Don’t Suffer in Silence

Joe Taylor, third-year wide receiver on the University of Michigan Football team, grew up in Chelsea, Michigan, just outside of Ann Arbor. Taylor, an active supporter of Sack the Stigma, sat down to share his personal mental health experiences and advocated the importance of speaking up and getting help.

Brooke Woodrum (Sack the Stigma): How has your experience been so far with the Michigan Football program?

Joe Taylor: I got lucky when I came in, I’ve been surrounded by a bunch of good guys and a bunch of good football players, so it’s been awesome. The last two years, we won the BigTen [Championship] back-to-back and just came up short in the playoffs. It’s been a blast. Every day when I come in here, it’s not work, it’s fun. You get to come here and workout, be around your best friends, and play football.

STS: Coming into Michigan, you were lined up to play on both the Michigan Football and Baseball teams. How did you manage your time between both sports in addition to academics? What were some obstacles you faced?

Taylor: My freshman fall I was doing both football and baseball. There’s this thing called ‘Fall Ball’ for baseball where you practice, though not as much as during the regular season, and then you travel to go play scrimmages on the weekends. During my freshman year, I didn’t travel with the football team, so they would be at away games on weekends, and I’d be with the baseball team. Saturdays we typically had baseball scrimmages and Sundays were practices, and then I also tried to stop in and hit for baseball once or twice a week. It was definitely overwhelming at first because I didn’t have time to catch up on anything in my life, so at the end of football season, I ultimately decided I was just going to play football. When I was doing both sports, everything happened really fast. For football, we got done with fall camp on a Saturday, and then Sunday was an off-day. We stayed in a hotel for fall camp, so on Sunday morning we had to get up and move into the dorms, and then our classes started the next day. I was scrambling and trying to find a routine. I’m big on routines, so once I get one down I’m good to go, but it was hard to find one. With school, football, and baseball, it was difficult in the first weeks trying to get my feet wet and slow everything down. Sleep is also a big thing for me, so in my schedule, I’d go to football practice, then go hit for an hour or two, and then do whatever homework I had to get done for that night. I wasn’t able to get ahead much because of how fast everything was moving around me. 

STS: What influenced your decision to choose to exclusively play football at Michigan?

Taylor: Ultimately, it was because of an arm injury. I would’ve had to get a Tommy John*, which has a 9-12 month recovery, so I didn’t really want to do that. I could do everything in football without that surgery, so I decided to put baseball aside and just focus on football.

*Tommy John surgery: A surgical procedure in which a healthy tendon extracted from an arm is used to replace an arm’s torn ligament. 

STS: What are some strategies you use to get mentally focused for games? How do these strategies translate to things outside of football?

Taylor: Games days are probably the most loose I ever am. I always look at it as an awesome opportunity, so I want to make the most of it and have fun with it. The more you tense up and get tight, the worse it is. I always try to stay loose and I will listen to some “weird” music like Morgan Wallen before games. It’s not exactly weird music, just not typical pre-game music. I’ve really learned to embrace it and live in the moment. This 100% translates to my life outside of football. Whether it be school or my social life, I’m in the spot of my life right now where it’s all about living it up, enjoying life, and being me. In terms of staying loose, having fun, and being in the moment, I channel that every day in every aspect of my life. I don’t want to look back and think, I wish I would’ve enjoyed this more. I always try my best to relax and embrace it so I can really soak it all in and have fun.

STS: In football, the team aspect is super important, especially given the large roster. How does your mental focus affect the team? What are some things you do as a team to get mentally prepared for games?

Taylor: In terms of mentally focusing, you have to do it individually, and then apply that to the team. You have to prove to your teammates that you’re locked in and doing your job. You have to trust the guys you’re playing with and playing next to. There’s nothing crazy we do, but we do like to watch a movie together the night before a game. We’ve watched Top Gun Maverick before and then we also watch anything from Rocky to Dream Team. Everyone has their own ways to get locked in, so we don’t do so much of it together since all the guys have different ways of approaching it, but we all take a lot of down time and focus on ourselves.

STS: There is a lot of stigma around men being vulnerable and speaking out about their mental health. Do you see any progress being made in breaking down this stigma? If so, what progress do you see and how do you hope progress can continue to be made? How do you hope sharing about your mental health inspires others to do the same?

