STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Joey Julius has become a college football celebrity in 2016 by making Penn State kickoffs must-see events.
His story became about much more than a kicker and his highlight-reel hits this week when Julius revealed on Facebook he has been battling an eating disorder and depression. He said that was the reason for his absence from the team during the offseason.
It was an incredible display of courage by Julius to open up about his struggles. Eating disorders and mental health have spent far too much time as taboo subjects in sports, particularly in testosterone-charged environments like college football facilities.
“I’m very, very proud of Joey,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Tuesday. “I really am, in so many ways. I know this is something that probably affects and helps others. To see athletes or someone in Joey’s position like this make himself vulnerable and put himself out there like that, I think a lot of people can relate with that and I think a lot of people can connect with that.”
Hopefully that will, beyond Julius being able to maintain balance and happiness in his life, be part of the aftermath of his personal revelation. Finding out that a college football player has dealt with an eating disorder feels like a very unique situation, but it shouldn’t.
There is no question that other players around the country have struggled with similar issues, or continue to do so. Whether it is young players trying to bulk up, older players trying to lose weight to become quicker and faster, or someone in a similar situation to Julius, hopefully awareness about his situation can help others.
Beyond players having a public reinforcement that there are others out there dealing with the same issues, the reaction from Julius’ coaches and teammates will hopefully be a big takeaway for those who have feared sharing similar issues or sought help out of fear or embarrassment.
“We knew he was dealing with something, but we didn’t exactly know what it was,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. “We’re proud of him for coming out with everything and feeling like he’s in a place where he can do that. That’s a big step for him, and we’re excited that he’s able to make that step.
“We’re all supportive of him and happy for him, and I can’t wait to see how (revealing his issue) will continue to elevate him.”
That a football player has struggled with depression is not unique. It has been a problem for current and former players at all levels of the sport. In the past, it has also been left in the shadows.
Players didn’t want to hear about teammates dealing with mental health issues because they feared what they might be forced to personally cope with. Players who were struggling either kept it private, or did not find the solace and empathy they needed.
There are too many examples of the negative consequences when that has occurred.
“I think it’s changed dramatically,” Franklin said about the attitude towards mental health and what is available for players compared to his college days. “I don’t remember any of those things being available. I don’t remember those things being discussed when I was in college a whole lot. The services that campuses and universities provide now, communities provide, it’s different. I think that’s good for everybody.
“I think like a lot of things in our society now, we think things are more apparent now or are happening probably more than they did 20 years ago, and I don’t think that’s the case. I just think there’s more awareness in general. We always have someone come in during camp and talk to the guys about all the different services that are available for all of our students here at Penn State and also specifically to our athletes. … I think our society when it comes to mental health has changed a lot.”
Julius, and Penn State, have a chance to be part of that change. He is no longer just the kicker who might be “one of those guys that can fly down there and take somebody’s helmet off,” as teammate DeAndre Thompkins said Tuesday.
His courage, and his team’s desire to embrace and support him, will hopefully help other people and other teams in similar situations in the future.