IOWA CITY, Iowa — The official bio lists Sean Welsh as 6-foot-3, 295 pounds of pure granite. On Wednesday afternoon, he looked a hell of a lot bigger than that.
“I think it’s tremendously courageous,” Robert Harmison, director sports psychology at James Madison University, told Land of 10 after the Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman discussed his battles with depression.
“What I talk about with our athletes here all the time [is that] it’s really easy, if you’re struggling with something, to keep that to yourself. I think that’s the easy way to go. And that’s usually what we perceive as being kind of tough, right?”
Tough? Tough is baring your soul in 1,000 words, then publishing that essay on the University of Iowa athletic department’s web site.
Tough is standing in front of reporters and strangers on a muggy July afternoon and recounting your inner demons.
Tough is turning to cameras and keyboards and admitting you couldn’t battle those demons alone.
“It’s definitely a reason why I came forward,” Welsh, a senior guard from Springboro, Ohio, said during a news conference as his essay “My Toughest Opponent: Depression” was posted to HawkeyeSports.com. “I think it’s a much more prevalent issue than people think … with college kids.
“With me, it was really a matter of pride. I was really too proud to admit I needed to seek help the first time.”
— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) July 19, 2017
For Welsh, who has played in 39 games the last three seasons, the demons really crept in. “I spent more time asleep or in front of a TV than I did with people,” he wrote in the summer of 2014, just before his redshirt freshman season.
Despite a promising first season — 9 starts in 13 games — the depression returned with a vengeance in the spring of 2015, the blackness so enveloping that the Ohioan went home and didn’t participate in spring drills.
Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz at the time explained his promising lineman’s absence as a “personal” issue, but few outside the program realized just how personal it really was.
“That was one of the reasons why I took that [break],” Welsh explained. “I was wondering whether I wanted to play or not. That was that duality of … being too proud. I’m too proud to go in [for treatment] and too proud to quit football, because of my depression.”
Through a proper medical diagnosis, more intensive therapy and medication, Welsh was able to break out of his psychological purgatory and return to the university — and return to football, staring all 14 games for Iowa’s 2015 Big Ten West champions.
While the occasional dark period returns — Welsh said a relapse forced him to miss the first part of camp last summer — he said the last 24 months have allowed him to snatch the reins to his life, and to his happiness.
“I’ve learned that I need routine, I need to stay busy, I need to be around people,” the Hawkeyes lineman said.
“In my experience, it’s been easier with each person I’ve told. The first time I went in to see a therapist, it was like, ‘OK …’ it was really hard [for me]. The more that you talk about it with people, it gets easier.”
Tough is putting all the cards on the table, even after the deck’s been stacked against you.
Tough is staring down a stigma. Giving a label a face.
“The thing I’ve wanted from Day 1 is to be treated just like anybody else on the team,” said Welsh, an All-Big Ten third team and Academic All-Big Ten selection last fall. “And from the day I’ve told [my teammates] about it, it’s not like they’ve treated me any different. Which is great.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some 16.1 million adults — 6.7 percent — experienced at least one major depressive incident in 2015, and adults aged 18-25 made up the largest chunk of those episodes (10.3 percent). The roster of known athletes who’ve battled depression during and after their careers includes names such as Terry Bradshaw, Ken Griffey Jr., Ricky Williams, Delonte West, Dorothy Hamill, Amanda Beard and Jennifer Capriati.
Paula Keeton, associate director/director of clinical services at Iowa’s University Counseling, says that of students who’ve sought university help, 40 percent were also battling some kind of depressive condition.
Just because it’s cramped in the fish bowl doesn’t mean it has to be lonely, too.
“We’ve got this kind of socialization process where athletes are praised for kind of figuring things out on their own,” noted Harmison, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee sport psychology registry.
“I think it’s far more courageous to admit they need help. The easy thing to do is to do nothing. The far more courageous thing is to do what this gentleman did.”
A 2014 NCAA study found that 30 percent of student-athletes reported depressed feelings over a 1-year stretch and that 50 percent said they’d experienced high levels of anxiety. Welsh isn’t the first high-profile athlete to make his struggles with depression public.
Nor will he be the last.
“The bottom line is,” Ferentz said, “you can’t read a book by its cover.”
Tough is sharing the dark passages. And writing the next chapter on your own dang terms.