I’m Still Here
The drive from my house to the Seahawks’ facility was easy.
I’d done it a bunch of times in the summer of 2018.
I’d usually leave around 6:30 in the morning. I wouldn’t hit many lights. Wouldn’t be much traffic, either. I’d head out of my neighborhood, onto the highway, around Lake Washington and I’d get there. Not much to see on the drive, nothing really stood out. But there was this hill I’d drive down every time. Off the shoulder, there was this rocky slope that went straight down. I thought about it a lot because of how dangerous it looked. If the roads got slick, it just seemed like it would be really easy to make a mistake there.
And on the morning of August 16, that was where I decided I was going to kill myself.
It’s hard to explain how I had gotten to that point. I’d begun to hate football. I’d begun to hate what football had become to me. I thought that all the stress, the anxiety attacks, the fear … I just thought they would all go away if I put the car in drive, took my hands off the wheel and just let it go. I thought I’d finally be free.
I sat there at the top of the hill, and I got close. Really close. But then my phone rang. It was my wife. She was seven months pregnant with our first child at the time. I was in such a bad place — I was so lost — that it didn’t matter what she said to me. I rushed her off the phone. Told her not to worry. I edged the car closer to the top of the slope. I put a wheel over the edge. I vividly remember it hovering there.
And then my phone rang again — it was my mother-in-law.
On the morning of August 16, that was where I decided I was going to kill myself.
I could tell right away that she knew something was wrong. There was this tone — almost a rhythm — to her voice that just … it hit me. So I told her the truth. I felt like I had to.
She had no idea what I had been going through, and she asked why I wanted to take my own life.
The answer I had in my head made sense to me, but I couldn’t articulate it to her. I didn’t have an answer that would get her off the phone. So, she kept me there, or maybe I kept her there. And eventually I backed the car away from the edge of the cliff and drove to the facility. I don’t remember all of that day. I had to go talk to Pete Carroll and the rest of the coaches and let them know what was going on. I didn’t care what it would cost me. There was nothing left for me to lose.
I got inside, found the trainers and told them that I’d tried to kill myself. They brought Pete down right away. I told him, “Coach, I can’t do this right now. I need to get help.” I had tears pouring down my face and was barely able to express myself. I just felt hopeless.
He said, “Football doesn’t matter anymore, Marcus. All you need to worry about is getting yourself healthy. Because you as a person, you as an individual … you have a family to protect. That’s all that matters.”
The Seahawks released me the next day in order to allow me to seek the help I needed. They helped me connect with a therapist. They listened to me and truly played a part in saving my life. I will forever be grateful to them.
Now, two years later, I’m on a different mission than I was then, and it means a great deal to me.
I told you the story of that day, of that hill, not because I want sympathy. Not because I want to shock you. I told you that because of how lucky I got.
What if the phone hadn’t rung?
What if the weight of the car had just tipped me over?
What if it all had just gone that much different?
I wouldn’t be here today.
I wouldn’t have held my new daughter in my arms two months later.
And I can barely bring myself to think of my life without her, or my wife.
I also told that story because I know that there could be somebody reading this who is on a path to their own hill, in their own car. They might be five minutes away, or they might be five months — and the closer they get, the more they’ll need luck, like I did.
I don’t want anyone to rely on luck anymore. I want everyone to know that they can get through the toughest moments in their lives. But if us men — especially male athletes — are too scared to ask, then there’s only so much we can do.
It starts with the courage to understand that you can’t do this alone.
I want everyone to know that they can get through the toughest moments in their lives.
After the Seahawks released me, I did the one thing I had always been afraid and ashamed to do: I sought help. I met a therapist who changed my entire perspective on life. We started at the very beginning. I pinpointed the childhood traumas, like the divorce of my parents, that had begun to turn into anxiety when I was young.
We spoke about the intense pressure I’d felt to “make it out” of my neighborhood in Columbus, Georgia.
I know these topics aren’t unique to me — which means that there are hundreds of guys in the league who have experiences from their youth that weigh them down today, even if they don’t know it.
I began to realize that, as an athlete, the myth of mental toughness is perpetuated as an asset — or in some cases when a player isn’t perceived as tough enough, a deal-breaker. And for many players it can lead us to struggle in the shadows. From an early age, that type of mental toughness led me to live half-truths with my parents, friends, teammates, coaches, and even my wife. There were times when people in my life would notice bags under my eyes, and I’d have to assure them that it was just because of a bad night’s sleep. Things like that went on for years.
Now, though, for the first time in my life, I am truly mentally tough. Not because I’m “acting like a man,” but because I have rid myself of the stigmas that surround seeking help. I was ashamed at first. But now I know that I am strongest when I’m being helped by those who want the best for me.
My therapist has helped reintroduce me to Marcus Smith II.
The real Marcus Smith II.
I haven’t known him for a long, long time.
A big reason why I couldn’t deal with my mental hurdles was football. The game stole a part of me that I didn’t know I’d lost. It made me suppress my feelings — it gave me tunnel vision. It wasn’t until I began working with a mental health professional that I finally understood that I had been living for years with undiagnosed anxiety and depression. These feelings that attached themselves to the most pivotal moments in my life weren’t real to me because I didn’t have the language to name or identify them.
