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Jim Irsay and Darius Leonard focus on Kicking the Stigma

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The day after the Super Bowl is a hard day for us. It always has been. On one hand, we’re forced to face the post-football season emptiness that we’ve been pushing to the back of our minds since August. On the other hand, we’re forced to remember that it’s the beginning of February, as in the middle of winter. It’s freezing cold. It’s dark by 4:30pm. The holidays are over. It’s this sort of desolate state of limbo; mourning the exciting time of the year and awaiting the next one. Not having any football is like the extra inch of snow that forces you to stay inside because your car won’t move. Add on to all of this a worldwide pandemic that yanks away virtually every other form of enjoyable pastime because everything is either closed or crawling with lethal germs.

Football season ending at the worst time of year is hard for many people, especially given the current circumstances in the world. There’s an aching sense of loss that a lot of us feel, particularly those of us who are football purists. Spring and summer sports pale in comparison to the joy and excitement we feel in the fall. So when all of these unfortunate factors collide simultaneously, it’s easy to slip into the no-football-winter-blues. More commonly known to many people as depression.

Though the symptoms of sadness I mentioned above are common in the winter months (also called Seasonal Affective Disorder), millions of people experience depression, anxiety, and a multitude of other forms of mental illness on a daily basis. The thing about mental illness is that it does not discriminate. Anyone can suffer from a mental illness at any given time in their life.

Take Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, for example. In December 2020, Leonard shared his struggle with depression and anxiety on The Player’s Tribune, a player-driven blog. While he details the struggles of growing up in a large family in small-town South Carolina, he focuses more on the relationship between him and his brother Keivonte. “I always slept on my left,” Leonard said. “He always slept on his right. For 17 years of my life, that was just what it was. We were attached at the hip.”

Keivonte died violently in December 2012, which Leonard describes as “the hardest day of the year for me.” He goes on to explain how much fun the two of them had as children, and how much Keivonte’s death affected him. “If I’m being honest, these feelings of anxiety and depression - they’re not things of the past,” he says. “The truth is that I’m still in pain. The truth is that I still can’t sleep on my left side.”

I’ll say it again: mental illness does not discriminate. It can creep into anyone’s life, even a wildly successful athlete who’s known as “The Maniac” for his incredible work ethic and ferocity.

Each year the NFL allows players to sport customized cleats that reflect their passions beyond the field. This “My Cause My Cleats” initiative is a creative way for players to support causes they care about and raise awareness for each cause they choose. Many teams described My Cause My Cleats as a way to tell a story, and play for something bigger.

The Colts recently launched an initiative called “Kicking the Stigma,” an organization dedicated to supporting mental health awareness and bringing attention to the stigma behind it. The Colts released a public service announcement that read “As part of the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative, the Irsay Family has chosen “Kicking the Stigma,” to bring awareness and provide support for mental health services in Indiana. The announcement, in form of a video, aired on CNN, Fox News, NFL Network, and locally in Indianapolis.

“Kicking the Stigma is our commitment to eradicating and getting this environment changed,” Irsay said in the announcement. “We need to find ways to get people to feel safe and not to feel judged or persecuted when they’re trying to seek help and get better from an illness.”

Last week Irsay was featured on CNN in a conversation with host Michael Smerconish about the initiative. “It’s all hands on deck after we’ve been through this pandemic,” Irsay told Smerconish.

Smerconish pointed out that physical illnesses seem to be much more accepted, and less uncomfortable to talk about. When asked about this disconnect, Irsay made the connection to former Colts’ head coach Chuck Pagano, who battled leukemia in 2012. Pagano received prompt medical care and it seemed the entire community rallied behind him, even advertising the hashtag #Chuckstrong.

“This is the extremely difficult situation that people face with mental illnesses,” Irsay said, “with people that can’t get a penny for insurance with serious eating disorders that are threatening the lives of their children. Conditions like OCD that become really serious; no money there to help them. You can imagine how the world closes in more.”

As someone who has dealt with major depression and anxiety for many years, I can attest to the fact that attaining proper medical care for these disorders is only half the battle. Mental illness is sometimes debilitating, and there shouldn’t be a stigma behind trying to get help.

It’s encouraging to see an organization like the Colts, which has so much influence, stand up to this stigma. In a society that is evolving and becoming more educated, it’s important we recognize illnesses that affect so many people - the illnesses that you can’t always see.

To donate to Kicking the Stigma, or for more information, visit https://www.colts.com/community/kicking-the-stigma.