This article discusses topics related to suicide, depression, and mental health issues.
Mental health among athletes bubbled to the surface over the past few years as a topic of conversation. From women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka taking a leave due to mental health problems, to just recently with Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley stepping away to focus on his well-being, the topic of mental health in sports has begun to echo.
Former Kansas football running back Tony Sands details struggles in his life and mental health in his new book I Was Before My Time. Sands, who played at KU from 1988-1991, finished his collegiate career with 3,777 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. Sands still holds the record for most rushing attempts in a game (58), and is fifth for rushing yards in a game (396).
After his football career, Sands began his own speed training program, which has trained athletes from high school rookies to NFL stars like Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin and quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Sands said he always considered publishing a book, but wasn't pushed to write until the death of one of his trainees, Bryce Gowdy, a Georgia Tech commit that committed suicide.
“I thought about writing the book, but never really. I was just writing down little paragraphs here and there,” Sands said. “But after Bryce passed, I decided I needed to get out some of the things that I endured as a college athlete as a high school athlete, and some of the things that I experienced. Going off to college, but not only that, transitioning away from the game and the struggles that I had.”
Sands said the book highlights his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he hopes his and Gowdy’s story would encourage others with similar struggles to seek help.
“I feel with Bryce, I felt it was a story that people needed to hear," Sands said, "and that would help to inspire other athletes that are dealing with mental health, that it's okay to say ‘I don't have it all,’ it is okay to say that, 'you know what, I need some help in traveling, this journey that we traveled on as athletes.'”
Sands' book also discusses his life after his football career, and how transitioning to life after the game sparked similarities to when military personnel return home after deployment abroad.
“How do I adjust to life, because this is a sport that I've played ever since I was four or five years old? Everywhere you went, someone knew you, someone wanted to help you and guide you and be around you. Now, this game is over,” Sands said. “People know that athletes go through these transitions of trying to adjust back to normal life, I relate it to the military when you know, these guys have been trained to kill all this time. And if there's no defusing process for the military guys, and all of a sudden now you send them out into the world, the way they dealt with the problems in the military in doing combat.”
Coming from an African-American community, Sands recalls how talking about and being concerned with personal mental health would be “shunned upon.” Despite a somewhat negative stigma around mental health in the past, Sands believes progress has shown recently, but still has ways to go.
“We do have a way to go, but it is bridging the gap,” Sands said. “In order to be successful in life, you got to accept the things of life. And they were able to accept those things that, ‘Hey, I got an issue here and it's bigger than sports.’”
Sands said he wants everybody, not just athletes, to know it’s alright to reach out to somebody for help and advice.
“The one thing I want to leave with our kids and just our society as a whole is that it's okay to say, ‘I don't have all the answers,’” Sands said. “It's okay to reach out to get the help to the answers that you do not have the answer to. So when we look at that, that is the biggest thing that I want to leave. That it's okay to say that I don't have them and I'm willing to reach outside of myself to get help.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, you can contact KU Counseling and Psychological Resources (CAPS), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.