My depression and anxiety led to a terrible, inconsistent diet that kept me from sleeping properly for months on end. During training camp, I’d be running on one or two hours of sleep. My appetite would disappear for weeks on end, and when I did try to eat a proper meal, I’d throw it up.
It was a vicious cycle. My anxiety would lead to a lack of sleep and inability to eat, which only fueled my anxiety even more.
Throughout my NFL career I was expecting myself to compete at the highest level — with some of the best athletes in the world — with this immeasurable weight on me.
I look back now, and I question many things. But I don’t wonder why I was so afraid to ask for help.
Mental health issues, especially in the Black community, are often looked down upon. Going to therapy means something is wrong with you. Our ancestors didn’t have therapy, they had God. And they survived the most brutal of trials and tribulations. Today, as we witness seemingly every day the extrajudicial executions of unarmed Black men and women across the country, our community needs more investment in and openness to mental health resources. Because what we’re seeing — what our children are seeing — is going to impact us and them for a long time. And we’ll need to talk about it.
I remember being eight years old and having my first panic attack in front of my family. I was at my grandmother’s house while my parents were on a date night. I remember this tightening in my chest, like a fist was wrapping around my rib cage. And all of a sudden, I was just extremely sad. I wanted my parents to come get me, but I knew it would be a while before they got there. I started to feel like I was going to die from the pressure on my chest. I was eight years old and I was thinking about dying, and not being with my parents when it happened. The feeling escalated more and more, and I started screaming, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die!”
I remember being eight years old and having my first panic attack in front of my family.
My parents came to get me. They checked my blood pressure, but they had no clue what was wrong. They just sat me down and waited for it to pass. That happened a few times, without anything ever really being done to fix the problems inside me. It’s not my parents’ fault, or anyone’s, really. We just didn’t know what was happening to me. And it never did pass.
Even accomplishing a life goal — getting drafted to the NFL in the first round in 2014 — didn’t help me. I had succeeded in college despite the demons in my mind. I’d suffered attacks in front of my roommate, J.D., at Louisville. I’d pace around our apartment, feeling that fist around my chest and like my brain was on fire.
“That ain’t normal, bro,” he’d say.
He was right. But again, I thought I was weak. I wanted to be a leader on that team. I thought I had to be.
So, getting to the next level did nothing to rid those demons from my head. I had been told by male role models from a young age to never show emotion, to never be weak. I compartmentalized my fears, my issues.
Those panic attacks and sleepless nights that I’d had in high school and college? They continued into the NFL.
That weight — that idea of “whatever can go wrong will go wrong” — you can’t shake it easily. I was in the NFL, living a dream, but I was afraid to go to sleep because I used to wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding out of my chest, thinking of all the ways I could lose everything.
I know now that there are others going through the same thing.
Mental Health America reports that roughly six million American men suffer from depression every year, and that men die by suicide at almost four times the rate of women. Suicide, a preventable tragedy, is a leading cause of male deaths.
As men, we are continually being plagued by calls to toughen up and be a man. That toxic masculinity plays a huge role in keeping us from speaking out about the battles we face internally.
Those shallow values that so many men hold close are what made it so difficult for me to walk away from football. I didn’t want to be a failure. I didn’t want to feel shame. But I learned that an NFL career wasn’t worth my life. Not even close. So many young men, though, aren’t going to learn that until it’s too late. Men have to change our value structures. We have to rid ourselves of toxic masculinity.
It is literally killing us.
Those are the facts. And we need to work to change those facts — for the better. There have been many other brave athletes who have spoken out about mental health in the last few years. But for all those who speak out, there are thousands more who sit in silence, battling their demons alone. Let us help them.
Through my Men Talking Health series and my forthcoming mentorship program, I’ve made it my mission to make talking about mental health a staple in men’s lives. From locker rooms to living rooms — let’s talk about it.
You know, when I retired last year and truly began to dedicate my life to this cause, I still had that fear. It’s still there today. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes with my heart racing — but it’s not as often. It’s a battle every day. And you have to do it every day. But thankfully, it gets easier to master every day.
I’ve made it my mission to make talking about mental health a staple in men’s lives.
Around the time of my retirement, I got a DM. It was from a kid who had been following my journey on Instagram. He told me that it wasn’t just my openness about my battle with anxiety and depression that drew him to me, but it was also my passion about purpose — that I could take all of my pain and use it for good, use it to make a life for myself. That’s what he saw.
He told me that because I was able to go through everything and still find meaning in life, he knew he could, too. He ended the message by saying he had been planning to end his life, and that he wasn’t thinking about that anymore. He told me I had saved his life.
And when I read that, I knew. I knew that God wasn’t finished with me yet.
I want to be there for the men who grew up not knowing about mental health, or completely avoiding it. Depression, anxiety, suicide — these issues are big, and impossible to tackle on our own. But I know if I can play a small part in the fight — if I can lend an ear or pull a car back from going over the edge — then I will know that my journey has been worth it.
So, if you’re in it right now, like really in it, and you can’t see the end of it….
Just know that I’m here. I’m still here.