In my awkwardness as a kid, I didn’t realize my attraction to football was about finding release for my emotional pain. It was the perfect medium for me to work through the unresolved trauma I carried after attending hundreds of family funerals and learning, in the most painful way, what it means to grow up as a black man. With sports I could focus my energy into moments of release.
Thanks to some natural ability, hard work, and great timing, I made it to the college level and found myself playing football for the Texas Longhorns. With a prized Rose Bowl ring on my hand, I was on the path to the NFL playing for the Detroit Lions. Unfortunately, the Lions lost as many games as I’d won playing for the Longhorns. Those losses coupled with a series of injuries meant an abrupt end to a promising career when the Lions emptied out my locker and let me go.
I lost my anchor when my football career ended. Like many people, my identity was wrapped up in my professional success. What happened on the field was what made me important, valued. Thoughts rattled in my brain that I was weak, defective, not good enough, not fit to lead. I’d lost my sense of purpose and my primary coping mechanism all at once and I spiraled into depression. I did what I thought I needed to do—smile, bottle it up, and push forward. I repeated the messages I’d heard all of my life: “real men are stone and have no feelings,” “you better win, or you’re nothing,” “just work harder,” and “gamers play hurt.”
It’s amazing how quickly and harshly I judged myself, which led to new destructive ways of coping with my perceived failure. The fear of being exposed was all-consuming. As the fame and money slipped away, so did the “friends,” which confirmed my greatest fear—that the only way to be loved, valued, and successful was to be a winner and to be strong. As an ex-pro athlete, business leader, black man, and man of faith in America, I didn’t believe there was any space for what I perceived as weakness, no time for pain, no room for vulnerability.
Eleven years have passed since that dark time. Thank goodness there were people along the way who reached out and assured me, through some difficult but important conversations, that not only was it OK to ask for help, it was necessary. I saw myself as weak, because most of us treat mental health issues as personal failure instead of as the health issues they are. I needed access to mental health treatment, a safe space to talk about my struggles, and support in developing new healthy ways of coping.
I’m doing much better today, but the truth is I don’t have it all together. No one does. Currently, we are all feeling the mental health impact of a pandemic, unresolved and violent acts of racism, and a polarized political environment. As we navigate this difficult time, I’m sharing my mental health journey as this year’s NAMIWalks honorary chair for NAMI Central Texas, an organization changing the way our community addresses mental health. Now more than ever, our community needs their free online classes, support groups, and presentations. They’re making sure that people like me and the family and friends who love me have the support they need to navigate mental health with no shame.
In this time of challenge and uncertainty, we may be distanced, but we are not alone. Join me and my family on Oct. 10 for NAMI Central Texas’ first virtual NAMIWalks Your Way. Take a walk, plant a garden, make a donation to support this work, or reach out to someone. Find a way to join in, as together, we share the message our community needs to hear. Mental health is for all!
Matthews lives in Austin, where he is an entrepreneur, entertainer and philanthropist.