I always told myself I would only keep playing football if it was the thing I wanted to do most in the world — not just because I could do it. If my desire to do something else became greater than my desire to put on the pads, I promised myself that I would fearlessly journey onto a new path. I was just never sure when that time would come.
I had a desire to play football throughout college. Even as I was playing D-I basketball at Portland State, there was a little voice in the bottom of my consciousness whispering to me that playing football could change my life. Basketball offered me a safer existence and the potential to pursue a career overseas, but still I decided to follow my heart and put everything into football.
So heading into my senior year, my goal was simply to do whatever it took to get a workout for a team by the following year’s NFL mini camps. I didn’t know much more about the game than the average fan or Madden player. I just knew somewhere deep down inside I could do it. I could be an NFL football player. My beginnings in the game were very humble; hell I didn’t even know how to get into a proper three-point stance. That battle alone seemed impossible. Still, I exceeded my aims, and a little more than a year after I set my sights on the NFL, I was drafted in the fourth round by the Broncos.
In Denver my evolution continued. Just to make it through meetings and walk-throughs I had to shift all of my energy and, a lot of my identity, into football. Through that I started to understand that although the setting was different, the process was the same as it was in basketball: show up, give everything you’ve got, seek help and believe in yourself. (And even leading up to that, the entirety of my life had been spent developing my physical abilities. Most of the goals I’ve ever had have been related to sports in some way.)
For a long time, that was great. I truly loved it. I was happy learning and growing into a veteran. My life and my profession were aligned and meeting my social and personal needs. But more recently I began taking time to check in with myself. By that I mean, taking stock of where I was in life and what was important to me. In those moments of introspection I realized that while I may have reached my financial goals, my work as a man was just beginning. I learned that no matter what you have and no matter what other people see, happiness comes from your own definition of it. It became clear that I was living unaware of anything outside of my goal, which was to be the best football player I could be.
I realized that no matter my material success, I had much work to do internally. I could no longer play to the social ideal of the happy athlete millionaire. I had to take an honest look at who I was, or as Jung would say, dive into my “shadow.” To realize that life is tough emotionally on all of us. That we can’t grow until we have healed from the traumas of our pasts.I realized that no matter my material success, I had much work to do internally.
I did this by reading and studying from the best minds of our time and the past: Socrates, Eckhart Tolle, Aquinas, Brene Brown, George Mumford, David Hawkins, Dr. King, etc. Although I am and always will be an athlete, there were other parts of me that were being suppressed. Interests, relationships, meaning. I had to learn to accept that my identity was not my profession — actually there were a lot more facets to what makes me, me that I had never fully embraced or explored. But by doing so I was able to become a fuller version of myself. Through this journey I was able to see the importance of love and compassion and the benefits of peeling back our masks. I became aware of how much others can benefit from this experience as well.
And that’s a big part of why I’ve decided to go back to school.
- While making the decision to no longer play the game is difficult, I’m also incredibly excited about what’s next: Studying therapy and becoming well trained in it so that I can help people heal from their emotional and mental pain.
- Investigating the effects of contact sports on brain trauma and neurobehavioral performance.
- Participating in research looking at biomarkers that may identify early warning signs of brain disease.
These are the things I’ll be learning and working on over the next year as I begin to pursue a doctorate in psychology.
USA Today Sports Images
There was no one moment when I concluded, “Man, I want to be a psychologist.”
Honestly, if you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said psychology was dumb and psychologists couldn’t tell me anything about who I am. I didn’t believe in the idea of another person informing me about the way my mind worked or asking me to explore my emotions. I ran from feelings, like I’m sure most of us do.
But in my own existential search for meaning I started finding myself more drawn to the field. It’s hard to pinpoint when it happened exactly, but I think it was sparked when I evaluated my own life and realized that it was a self study of mindfulness and psychological principles that was allowing me to move through my own struggles. These material things I was focused on— the cars, the homes, the paycheck — I finally had them, but something was still missing. When I was deeply honest with myself, it was clear those things didn’t make me happy.These material things I was focused on— the cars, the homes, the paycheck — I finally had them, but something was still missing.
The most moving realization was that as my awareness grew, I became more tuned into my surroundings. As I sat in team meetings, locker rooms, dinners and other gatherings with my peers, it struck me that under the surface many of them must be dealing with their own existential difficulties. That beneath their hardened exteriors at least some of them were hurting. In every professional sport, but particularly football, men aren’t given permission to share what they feel inside. It’s our culture, our profession, that expects us to be above what it means to be human. We’re required to give everything of ourselves and somehow because of our position in life nothing is supposed to bother us. The brave faces we put on after losses — whether they’re relatively trivial losses, like games, or more profound ones, such as marriages or family members — are not always indicative of how we feel inside. There’s a lot of pain that remains hidden.
I started thinking more about how as teammates we’ll pack closely together in the huddle or a meeting room and say that we love each other. That we will sacrifice ourselves again and again to see our brothers have success on the field. The compassion that was growing within me made me believe the way we sacrifice for each other should continue beyond that, outside of the playing field or practice facility. Because fellow players understand the external and internal pressures of this life better than anybody else.
You get rewarded handsomely for being a professional athlete, but part of the tradeoff is that everything about you is public. Your salary, your personal life, your mistakes and successes. The intensity with which you are celebrated for playing well, inversely applies to the criticism you receive. Your failures are remembered in the same breath as your successes.
