Infamous Criminals in Sports History – Barret Robbins
By Sean Evans
May 16, 2014
39. Barret Robbins
Criminal History: Attempted murder, releasing arrest, drug possession
Time Behind Bars: Five years
In January ’03 Barret Robbins wrecked, what on the surface, was a pretty amazing life. As a highly paid NFL star, the Raiders center was days away from starting in the Super Bowl. Then, shit happened.
In a manic state Robbins disappeared from the team, surfacing days later with drugs in his system. The Raiders center (who was responsible for pass-protection calls) blamed himself for Oakland’s 48-21 Super Bowl XXXVII loss. After undergoing treatment, Robbins regained his position with the team only to be released after testing positive for steroids.
His life continued to spin out of control when a brawl with police officers in Miami left the bipolar former football star with three gunshot wounds and five years probation. Robbins was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence last year for drug possession and probation violation.