A Letter to the Game

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To the football world, and everyone who loves this game: 

I f***ed up. I’m not here to sugarcoat anything. In 2021, I made the worst mistake of my life by gambling on football. 

I paid the price, believe me. I’ve seen all the jokes. I’ve seen all the hate. And I can shoulder all of that, no problem. All I want is for people to understand that, when I made those bets, there was a hell of a lot more going on with me. 

This is hard for a dude like me to talk about, but I want to be real with everybody. Back then, I was depressed. I was battling anxiety. I didn’t even want to leave my house. Football was the only thing that ever gave my life meaning, and I couldn’t even find any joy in that at the time. Honestly, I couldn’t even get up off the chair in my living room. Everything was just … dark. 

It started with my body breaking down. Hardly anybody knows this, but I played most of the 2020 season with a broken foot. Remember that 1,300-yard season? Nine touchdowns? I was killing it on one foot, for real. Actually, I had played through bone spurs my first two years. Just gritted through it with painkillers. But then, my third year, the wheels came off. Week 8, we were playing Carolina and I remember looking at Julio and I just knew. I said, “Nah, bro, this is different. My shit broke.” 

When I got the MRI, though, the trainer told me it was just a bone bruise. So I kept it pushing. I took Toradol shots every Sunday, and I finished the season. Listen, I know the deal. I’m a football player. It was my decision. I know what we get paid for, you feel me? If it’s really just a bruise, I’m gonna be out there. 

We finished 4–12, and then the whole staff got fired. Coach, GM, head trainer, everybody. When the new trainer finally came in, he sent me to a specialist in Green Bay. Within the first hour, the doctor said, “Your foot is definitely broken.” 

I was devastated. It was only two months before the start of the season, and now you’re telling me it’s broken? You gotta remember — I was the No. 1 guy now with Julio gone. I was under so much pressure to be out there. I got the surgery and rushed back, but I showed up to camp just mentally drained. I still couldn’t plant without painkillers. So you get trapped in this cycle where it’s like, “If you take this pill, you can run.” 

After practice, once that painkiller wears off, you still have to come home and be a husband and a father. My daughter don’t care. She’s two years old, and she’s running straight up to me, “Dadddyyyyyy!!!” She’s wanting to bake some cookies in the Fisher-Price oven, you know? But I’m coming home broken. I can’t even do anything but lie around in a dark room. 

That’s when the anxiety really started. I knew something was off, but I didn’t want to let anybody down. My plan was to get through another season with pills and shots. Do my job. Grit it out. I suited up Week 1 a shell of myself, but I played. 

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After the game, I drove home with my wife and daughter, and I saw the whole neighborhood lined up right outside our house. Our front door was kicked in. Police cars everywhere. Our house had been robbed while we were at the game. At first, me and my wife were pretty calm about everything. They took a bunch of jewelry and stuff, but nothing we couldn’t replace. But then we watched the security footage, and we saw about five or six guys come in with guns drawn. If you have a child, that’s your worst nightmare. My wife was traumatized. She couldn’t sleep at night. She couldn’t stand me being out of the house.

That’s when I really just started to feel the weight of the world on my chest. I didn’t have the words for what I was experiencing yet. It felt like I was getting attacked — but almost by something invisible. It’s like I’m getting hit in my chest, 24/7, by somebody I can’t see. 

I would come into the facility and I just wasn’t myself. I mean, for three years, all those guys in that locker room know how I’m coming. I’m walking in there to compete like hell. I’m trying to take people’s souls, every day. Ask Julio. Ask anybody. But all I wanted was to be at home with my wife and daughter. We were supposed to go play in London, and I just couldn’t leave them. That’s when I finally broke down and told the team that I needed help. 

And this is where it gets tricky for me, because I don’t want to badmouth anybody from the franchise. I know they got a lot of pressure to win, and they got their own job to do. But I just felt like some people in the building were supportive, and other people were looking at me like, “You good, bro.” 

Since I was eight years old, I was on my own.

Calvin Ridley

But I wasn't good. It’s as simple as that. I’m as mentally strong as they come, believe me. But I really just needed a break. So I stepped away from the team.

I started talking to a therapist almost immediately. I told him how I was feeling, and we went pretty deep. I told him some things that I can’t even talk to my own family about, because it’s just too much. I mean, y’all don’t even know what I’ve been through to get here. That’s the hardest part about this last year, honestly. People have questioned my toughness and my character. But I don't think most of those people could’ve lived the life I lived and even made it off the porch, let alone made it to the NFL. 

Since I was eight years old, I was on my own. It’s crazy but I know the exact date: October 31, 2002. We were having our little Halloween party at school. Out of the blue, my aunt came and picked me and my three younger brothers up. The next thing I know, she’s dropping us off at some random place with a bunch of strangers. It was a foster home for kids in distress. But I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. No one would tell me anything. It was just, “Your mom and dad went away for a while. You need to stay here.” 

When it comes to my family, there’s things I can't talk about, you feel me? But let’s say my mom and dad lived that fast life. Some of my earliest memories are of people kicking our door down, running in with dogs. But I can’t blame my parents, really. I mean, we were poor poor. We lived off food stamps. I don’t know why I even remember this, but our rent was $26. When you’re in that situation, the fast money is enticing. 