You’re constantly reminded by everyone around you that you’re living a dream, so when you realize something isn’t right deep down, you keep that inside rather than trying to evaluate it. Who do you call? How many people truly know that money isn’t some great panacea for emotional pain? You internalize that fear and anxiety and just work harder, believing that winning or money will make whatever you’re feeling go away. You discount your own internal struggle because you believe it’s not as bad as what others experience.
But ultimately that’s not the point. It’s not about comparison. Pain is pain. Struggle is struggle. We all experience suffering on our own individual levels that can’t be quantified.
Tom DiPace/AP Images
As easy as it was to fall in love with this game, it was just as easy to get frustrated by it too.
At various times, football has flummoxed me, pissed me off, caused me to lose sleep. You name it. There is also beauty in the struggle. Because of the difficulties of being a pro, I had to push beyond what I thought were my limits. Thinking about it, I wouldn’t change any of it. It was that exact combination of experiences that has made me into who I am today, and for that I could not be more thankful.
Because of football I was loved, supported and encouraged by so many people from all different walks of life. I got to experience some of the most amazing moments on some of the biggest stages imaginable. For that, I’m deeply thankful to the fans, coaches, organizations and teammates who have taken this journey with me. I simply wouldn’t be where I am today without you all. I tried to give you everything I had, and your love, support, interest and passion was instrumental in who I am. Thank you.
When I reflect on the moments that have had a lasting impact on me (and I’ve been doing that quite a bit) I realize one of the most impactful occurred without me even registering it at the time.
My fourth year in the league, while I was with the Broncos, I was in the locker room talking with my teammate Jacob Tamme. He’s a guy that I have a ton of respect for as a teammate but even more so as a man. At some point he sat down next to me unprompted and told me, “Julius, I want you to know that you can have a great impact on the men in this locker room, that people listen to you, and you could do a lot for the guys in here by leading.” It caught me off guard because that was one of the last things I was thinking about at that time in my life — enough so that I still remember it vividly. Honestly I was a lot more focused on myself than on the people around me. I was trying to climb this ladder to success, that was all that really mattered. But it turned out, what he said planted a seed that began to grow.
A few years later, in my second season with the Jags, we played a game against Atlanta, who Jacob played for at the time. In the time between what he told me in Denver and that moment, I’d grown a lot and thought a lot more about what he said to me that day. And I did what I should have done at the time but wasn’t ready to, I thanked him for providing that guidance. He ended up giving me the message that I needed to hear at that exact moment in my life I needed to hear it, even if I hadn’t known it at the time.
When I started thinking about how I can best serve others, one thing that occurred to me was, Man, I didn’t really have anybody I could call and talk to about my life who I thought would really understand. Someone who could understand on an experiential level. That beyond the paycheck, the physical toll this game takes on your body and the mental toll of how uncertain your future is can cause a ton of anxiety. And then it became clearer to me that my purpose was to try to become that person for others.
And that’s what inspired me to what I’m doing now.
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
I began auditing psychology classes during the off-season to see if it did in fact interest me. It turned out, being in those classes made me feel fulfilled in a way I hadn’t in some time. Did it all make sense to me right away? No, of course not. But once again I felt that subtle calling, that soft ring inside telling me to follow my heart. The desire was born to take studying psychology as far as I could. And even if I did have a lot to learn, it didn’t take long for me to find some direction.
As I started meeting more people in the field of psychology the topic of brain injuries came up in conversation again and again. Because of my football career, CTE became a pretty frequent topic of conversation. Truthfully, it wasn’t something openly discussed a lot while I was playing. There were offhand references, but for the most part, it was something we knew we were at risk for but had no idea what the risk really was. That surprised a lot of people I spoke with. And what I quickly discovered is that there was a ton of brain trauma research that I was completely unaware of, but also a ton of research that still needed to be conducted. In those moments I started to feel aligned, to feel a sort of calling to study brain trauma. It just sort of fit. I knew I wanted to help and knew that this would be a great way to help football players, to be that person who could help them understand what we all are at risk of. I felt inside that this was stuff I needed to understand.I knew I wanted to help and knew that this would be a great way to help football players.
And then it all came together.
Football has serious cognitive risks, but there’s still a lot to learn about the extent of them and ways they can be mitigated. The ability to assist with the latest research being done on brain trauma and the pursuit to better understand CTE. To study it not just from the perspective of a psychologist or a clinician, but also as a person who has played for several years at the highest level, is something that excites me. It fills me with a sense of purpose. It’s a way to help while growing intellectually that I had been searching for. I know I have so much to learn, but that’s what I’m most looking forward to.
I understand why it took me some time to actually overcome the fear of looking into the deepest parts of who I was. Sometimes in order to follow your heart, you have to quiet your mind. Because your mind — your ego — constructs an identity for you. And then you put a lot of energy into living up to that identity. Nothing seems more counterproductive than stepping out of a persona you spent your whole life building. But this is exactly the work that must been done to fully step into all of who you are.
I’m ready to admit that I’m okay with giving up the identity of “Julius the football player.” I’m O.K. with not being recognized as an NFL athlete — because I’m more than that. I have stepped out of my identity before, and I will continue to do it again and again throughout life. I believe helping others is what I’m supposed to be doing at this point in my life. Hopefully I can help by encouraging more of my peers to connect with who they are outside of the game. If ultimately that’s what I’m remembered for, I’d be very thankful.
Because this is the thing I want to do most in the world, and now, I’m going to give all of myself to it.
Above all else love!