Mental Illness and a Football Icon

by | Oct 28, 2016 | Sports

Urban Meyer is an incredible college football coach – maybe the best in the country.

He has an .851 career winning percentage, behind only two Notre Dame legends: Frank Leahy (.864) and Knute Rockne (.881). He has three national championship rings. And despite losing 12 seniors to the NFL Draft last year, the Buckeyes are currently ranked #6 in the country.

Ask anyone who attended Bowling Green, Utah, or Florida what they think of him. They’ll probably tell you that he’s a life-changer who strives for competitive excellence, and that they love him.

As a Columbus native and lifelong Ohio State fan, I am one of Urban’s biggest supporters. To me, he is a model of class, dedication, and success. He is an icon.

I usually don’t think of icons as having the same issues as us regular people. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned about Urban’s battle with mental illness in the Bleacher Report article “I’m Not the Lone Wolf”.

My first reaction was shock. Icons seem to transcend the sort of problems that plague the rest of us each day. Could my favorite coach really be miserable?

My second reaction was admiration and awe. It is so refreshing to see a so-called “hard-nosed-tough-guy” be vulnerable, honest, and open about his struggles as a human being. All of a sudden, Urban became less of an icon and more relatable.

I can’t recommend “I’m Not The Lone Wolf” enough. If you’re not able to read it, here are three quick takeaways:

  1. Mental Illness is All Around Us

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in five adults (~43.6 million) in the U.S. experience mental illness each year. Most symptoms are not always as dramatic as you might think. They include:

  • Dwelling on negative things that happen
  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of sleep
  • Isolation

Urban dwelled excessively on every loss. He ate less frequently. He stopped exercising. He lost 40 pounds. He’d rarely get more than four hours of sleep a night.

In isolation, these symptoms might strike us as unremarkable. Taken together, they can indicate various forms of mental illness.

Why wasn’t Urban practicing self-care? Perhaps it had to do with the voice in his head that continually screamed: I don’t have time!

When confronted by his wife, Shelley, that he may be struggling with mental illness, Urban did what so many of us do: he refused to admit it. After all, he considered mental illness as a  “weakness,” and the college football world is not exactly permissive of weaknesses.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. All of us experience symptoms of mental illness from time to time. While many of us will not be officially diagnosed, we will all have the experience of letting negative thoughts get the best of us.

  1. Focus on your “Ultimate Mission”

When Urban was at his lowest point, sleeping in his office and literally working the entire day, he began to experience panic attacks and eventually resigned from coaching at Florida.

To counteract his anxieties and bouts of panic, Urban turns to his “Ultimate Mission,” which is summarized in a framed paragraph, written on pink notebook paper, in his office:

  • My family will always come first.
  • I will take care of myself and maintain good health.
  • I will go on a trip once a year with Nicki — MINIMUM.
  • I will not go more than nine hours a day at the office.
  • I will sleep with my cellphone on silent.
  • I will continue to communicate daily with my kids.
  • I will trust God’s plan and not be overanxious.
  • I will keep the lake house.
  • I will find a way to watch Nicki and Gigi play volleyball.
  • I will eat three meals a day.

Family. Faith. Work/life balance. Urban realized that these, not winning championships, were the keys to his happiness and mental well-being. This realization was a rediscovery of part of his mission: to pour himself into his players and help them become better people.

We can’t control what happens to us, and we can’t control what will happen in the future, but we can orient ourselves to our mission in life and respond accordingly.

  1. Mental Illness Can Be a Gift

Though mental illness affects so many of us, there is good news of hope and joy. Urban has helped others reframe their inner struggles as a gift. Whatever we might think of his baseball career, Tim Tebow has inspired many people to do good in their communities. Tebow has credited Urban for helping him harness his obsessive nature and relentlessness in a positive way for the greater good.

Mental illness is not a plague or something that we should consider shameful or weak. It can be a gift. To be sure, this gift can be debilitating if not treated. But once addressed, the life of those who live with mental illness can bring so much brilliance to the world. Think of your favorite athletes, musicians, and artists. Like Urban, they too may have a history of struggling with mental illness. If they can do it, so can we. Let us not be afraid to talk about and share our gifts more openly for the better health of all.


Emanuel Werner, SJ   /   All posts by Emanuel