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Waking in the Blue: football’s mental health challenge

Back in September, Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst approached Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott after the Cowboys' 40-39 win in a moment that was caught on camera.

Hurst has been open about attempting suicide and dealing with anxiety and depression. Prescott's brother, Jace, died by suicide in April, and the quarterback discussed his own feelings of depression during the pandemic.

After the game, Hurst embraced Prescott and said, “Hey, I've got a lot of respect for what you did, came out and talked about. Me and my mom have a foundation about suicide prevention. Respect the hell out of you for talking about it, man.” Prescott responded; “Appreciate you. Let’s collab one day.” Mirroring society, football has a devastating mental health problem. New initiatives announced by the NFL and the NFL Players Association in 2019 require every team to employ a mental health professional to work in its building. Philadelphia Eagles guard Brandon Brooks is one of the best offensive linemen in football. He’s also been quite public about an anxiety disorder that often results in vomiting his way through game days. Former Broncos and Bears wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, after being admitted to McLean Hospital, near Boston for treatment. McLean is a renowned institution. It is the place the great American poet Robert Lowell fittingly captured in his poem Waking in the Blue. Marshall has devoted a large portion of his life in the last decade to ending the stigma and stereotypes associated with mental illness, including addressing NFL owners and coaches at their annual meeting. I’ll dive into Week 14 before returning to football’s mental health challenge. Game of the Week: New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles

Rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts inspired the Philadelphia Eagles to a 24-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints in one of the biggest upsets of the season.

Hurts, named the starter over Carson Wentz, handled the pressure, was confident throughout and continuously marched his team down the field for points. After a promising opening drive fizzled out, time and again he looked poised in the pocket, made excellent decisions and looked situationally aware.


The Eagles leaned on the read option to run for Hurts, who became just the second quarterback with 100-plus rushing yards in his first career start (the other: Baltimore's Lamar Jackson). His passing was accurate and he had a gorgeous back shoulder throw to Alshon Jeffrey for a touchdown. That they were facing the leagues’ best defense made it even more satisfying. Philadelphia’s defense got in on the act, stifling the Saints offense and forcing turnovers. They reminded us why Taysom Hill should not be New Orleans’ future starting quarterback.


Hurts and the defense combined to give Philadelphia a morale boosting win. The debate over the quarterback position is guaranteed to rage this week over the airwaves in the City of Brotherly Love.

Week 14 Highlights

  • Bradywatch: Coming off a bye week, Tampa Bay’s 43-year-old quarterback threw one 48 yard touchdown strike to Scottie Miller as the Bucs advanced to 8-5.

  • MVP of the Week: The Arizona Cardinals defense sacked the New York Giants eight times. Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick had a franchise-record five of those sacks.

  • Stat of the Week: The number of reliable kickers in the NFL is shocking. Minnesota Vikings kicker Dan Bailey missed four kicks against Tampa, a day after his head coach Mike Zimmer gave a vote of confidence in him. Expect the Vikings to kick him to the curb, maybe by the time you read this.

  • Quote of the Week: “Congrats bud. Only the beginning.” Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley congratulated his former pupil, Jalen Hurts, who led the Eagles to victory in his team debut. Hurts is the most recent graduate of Riley’s program to start as quarterback in the NFL. Since 2017, Oklahoma has also produced Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. No college has a better NFL-ready quarterback system than the good folks in Norman, OK.

  • NFC West: The Rams beat up the Patriots. The Seahawks pulverized the beleaguered New York Jets. The 49ers lost to Washington, while the Cardinals beat the New York Giants. The Rams play the Seahawks over Christmas: it should be an epic encounter with the division on the line.

  • Fight in the East: The lamentably bad NFC East Division is doing one thing right. Over the past three weeks, the Giants, Washington and yesterday the Eagles have upset top five teams.

Darkness Into Light

Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Pereira in London, U.K. once said of mental health stigma; “Any issue to do with the mind is seen as a sign of defectiveness or weakness, not only by the individual concerned, but also by the society in which one lives in, and by employers, especially in highly achieving environments, where it has a sharper focus.” Confiding in people and getting them to talk more openly has not suddenly become easier in 2020. But awareness and familiarity with those who’ve chosen to speak out certainly helps. McLean Hospital awarded Brandon Marshall the 2018 McLean Award for facing his diagnosis with courage and turning his experience into a transformational public service. In the ranks of pro football, he’s been a trailblazer. For shedding light on the unquiet mind and breaking a major taboo in football, Hayden Hurst and Dak Prescott also deserve our enduring respect and gratitude. The fruits of their off-season collaboration will have a profound impact for those suffering in silence inside and outside football.


Resources if you need help

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Mental Health America Mind (U.K.)

Pieta House (Ireland)

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