According to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adult Americans reported experiencing some form of mental illness in 2015. The injuries, competitive failure and overtraining that define professional sports often lead to immense psychological distress, the primary causal factor in mental illness development.
This week’s column highlights recent NFL Hall of Fame inductee Terrell Owens’ documented struggles with mental illness.
Throughout his 15-year NFL career, “T.O.” was nothing short of controversial. Known for his distracting antics on and off the field — flamboyant touchdown celebrations, fights with teammates and provocative comments to the media that were tolerated because of his otherworldly talent — Owens was a player fans loved to hate. Yet, though he seemed to embrace his role as the NFL’s diva from the early to mid-2000s, Owens struggled to handle it all.
On the night of Sept. 27, 2006, Owens ingested over 25 pills of hydrocodone, a pain medication. He was rushed to the hospital and had the pills removed before they could kill him, but the incident alerted the public to the mental illness he was battling.
In the NFL, there is no worse sin than failure — players are expected to constantly and maturely shake off loss, failure and personal criticism. In such a high-pressure sport, where contracts aren’t guaranteed and any play could be your last, athletes can easily lose sight of initial signs of depression.
Owens’ condition, however, was too obvious to ignore. After a successful eight-year run with the San Francisco 49ers, Owens bounced around four teams for the final seven years of his career before retiring in 2010. In a January 2012 interview with GQ, he described himself as “friendless, broke, and living in hell.”
These comments were not necessarily surprising given the context of Owen’s life. Owens’ childhood was lonely, according to his 2004 autobiography “Catch This! Going Deep with the NFL’s Sharpest Weapon.”
Owens grew up in Alabama, living with his grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. He barely saw his mother, who worked two jobs, and lived across the street from his father and sister without knowing it until he was 11 years old.
Each of the most important relationships in Owens’ life was strained beyond repair in his youth.
Owens has said his lack of a father figure made it difficult to deal with the pressures his football stardom demanded.
In multiple interviews, Owens has said he never fully understood why people hate him. “[I felt] lost being T.O., being that star athlete…all the pressures, me putting a lot of pressure on myself, you know, to be the best,” Owens said in a 2013 interview with Graham Bensinger.
Fortunately, Owens has taken initial steps to overcome his struggles post-retirement. He hired a life coach in 2013 who he has credited with helping him reflect on his decisions and open up about his misconceptions, which he called “humbling.”
Regardless of your perceptions of Terrell Owens, the legacy of the third-best wide receiver of all time shouldn’t be misunderstood.
To access confidential mental health resources, reach out to Counseling and Psychiatric Services at 202-687-6985, or for after-hours emergencies, call 202-444-7243 and ask to speak to the on-call clinician. You can also reach out to Health Education Services at 202-687-8949.
Carter Owen is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. THE HIDDEN OPPONENT appears every other Friday.