A New National Epidemic—“Post-football death”
December 11, 2019
Last week, another former football player, George Atkinson III, took his own life. It was less than one year after his twin brother, Josh Atkinson, committed suicide.
Both brothers played football for Notre Dame and George had spent the last 5 years since leaving ND bouncing from one NFL practice squad to another, perhaps chasing ghosts of his father and namesake, George Atkinson II, an NFL pro-bowler.
These deaths hit close to home for me, as 4 former players at the Ohio State University have died of apparent suicide in the last 5 years, including Mike Kudla, my friend and teammate on the 2002 National Championship team.
At one point not long after I left OSU, I was ready to die.
As I describe in the prologue of my book, early in the morning of August 9th, 2006, as I was running from the police in a high-speed chase, I thought I was done living. Life was too hard and I couldn’t take it anymore. I called my mother and told her I was going to stop my car and shoot it out with the Columbus police.
Lucky for me, I chose another course that night and I am still alive today.
Life is still hard though—don’t let anyone tell you different. I start every day with M&Ms: medication and meditation. I also attend regular treatment at Harding Hospital here in Columbus. It is an outstanding inpatient/outpatient mental health treatment facility associated with OSU’s medical center and I am blessed to have the support of outstanding clinicians there.
Maintaining my mental health is a long journey that started with an integrated cognitive behavioral change program I participated in while in prison and it is a lifelong journey now that I am out.
I have so much to live for. I welcomed a son into the world last week and I have many blessings which keep me alive.
But not everyone is so blessed. Not everyone has the support I do. People need your help. The guys you cheered for on Saturday and Sunday are dying.
I dedicated my book to my fallen teammates and brothers but I am tired of saying goodbye too soon to so many players.
This is an epidemic. Whether guys are dying in their 20s like Josh and George Atkinson, or dying in their 30s like Mike Kudla, or dying in their 40s like former OSU standout safety Chico Nelson, they are dying.
Football players are dying and they shouldn’t be. This is a national epidemic and we need to help people on an individual basis.
We can start by collecting data on every former football player who is alive today. I am willing to help and so are many others. We can track people down through formal and informal networks and create a database.
College programs shouldn’t be able to just say goodbye when a player completes their degree, or finishes (or loses) their eligibility, and NFL teams shouldn’t just be able to cut a guy and send his life spiraling out of control.
As elite football players, we are trained from our teenage years to be gladiators. Colleges and NFL teams put their uniforms on us and thrust us into the coliseum, so they should take some responsibility for our health and well-being after the uniforms come off.
I am calling for a national study of all former college football players. I believe each college and university has a moral and ethical duty to create a database of their former players who are alive today and do wellness checks on them and refer them to help if they need it. They should provide access to this help if the person doesn’t have the financial means to get it.
Let me ask you, what did Notre Dame do after Josh Atkinson killed himself and how could they have prevented George from doing the same? This was a 100% preventable death. George published an open letter after his brother’s suicide which was what I call a pre-suicide note.
We used to ask the questions “What did they know?” and “When did they know it?”. Now we need to add another question: “What did they do about it?”
Programs are on notice. Players are dying. So the question you should ask your favorite program is, What are you doing about the mental wellness of your current and former players?
If a program can spend more than $50 million-dollars on a luxury football facility like the University of Alabama (and many others) did, with every amenity imaginable, they can spend $50,000/year to hire a social worker (or two, or five) whose exclusive responsibility is monitoring the mental wellbeing of their current and former football players.
It is the least we can do and we owe them that. Nobody needs to die after they leave the coliseum. Please help me spread the word and if you know anyone in despair right now, please have them contact me through social media and I will talk to them. Or help them go to their nearest emergency room immediately and demand treatment for mental illness.
Not one more death, please.