When you begin covering an NFL team, one of the things you learn quickly is that you should get to know the offensive linemen. Find their corner of the locker room and ask them good questions, because, as a general matter, they tend to be insightful and expansive in their answers. They understand the full scope of the team’s offensive system — their jobs require them to understand it — and they are often willing to share their expertise.
Talking with Lane Johnson, over his nine years as the Eagles’ starting right tackle, has always offered a bonus: He would often say things other players would be reluctant or would refuse to say. He could be brash. He could be goofy. He would unveil his own vulnerability. One example: In October 2017, he revealed, without solicitation, that his 2016 suspension for performance-enhancing drugs still preyed on his mind for the way it tarnished his reputation and fed his own amalgam of self-confidence and self-doubt.
“I mean, I know what everybody thinks about me when I head into a game,” he said. “So when they go in and get overmatched, I think I surprise them.”
What did he think people thought?
“They think I’m a ‘roid-head, that I may not be mentally there or something,” he said. “That’s what I want them to think, so when the time comes and I get on the field, I think they see I’m a different breed of guy. …
“I think I’ve built it up in my head. I just think that’s a stigma with me. It’ll always be with me. When I go out there, I want to put things on film that other people can’t do, other tackles can’t do. I want to wow people, reassure them that I’m for real. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I’ve had a long time off, and it’s time for me to reach my full potential. When that happens, I don’t think there’s a lot of guys who can compete with me.”
The statement that Johnson released Monday morning, that his bouts with depression and anxiety led to his absence from the Eagles for their last three games, casts all those comments and conversations in a new light. So you go back over them in a process of retrospective tea-leaf reading, looking for signs, as if such signs are easily found. Could anyone have seen this revelation coming? And if not, why not?
At least once, Johnson was up front about his struggles. In 2018, when his teammate and friend Brandon Brooks was also grappling with anxiety, Johnson said to reporters: “I dealt with the same stuff. … It’s really about self-disclosure. You have to be careful who you tell stuff to because sometimes they’ll mock you with it. Sometimes they’ll put it back in your face, tease you with it, and don’t take you serious. I can tell you right now: Depression and anxiety are real, especially in this league. There’s a lot of guys who go through it, [who] have dealt with it and are dealing with it. I think the stigma about it is what keeps a lot of people from talking about it, to be honest with you.”
That stigma — that suffering from some kind of mental illness makes a person weak — is particularly acute and damaging in the hypermasculine world of pro football. (One wonders how Jon Gruden, in writing the average email, would have characterized Johnson’s and Brooks’ difficulties had he coached them.) It’s damaging not just because of the mockery and expectations that Johnson spoke of, but also because the physical toll that pro football inflicts, especially concussions and other head trauma, can lead to cognitive and emotional problems.
Johnson had suffered a concussion in 2017 and another in 2019. It’s too convenient, at this time, to draw a direct line between those injuries and the onset of his depression this season. As he said, though, a lot of guys in the NFL go through what he has gone through, and a lot of guys are diagnosed with concussions (or suffer them without being diagnosed), so it’s naive to think there isn’t a significant connection in the main between those two general truths/trends.
But then, that’s the challenge of confronting the issue of mental health in sports. More often than not, we don’t know. We speculate. Oh, we love to speculate. But certainty can be a vapor in these situations. So much is left to the mystery of the human mind and heart, both within the athletes themselves and those who watch and judge them. Do we ever know what a person, even a multimillionaire, even a world-famous athlete, is dealing with? It is so easy to forget the demands that these men and women face: demands that others place on them, demands that they place on themselves. There is what they must do to achieve such an elite level in their professions, and there is what they must do to stay at that level, and those pressures can be crushing and, to the casual observer, invisible.
Johnson himself said in his announcement Monday that he kept his depression and anxiety hidden from friends and family. Only in the last few years has Brian Dawkins acknowledged publicly that he drank heavily and suffered from depression early in his career with the Eagles. Simone Biles’ exit from this year’s Olympics became a flashpoint in a national debate: Is it braver for a star to try to fight through crippling anxiety or to say, I’m not OK right now and step away to heal? Ben Simmons is a villain around here. But in the hypothetical, how would it change the nature of the discussion around him if he were to release a statement similar to Johnson’s, an admission that anxiety and depression have plagued him, too, and perhaps they were the cause of his reluctance to shoot the basketball? How much grace are we willing to give these athletes?
There are no pat answers to any of these questions. The best thing to do is be open to these conversations, because they are too important to ignore. Lane Johnson has started another one. That’s a good thing ... for us and, one hopes, for him.