As NFL myths go, few have stood the test of time more than the idea of the player’s impregnable mind, where outside distractions are stopped at the gates and the only point of focus is on the here and now.
On Tuesday, as news of Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen’s treatment for mental health issues became public hours before the team would board a flight to Los Angeles for Thursday’s game with the Rams, quarterback Kirk Cousins allowed that life in the NFL isn’t always so cut and dried.
“A lot of people in this locker room are going through things, and this league will test you in a lot of different ways,” Cousins said. “I guess I’ll just say it’s part of what going through this league is like.”
Griffen’s hospitalization, following two Saturday incidents that prompted police involvement — one after he allegedly threatened staff at the Hotel Ivy in Minneapolis, the other at his home in Minnetrista — served as a bracing reminder that NFL players are not immune to the mental health struggles that affect approximately one in five U.S. adults.
Former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin detailed his struggles with depression and anxiety in an interview with Sports Illustrated this summer, and Seahawks receiver Brandon Marshall has talked openly about his battles with depression.
Just last week, after Vikings receiver Adam Thielen launched his foundation with a $100,000 gift to the behavioral health unit at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, both Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph discussed the reality that mental health issues are as prevalent in the NFL as they are anywhere else.
“You have to be so mentally tough to play this game,” Rudolph said. “To play at the level you have to play at to be successful, there’s just so many different things that can deter you from getting to that level. Mental health is one of them. If you’re not in a clear state of mind, it’s got to be hard to go out there and perform. I can’t imagine battling through that, on top of all the things that we have to battle through on a weekly basis, just to go out and play well.”
The Vikings informed Griffen on Thursday he was not allowed at the team’s facility in Eagan until he underwent a mental health examination. Player development director Les Pico told police that Griffen had been “explosive, screaming and yelling in the workplace” during practice last week, and had been paranoid and prone to repeating himself, according to police reports.
Griffen’s wife, Tiffany, met with police Saturday afternoon and said Griffen was at cornerback Trae Waynes’ house; police reports said Griffen had jumped through bushes and was shirtless in Waynes’ yard, though the cornerback issued a statement through the Vikings that disputed the reports’ assertion Griffen was trying to break into his house.
“To clarify, there was no attempted break-in at our home and at no point did my family or I feel unsafe,” Waynes said in the statement. “We are friends with the Griffen family and we are here to support them in any way possible during these trying times.”
Waynes did not make himself available for follow-up questions on his statement Tuesday.
Griffen will not play Thursday vs. the Rams, and the 30-year-old’s immediate NFL future is in question. Coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday, though, the Vikings are concerned with bigger things on Griffen’s behalf.
“The only thing we’re really concerned about for Everson isn’t really anything to do with football,” Zimmer said. “It’s about him getting better. In the five years that I’ve been here I’ve always loved Everson. The effort that he puts out, the work that he does, the chants you count on him [for] at game time, even at practice. He’s always been a really good model for us and obviously he’s going through some tough times now.”
Zimmer said the Vikings have a “very, very good support program” for players in Griffen’s situation, adding: “If we have to bring in experts from some other place or he has to go see other people, our owners are outstanding with that.
“We are going to do everything possible that we can, not only for Everson, but to help everybody on our team. Quite honestly, with their families as well. This organization is really good with that.”
Asked if there would have been any way for the team to ensure Griffen received a mental health evaluation, either by bringing doctors to the team facility or physically taking him to a hospital, Zimmer said: “Quite honestly, I don’t know. That is not really my area of expertise. I don’t really know the answer to that, to be honest with you.”
The schedule forced the Vikings to compartmentalize the news that Griffen wouldn’t be with them Thursday night, as they prepared for a difficult road test against the Rams. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly, whose locker is next to Griffen’s, recorded his first career sack Sunday while making his first start in Griffen’s absence. He will play again in Los Angeles, hoping to make one of his mentors proud.
“Every day, he gives me a bit of advice,” Weatherly said. “ ‘Work hard, keep grinding. You never know when your time’s going to come.’ ”
On Tuesday especially, that piece of advice from Griffen to Weatherly carried some extra resonance.
“You make yourself available [to players who might be struggling], and certainly, you pray for them, as you do for a lot of guys,” Cousins said. “I’ve got a lot of guys on my heart and mind.”