Taylor: In the last year or two, this has become a more popular topic, which is awesome. For me, the biggest thing was a little hiccup I had around March or April, where I was struggling but I felt like I couldn’t step away from football because of stereotypes like “Be a man” and “Suck it up.” Eventually, I got to the point where I had to step away. When it happened, I realized that as bad as I felt then, it was good because I felt supported by my coaches. Position coaches would always text me and ask how I was doing, which was a very eye-opening experience for me. I realized it was okay to feel how I was feeling. People are afraid to speak up when they’re struggling, so they continue to wear it and hope that it passes by. I honestly think that’s the worst thing to do, because you’re just hoping that it goes away. By speaking up and letting your guard down, you can erase the stigma in your head. Realizing that you’re not feeling okay, that it’s okay to be feeling that way, and then speaking up, is the most powerful thing you can do. The people who do it will learn that it’s the best thing for them. As for the people who don’t want to help them and don’t support them stepping away, they need to take a step back and think, If I were in that position how would I want someone to support me? I think people often think athletes have it made and are living the best lives with NIL money, being around cool people, and getting great facilities. In reality, it’s still possible for them to feel bad, but when that happens, it’s something that shocks people. For me, I always think of the phrase, “It’s okay not to be okay.” For the longest time, I felt like it wasn’t okay to not be okay, so when I thought of that quote, it encouraged me to get help. I think the same thing holds a lot of people back from getting help. I hope in sharing this that people realize it’s okay to feel the way they’re feeling and it’s okay that they’re struggling. People try to hold onto stuff, but you really do have to get help. Nobody else is in your brain, so they can’t know what’s going on, so you have to speak up. As tough as you might be mentally or as tough as you might be on the football field or in the classroom, you can’t control the way that you feel. When things get bad, they get bad, and it’s okay to speak up and say that. 

STS: When Sack the Stigma was first starting out last year, you were one of the people who were really excited about participating. What drew you to the message of ‘Sack the Stigma’ and what does it mean to you?

Taylor: Initially, I was really drawn to Sack the Stigma because of the way it was brought into our football program and Michigan Athletics. It made me feel welcome and supported. When I saw the campaign, even though I didn’t say a single word about how I felt and nobody really knew, it felt good to feel like somebody has your back and that people want to help. Every Saturday I was wearing the long-sleeve Sack the Stigma shirt before games just because it felt so good to be supported. The message, Sack the Stigma, just shows me the importance of speaking up. The more that awareness continues to build, the more the stigma will go away. I actually had a class where the TA was talking about mental health. The whole lecture hall went silent and he said, ‘I need you guys to listen to me. This is real, I’ve experienced it, my daughter’s experienced it. You guys can use me, if you need to, call me.’ You’re seeing more of that these days, but a few years ago, you wouldn’t have been seeing that as much, and I think it’s really important. 

STS: Why do you think it is important to Sack the Stigma?

Taylor: People live and suffer alone a lot. The more the stigma is erased and the more we can make it normal for people to speak up and get help, the better. Nobody wants to suffer in silence, that’s the worst feeling. You feel like no one understands, you feel like you can’t speak, and you feel bottled up inside. I think that by bringing more awareness, more people will begin getting help for themselves and realize that it’s okay to have problems with your mental health. 

STS: How do you Sack the Stigma?

Taylor: We have a lot of guys on our football team, so within our facility, I try to be that guy to help. I always ask my teammates if they’re doing okay. Simply asking somebody, ‘Are you okay?’ in a genuine way goes far. Checking in on people is something I do on a daily basis, especially when I see someone who might be struggling or whatever it might be for them. I’m always talking to people, so if I notice that they’re down, I’m pushing them to get help. I’ve gotten help and people on the team have gotten help, too, but some guys on the team are afraid. So, I tell them, ‘Dude, just go get help. It might be scary, it might not be what you want to do, but you’d rather just say that you tried it, and you might feel a lot better.’ 

The stigma around mental health can make it feel challenging to speak up and get help. Breaking down the stigma is a team effort, but every individual must play their part. Taylor mentions the importance of every player on his team being mentally locked in for games. “You have to trust the guys you’re playing with and playing next to,” he says. In the team effort to sack the stigma, we must trust those around us, too. We must encourage them to seek help and support them when they speak up, just as we would want others to do for us. In Taylor’s words, “The more the stigma is erased, the more we can make it normal for people to speak up and get help. Nobody wants to suffer in silence.”

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