KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Brady Quinn can’t help but wonder whether he missed something in the final days of Jovan Belcher’s life.
Could the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback have listened better to his teammate? Could he have noticed a change in the linebacker’s temperament? Did Belcher utter something under his breath that may have let on that he was capable of killing his girlfriend and himself?
“When you ask someone how they’re doing, do you really mean it?” Quinn wondered. “When you answer back, are you really telling the truth?”
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The murder-suicide last Saturday raised similar questions among players and coaches across the NFL. In an era in which physical safety is of paramount importance, it’s become clear that ensuring the emotional well-being of the men who play the game is just as essential.
“The relationships you have with people face-to-face, on a daily basis, kind of get brushed aside for everything else that’s out there,” Quinn said. “A lot of times people hide their issues, their problems. They don’t talk to anyone until it’s too late.”
This past July, the NFL established an emergency hotline that operates 24 hours a day and connects players, staff and family members in crisis with mental-health professionals who are not affiliated with the league or its teams. The group, which provides a similar service to the Veteran’s Administration, is required to keep its conversations confidential unless the individual calling indicates they may harm themselves or others.
Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s chief human resources officer, said “absolutely, players and staff are taking advantage of the opportunity” provided by the hotline.
Gulliver couldn’t say whether Belcher had called, citing its confidentiality policy, and could not provide any data that indicates how much it is being used. But Gulliver did say that what happened to Belcher may cause the NFL to consider more offerings in the future.
“Mental health continues to be, in general society, an area that often has a stigma attached to it,” Gulliver said. “We’re trying to change that culture and break down that stigma and show people that mental is part of total health.”
That stigma is pervasive in the NFL, where a macho culture has been long ingrained.
In numerous interviews with current and former players, The Associated Press found many who said they would refuse to seek support for various reasons. Maybe their issues would get back to their coaches and affect their playing time or their contracts. Maybe their teammates would view them differently.
Several players indicated that the same attitude that carried them to the NFL – that in some ways they are indestructible – makes it difficult for them to reconcile needing outside help.
“In all my years playing football, I’ve never really seen a guy come out and say he needed help with this or he was having issues with this,” said Rams offensive tackle Wayne Hunter, who’s in his ninth year in the league. “Guys, including myself, generally keep our personal issues to ourselves.”
Hunter said that when he was with the Jets, he took advantage of a team psychologist who provided support. Otherwise, he leaned on teammates.
“It was nice to have another set of ears other than the team psychologist,” Hunter said. “The psychologist analyzes and sometimes over analyzes – I’m talking generally speaking – and they give you what they think is a right answer. But going to a friend gives you another perspective, gives you his side and a more personal side.”
Then there’s the tight-rope between offering help and prying into personal lives.
“A football locker room is a microcosm of the rest of society,” said Rams defensive lineman Chris Long. “When do you come up and help somebody out and when do you feel like you’re intruding?”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett both reminded players this week to seek help, whether their problems are with drugs and alcohol, their professional life or things happening at home.
“You have to make clear that there is no judgment involved,” Garrett said. “We’re not judging you. We’re helping you. We’re here to help.”
The NFL has numerous programs to help players and personnel deal with everything from personal and family relationships to the proper use of firearms. They begin even before athletes play a single down in the NFL with symposiums at most college all-star games, and continue with the NFL scouting combine and a three-day rookie boot camp that is required of any player selected in the draft.
The NFL’s security team often works with local and state law enforcement to address issues and questions that players have with guns. The league also has a mandatory life skills program for all players and coaches, along with a 12-week Rookie Success Program that first-year players must complete.
“The resources the league and the teams offer are always good,” Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan Lilja said, “it’s just up to guys to take advantage of it.”
Too often, that doesn’t happen.
“Literally, I said I’ll get down on my hands and knees and beg you to do this because it’s the most important thing there is,” Garrett said. “There’s no issue that you have in your life that we can’t somehow solve in some way and in some way make it better. I just say that from the bottom of my heart, because you never know what guys are going through and you just want to let them know they have a place to turn.”
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who was close to Belcher, found himself asking in the days after the shootings whether there was something he could have done. Like Quinn, Johnson wondered whether his teammate was giving off signs that something was amiss in his personal life.
Ultimately, Johnson said, the shootings may serve as a wake-up call to people everywhere to put down their cell phones and start having real conversations.
“We need to talk to each other more as men, not as football players,” he said. “Generally men don’t talk about their feelings. They don’t cry. They don’t show their emotion. As a teammate, we have to do more.”