Local sports stars bring mental health issues into the forefront of conversations

Detroit News
Nolan Bianchi |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Talking about mental health can be hard.

Former local sports stars Calvin Johnson, Darren McCarty, Braylon Edwards and Andre Rison — among a whole host of Detroit athletes at The Eastern in Detroit on Thursday night — don’t want it to be.

Dozens of local athletes and health experts gathered for the inaugural “Walk & Talk of Detroit,” a charity event put on by Hall of Fame Health, Fund Recovery and Caring Ways to benefit mental health and addiction, as well as behavioral health treatment.

Hall of Fame Health, an affiliate of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, aims to provide behavioral health resources to former football players. Johnson was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2021 after a nine-season career with the Lions (2007-2015) and has spoken frequently about mental and behavioral health.

“You got high visibility on professional athletes, so it’s really inherent upon us to use that platform to spread awareness and educate where we can,” Johnson said.

“The focus is figuring out the science of neuroplasticity, and that’s just really the science based on the ability of the brain being able to change. If you can imagine being in the weight room lifting weights, your brain can do the same thing. You have those same kind of gains, mentally.

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“Being able to create solutions, that’s why I’m here.”

Money raised from the event benefited Detroit recovery centers, including event sponsor Skywood Recovery, and the Hall of Fame Recovery Fund.

Johnson said that while the stigmatization surrounding the mental-health conversation has improved over the years, there’s still a ways to go.

“People fear retaliation in employment, people might not understand what they have going on with themselves,” Johnson said. “It’s really just education on both the business owners and the business folks that are employing (people), and really everybody.

“Family members — understanding the different types of mental challenges that people face. It’s everywhere. It’s in everybody’s family.”

Johnson spoke on a panel alongside McCarty, Rison, Edwards and Letha Atwater, the wife of former Denver Bronco Steve Atwater.

Edwards has worked closely with Sean Jordan and The Sports Marketing Agency to bring conversations like these into local high schools since 2018.

Part of shattering the stigma, Edwards said, is recognizing when someone needs help and lending a helping hand. He remembers having an unnamed teammate who the team would joke about being “kinda crazy,” only for the teammate to get arrested shortly after retiring from the league.

“I was able to look back… and say, ‘He was suffering. He was crying out for help.’ But I didn’t know how to help him at 24, at 22, at 23, 27,” Edwards said. “To be able to know now that conversation, to be able to have that ability to help…it’s like, ‘I’ve gotta do more and more.

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“As you start doing it, when you start helping kids, you also notice that individuals — whether it’s substance abuse disorder protocol, whether it’s mental health — they respond to athletes. They respond to entertainers.

“So I said, you know what? I’m lockstep.”

Some current Lions are getting a head start on being able to recognize the mental-health situations that athletes deal with. Newly acquired wide receiver D.J. Chark and defensive lineman Jashon Cornell were also in attendance.

In 2021, Cornell was suspended for three games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Cornell was convicted of a misdemeanor for driving while impaired in Minnesota.

“What people don’t understand is like, being an athlete, we’re all just all put on this pedestal,” Cornell said at the event on Thursday. “When you get all those cameras and stuff around you, you try to be yourself, but at the same time, we have a lot going on and people don’t understand.

“Sometimes, you have family issues or issues with work or issues at home, and then, the mental health aspect of it…you’re able to control it sometimes, and sometimes you’re not.”

Former Lions quarterback Eric Hipple spoke on the earlier panel at the event. Hipple abused drugs and alcohol and was convicted of drunk driving after his son in 2000 died by suicide. Hipple said that men and athletes in general have a hard time dealing with mental-health issues out of fear of appearing weak.

“I think, first of all, men in general…we’re ‘fix-it’ people. If something’s broken, it’s ‘Oh, I’ll fix it,’ and we don’t know how to talk about it,” Hipple said.

McCarty, who has been open with several bouts of alcohol abuse both during and after his 15-year NHL career, said that making people feel like they won’t be judged is the biggest step toward starting to see positive change.

“I think once people are confident that they’re not going to be judged, the numbers will get more real,” McCarty said.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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