Eventually, it caught up to them. My dad got deported back to Guyana and my mom went away for a bit, so that’s when they took us to the foster home. I’ll never forget my youngest brother just screaming his head off, crying for our mom. He was only five years old, and he just would not calm down, no matter what. We kept telling him, “Chill! Chill!” But he was panicking, and they took him away somewhere else. We didn’t see him again for six months. 

I was the oldest, so I had to be the man at a very young age. My brothers would be looking at me like, “What's going on? What’s about to happen? Are we gonna be alright?” Honestly I didn’t know. But I’d say, “We’ll be alright. It’ll get easier. Don’t worry about nothing.” 

I’m as mentally strong as they come, believe me. But I really just needed a break.

Calvin Ridley

I learned to put my armor on, you know? 

That’s when football really saved my life. Eventually, they moved us to the SOS Children’s Village in Coconut Creek, Florida — it’s like a little complex with 10 houses, maybe 150 apartments. And I used to wake up in the morning, seven o’clock, and bang on all the doors, rounding up everybody. “Come on, we playing footbaaaaalllllllll! You coming???” 

We’d be playing pickup — 15-on-15, 30-on-30 — from like seven in the morning til six at night. Maybe that's how I got so fast, because if you wanted the ball in all that chaos, you had to run your ass off. I remember these guys used to come around in these big vans, and I guess they were from a charity or something. They’d pull up on a Saturday and yell, “Who wants to play football?” And everybody would pile in there and they’d take us to the nice fields and give us real equipment. Those were the best days, because you could forget about everything. I wasn’t even thinking about the NFL or college or anything at that point. It was just happiness. 

If I got a football, I’m straight. 

After about six years, my mom came home and she got her life together, and I want to say that I really love my mom. But we were on our own for a long while, and I had to go through some wild experiences at a young age. I know how it feels to sleep in a homeless shelter. I know how it feels to be hungry. All I dreamed about in those times was a normal life. 

I remember when I got to high school and I really started blowing up my junior year, and getting all these letters, I would always be thinking about a 50K job. I was like, “Alright, if I get a college degree, I’m gonna make at least 50 thou, no matter what.” It was 50 thou or die trying. 

Football gave me everything. My first plane ride in my life was to Tuscaloosa on a recruiting trip for Alabama. My first big Christmas was during my freshman year. I remember getting that stipend money and coming home for Christmas break and handing one of my little brothers $1,000 cash and it was like he won the lottery. Forget about making M’s. Just that one band was mega to us.  

And then to make it to the NFL … that was just life-changing for my people and for my neighborhood, for real. That’s why I want people to know my whole story, and know that I never meant to tarnish this game. 

I just f***ed up. Period. In a dark moment, I made a stupid mistake. I wasn’t trying to cheat the game. That’s the thing I want to make clear. At the time, I had been completely away from the team for about a month. I was still just so depressed and angry, and the days were so long. I was looking for anything to take my mind off of things and make the day go by faster. One day, I saw a TV commercial for a betting app, and for whatever reason, I downloaded it on my phone. I deposited like $1,500 total, literally just for something to do. I was going to bet like $200 on some NBA games that night, but then I just added a bunch more games to a parlay. I put the Falcons in on it. I was just doing it to root on my boys, basically. I didn’t have any inside information. I wasn’t even talking to anybody on the team at the time. I was totally off the grid. 

Whenever people ask, “What were you thinking?” The only answer I can give is, “I wasn’t.” 

When you’re depressed, you’re not thinking about anything in the future. You’re just trying to get through the day. 

When the NFL investigators called me in, that was probably the worst day of my life. Seeing my mom googling my name … and everything people were saying about her son…. That broke me down, man. But honestly, maybe I had to go through all of it. Maybe I had to hit rock bottom so I could get healthy. Thank God, with the help of my therapist, I was able to understand what was happening to me. I learned the names for the things that I was feeling — stress, depression, anxiety — and how to cope with those emotions. 

Right now, I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt —  mentally and physically. On the field, I’m flying. Believe me, I’m flying. That GPS band don't lie. On my daughter’s name, if I’m healthy? With Trevor Lawrence? I’m giving Jacksonville 1,400 yards a season, period. 

I want to thank the Jaguars for showing faith in me, and understanding me as a human being who made a mistake. It feels so good to be back home in Florida, where this dream started, with a clean slate. But also I want to make it clear that I don’t have a bad word to say about the Falcons or the city of Atlanta. That’s still my second home, and where my daughter was born. I tried to give y’all everything I had, until the wheels came off. It’s all love, forever. 

Julio Aguilar/Getty

Football saved my life. It’s still my purpose. I still love it, maybe now more than ever. 

You know ... I can still remember when we first got put in foster care, just lying in bed at night, scared as hell, not knowing what the future was going to bring. All I knew was that tomorrow … rain or shine … I could play some football. 

I know I have a debt to pay back to the game. But when y’all talk about the name Calvin Ridley in 10, 20, 30 years ... I’m gonna make sure it rings out for the right reasons.