Editor’s Note: For the last decade, late June has traditionally been when BYU football has welcomed reporters to the BYU Broadcasting Building for its annual media day.
Like in so many other ways, 2020 is different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cougars will be doing a virtual media day in July.
But it made me think back to some of my favorite experiences, like talking to Jamaal Williams’ family about his unique style or joking around about who would eat the most pulled-pork sandwiches at lunch with Cougar offensive linemen.
One of the most poignant, however, came in 2017.
Football players often have the classic tough-guy persona but at the end of the day, they are just men doing the best they can as they face a variety of challenges.
I recall anticipating the opportunity to discuss mental health with BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum, who had impressed me with his acknowledgement of his own challenges with anxiety and depression during the spring.
Mangum was open and straightforward as he talked about a sensitive topic that is definitely just as relevant today as it was then — if not more so.
Here’s what he had to say:
When a football player suffers a knee injury or hurts his shoulder, fans may be saddened and disappointed, but they understand.
Mental health issues, however, aren’t as easy to comprehend.
BYU junior quarterback Tanner Mangum took a stand on mental health in April during BYU’s Mental Health Awareness Week, posting on social media about his own struggles with anxiety and depression.
At Friday’s BYU football Media Day, Mangum talked to reporters for the first time about the response to his message.
“Being able to talk openly about mental health and be able to erase the stigma on that topic has been awesome,” Mangum said. “I think it’s been a few months since I shared that, but the outpouring of support and love and thank yous has been incredible.”
He explained that he felt some uncertainty about what the reaction would be when he decided to tell about his experiences.
“I’ve been able to speak out at different events, on radio shows, do different interviews and talk with different people about it,” Mangum said. “It’s really motivated me and inspired me to do more with it, to continue to use my platform for good and let people know that they are not alone.”
He said that mental health isn’t something that is talked about a whole lot, especially in sports and among males.
“I’m excited about being able to spread awareness and make a positive impact in that field,” Mangum said.
Team response In the tough, hard-nosed world of college football, how would an admission like Mangum’s be treated?
“The players and coaches have been super-supportive,” Mangum said. “Coach (Kalani) Sitake has talked to me and has been really supportive of me, as have my teammates. It’s been great. There hasn’t been any negative backlash. If anything, it’s made us even closer as friends and teammates.”
Cougar senior linebacker Fred Warner said he feel like the guys have just wanted to be there for Mangum as well as anyone else struggling in any way.
“I think it was a positive reaction from everyone,” Warner said. “Everyone knows that Tanner is a strong dude. He jokes around all the time and I think that’s something that he has worked on. He let everyone know that if you do have that type of problem, don’t just hold it in but voice it so you can take care of it. It was something I didn’t know about but it was good to see.”
Before Mangum posted his messages, he talked to BYU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ty Detmer about what he was doing.
“We talked about it,” Detmer said. “He confided in me that he battled that but is in a really good place. I think he felt that it’s behind him enough that he could share it. You know these guys go through ups and downs. They have a bad practice or game and they beat themselves up and social media beats them up. It’s hard out there right now. Our style of coaching isn’t to berate them or beat them up more but to build them up and get them ready for the next time.”
Detmer said that part of coaching is being a part-time psychiatrist, trying to help athletes mentally as well as physically.
“Every athlete has battled some type of depression at some point because of a game or a practice or whatever,” Detmer said. “It’s nothing new. Kudos to Mangum for going to get help. Maybe he needed a little extra push to get over a hump and he wasn’t too proud to go do that.”
The former Heisman Trophy winner said he is glad there was enough trust with Mangum to be able to discuss the topic.
“The hope is, as a coach, that a kid feels close enough to share that,” Detmer said. “He has to know that it’s not going to affect your feeling about him. I appreciated him sharing that. It makes me feel we have a good enough relationship that I can now maybe even coach him better now.”
Understanding how things workMangum explained that his experiences have helped him get a better grasp of how his mind and body work together.
“I’ve been home from my mission for two years now and it’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Mangum said. “But something I’ve learned is that mental health and physical health are very much intertwined. As I’ve been taking care of my mental health, I feel much better physically, as well. It’s been good to learn more about how our bodies work and function, to understand what my brain is telling me.”
He knows that he’s generally regarded as a cheerful, optimistic person but pointed out that everyone has aspects that aren’t always visible.
“I’ve asked myself, because I’m very happy and positive and outgoing and always have been,” Mangum said. “But at the same time I’ve always had the emotional, introspective side to me that not a lot of people see. It’s usually when I am alone or in small groups. It’s just a matter of understanding when those hard times come, usually when I feel more isolated. It’s embracing it and understanding that it’s OK, it’s not the end of the world. I don’t have to be happy 100% of the time. We are all human and we all go through times like that.”
The junior quarterback explained that his love of football has been valuable has he has faced these challenges.
“Football has been an escape, a way to cope,” Mangum said. “People have asked if mental health has negatively affected my play, but I don’t think it has.
“When it come to football, I can just go play, have fun, relax and let loose. It’s nice to be on a team surrounded by good teammates and good friends, then go play a game we all love. It’s been one of the most helpful things as far as coping with the struggles.”
Age of anxietyBYU associate head coach Ed Lamb said that the psychological side of athletes is something that he has studied and learned about over the years.
“I have a small background because I did my graduate degree in education counseling,” Lamb said. “In paying attention to the way that it has come to the forefront during the time that I’ve been a coach, I think there is a balancing act between recognizing mental struggles as real but also as fairly common. For Tanner to lead out and let people know it’s OK, that is the kind of steps we need for guys to seek help. We all feel anxiety, especially in situations of high-demand performance. To acknowledge that is huge.”
Articles in publications like The New York Times have elaborated extensively on the state of anxiety that exists in modern life, particularly among youth and college-aged individuals. Mangum and the other Cougar football players understand the setting for the anxiousness that so many feel so acutely.
“The day and age the we live in is very comparison based,” Mangum said. “You look at social media and it’s who has the coolest stuff. We fall into that where we compare ourselves. You kind of have to be aware of it and not fall into that trap. We are all in this together but we all have different lives and different stories. We all have something to offer. You have to embrace your journey and accept yourself for who you are.”
He added that the best therapy he has found is serving others.
“By helping others, you will automatically become happier,” Mangum said. “I’m a firm believer in that. By forgetting yourself, forgetting your own struggles, by helping someone else, you will feel much better about yourself. That’s kind of how I’ve coped with it the most, trying to find how I can help someone today.”
His message will continue to spread, not just at Media Day but during the 2017 football season.
“I was just interviewed by CBS a few weeks ago,” Mangum said. “They are going to do a big story on it that will air during the season.”
At this point, Mangum feels like he is ready for the challenges — mental and physical — of the upcoming season.
“There is pressure — but I like it,” Mangum said. “It’s a good pressure. It’s motivating. It’s exciting. It’s kind of feeling like everything is coming together. I feel good. From a leadership standpoint, I’m feeling confident. I’m really excited about the guys that we have playing for us. I feel like it’s not all on me.”