Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Former Pro Bowl WR Steve Smith opens up about mental health battles

Steve Smith Sr. was as outspoken as they come.

The former Pro Bowl wide receiver, who starred with the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens from 2001-2016, was about as famous for his hard-nosed catches as his hard-nosed attitude. Never one to back down from a challenge, the 5-foot-9 target was a four-time All-Pro for his elite production out wide, but he was also among the NFL’s most notable players because of his verbal confidence.

According to Smith, though, his most powerful words never came on the field against shutdown corners or in the meeting rooms with skeptical coaches. They came when he asked for help.

In a powerful open letter published Tuesday on NFL.com, Smith takes the proverbial baton from recent Hall of Fame inductee Brian Dawkins and opens up about his battles with depression.

Revealing that he first saw a sports psychologist in 2002 but never sought full-time help until after retiring in 2016, the longtime Panthers star admits he “routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone” despite racking up big games, big numbers and big money in Carolina.

“Generally, throughout much of my life, unhappiness, constant self-criticism and an inability to let old blunders go weighed so heavily on my mind,” he writes. “I can recall hundreds of these moments, on and off the gridiron, when I felt inept. It really took a toll on my mental state.”

Smith, whose Christian faith offers hope beyond worldly accomplishments, ends his letter with an urge to acknowledge and combat any instances of depression or mental health concerns:

There’s nothing wrong with me, nor is there with anyone else who suffers from depression and other mental health disorders. All human beings have strengths and weaknesses, physical and mental. You’re defined by how you play the hand you’re dealt in life. I’ve spent the last year grieving, in a sense, the fact that I no longer am a football player — the one thing I have been my entire life. Re-identifying myself has been quite the process and learning to be OK with that even more so.

My advice to anyone suffering from mental health issues — and specifically athletes who can relate — is this: Ask for help. Stop trying to deal with these serious matters alone. You’re not alone. Believe me.

Originally a third-round draft pick of the Panthers in 2003, Smith spent the first 13 years of his NFL career in Carolina. He spent his final three seasons with the Ravens, becoming the 14th player in league history to total 1,000 catches over the course of his career.

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