In one of the promotional videos for the hugely popular HBO National Football League-based reality series, “Hard Knocks In Season,” we see Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard in a training room, speaking with a counselor about the emotional challenges he’s faced for decades in dealing with the loss of his younger brother.
In the episode, Leonard opens up about the pain he suffered as a teenager because of his brother’s death. And he gets real about how he’s handled the after-effects all these years later - even as he’s now a superstar in the NFL.
It’s important and ground-breaking subject matter raised in the behind-the-scenes HBO series -- a difficult topic in the macho world of sports; but something long overdue in addressing.
The result is that Leonard and so many other players realize they have support. In large part that’s thanks to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and his family who have spearheaded a hugely successful fundraising drive – the “Kick the Stigma” campaign that has already resulted in millions of dollars in donations to mental health research and treatment.
“The Irsay family has been very open about this, their family has been touched by mental health challenges and substance use disorder challenges so it’s something near and dear to their heart,’’ Indianapolis Colts Vice President of Communications Steve Campbell told OSDB Sports.
“And I think once they started talking about it, the interest and the outpouring of people just calling and wanting to help or share their own story was overwhelming. And that made the want this to be a focus for the team moving forward.”
“It definitely would not have happened 20 years ago, maybe not even 10 years ago,’’ Campbell added.
The Kicking the Stigma campaign was designed to not only raise awareness about “the prevalence of mental health disorders in local communities” but also to raise money to help “expand” the treatment services available everywhere.
One thing that became apparent in working on this mission was that mental health challenges hit close to home for everyone. In putting together the videos and holding fundraisers, it became obvious that no one and no family is immune to mental health concerns.
In a week-long virtual fundraiser during Mental Health Awareness Month – each May – the team raised nearly $5 million with the help of people such as Snoop Dogg, Rob Lowe and NFL dignitaries from Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James to beloved coach Tony Dungy.
In addition to the virtual fundraiser, the Colts have given $2.4 million in grants to both local and national organizations for both awareness campaigns and treatment options. The team has committed more than $4 million to expand treatment services in Indiana and donated another $3 million to help fund a mental health research facility on campus at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
“That’s one thing we’ve discovered,’’ Campbell said. “Every person we’ve talked to, no matter what station of life they’re in, rich, poor, black or white, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is touched by this issue, either themselves or someone in their family.
“It’s sobering to hear that and know that, but then again, that’s the well of support you can draw form. Everyone can understand this and it’s one of the few issues that it affects everyone.’’
Talking about the subject and having household names open up about their challenges is making all the difference. The Colts quickly learned that addressing the subject in a popular television series was almost cathartic for their players and staff.
“It absolutely surprised us,’’ Campbell said. “We’ve had a whole lot of our players who wanted to be involved and are very supportive. It’s a little surprising because this is an issue people don’t like to talk about so it would have been understandable if someone didn’t want to be involved or speak up. But we’ve had quite a few players, particularly Darius who is one of the captains, one of the leaders of our team and one of the best players in the NFL talking about it openly.
“And so it’s been fantastic to hear him say, ‘this is something I faced and overcame.’ And then you see him on the field every week and just do his job and be so passionate and enthusiastic about his job. But still willing to show his vulnerable side. And that’s what will really make a difference to a lot of people.’’
Once considered a taboo topic, people are more willing to discuss their own mental health – something that may be helpful in and of itself. Having sports superstars and celebrities remind us all that vulnerability is “okay” and seeking help is courageous is exactly the turning point the Irsay family is hoping to spur.
Leading the Colts in his manner has certainly been that extra step to address needs and shed any stigma – to recognize the challenges faced by so many and to offer resources that can both facilitate and comfort.
“I think its prevalent in sports in general, not just football,‘’ Campbell said. “It’s the nature of team sports and particularly individual sports where all eyes are on you, all the pressure is on you. You’ve seen athletes from Michael Phelps to Naomi Osaka to Kevin Love and Simone Biles . ...you’ve had a lot more athletes step up and say, ‘this is important.’
“But I think, particularly in football it’s interesting because pro athletes, in particular, are expected to be bigger, stronger, faster than the rest of us and to play through pain because that’s what they do all the time.
“So to hear athletes, professional or amateur, and particularly football players who step up to talk about it, is a big step to taking away that stigma because, they are the ones who we always look up to and say, ‘they’re invincible, they’re unstoppable.’
“But they have the same challenges the rest of us do, so for them to stand up and talk about it is extremely important.”