The recent suicides of cricketer Peter Roebuck and Wales manager Gary Speed have brought the problem of depression in sport to the front of global attention.
In perhaps the most inspiring and personal piece ever to run on Prost Amerika, former Portland Timbers captain and regular columnist Ian Joy recounts his personal battle with depression and how he won the battle with the help of fans and his fellow pros.
Depression in Soccer – A Personal Tale by Ian Joy
In the wake of the death of an English Premier League legend and current Welsh national team coach Gary Speed it has become apparent that depression played a major role in his path to commit suicide.
When you listen to his friends and family talk about how they had no idea why he would do such a thing or his former team mates talk about him being the regular Gary Speed just hours before his demise, it just goes to show that there is not enough help out there for people who can’t live with depression.
I don’t normally like to talk about my own personal life but this heart breaking story about such a powerful and energetic young man has brought back so many sad memories to myself that I think it is very important that I share a story or two about my own fight with depression. If I can help one person to stand up and fight for their own life then it will all be worth it.
When I signed in Major League Soccer for Real Salt Lake back in January 2008 I was leaving behind an amazing team and contract in Germany for FC St Pauli but also trying to save my young family from breaking apart. Moving to an English speaking country seemed to be the only option to keep me and my then wife from going our separate ways.
Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis thought they were getting an experienced, young, energetic and positive player with European experience. Little did they know they were getting a confused and lost young man. Sure, I was positive about arriving in Utah and I already knew that I would help bolster their new and improved roster for Jason’s first full season in charge, but off the field my head was all over the place.
My 20 month old daughter and wife had just arrived into Utah the same day we arrived back from a pre-season trip to Argentina but what greeted me was not a happy family with open arms but a realization that you may be able to change your surroundings, but the same old problems will follow you wherever you go and within two weeks my wife had informed me that she and my daughter would be leaving me to go back to Europe and it would be best if I stayed in the US.
We both agreed that she would stay in the US until my daughter’s 2nd birthday and then shortly after they would be leaving the US for Europe.
Immediately my head was playing games with me and my body language was starting to show that something was not quite right.
I’ll never forget the day that we flew out of Salt Lake airport to Dallas for a Major League game as this was the same day my wife and daughter flew back to Europe. We parted ways at the airport and got on our respective flights.
I was due to start the game in Dallas but contemplated telling Jason that my head was just not in the right place to be playing a professional soccer game, however I had convinced myself that being on the soccer field was the best place for me at that time as no one could touch me!
No press, no family, no friends and no reality.
As soon as the referee blew his whistle I was an absolute disaster; after three minutes I had a swing at the ball and missed completely. My passing was terrible and after only 38 minutes referee Terry Vaughn had given me a second yellow card for kicking out at Kenny Cooper and told me to leave the field.
I did so in tears… My very good friend and equipment manager Kevin K-dog Harter accompanied me to the dressing room and watched as I destroyed our locker room for about five minutes before breaking down in the shower.
The following weeks and months were what kept me from going into a deep depression.
Jason came to me the day after the Dallas game. He put his arm around me and told me no matter what I needed he and the club would support my every decision.
Sometimes I ask myself how many coaches in the professional game would do such a thing? Not many would be my guess. Many coaches would have fined the player for being sent off and cared more about the game the team just lost than the player himself.
I needed to get away from the game, and within hours of my arrival back into Utah I had jumped back on another flight, this time to Las Vegas! On the recommendation of my Dad, I needed to blow off some steam.
So a boozy weekend in Vegas seemed to be the right answer. After 48 hours of no sleep, large amounts of alcohol consumption and about $5000 of gambling I got back on the plane to return to Salt Lake City.
On my return to training I apologized to all the players and brought some doughnuts to training Just to cheer them up. I think Andy Williams ate all of them before any other players had a chance to grab one.
Their response to me blew my mind.
“No matter what you are going through Ian, we are going through this with you as a family”.
Those players, many of whom are still there today, are some of the best individuals I have ever come across in soccer and they really were a family to me and still are. Not just the players stood behind me, or Jason and Garth (Lagerwey), from coaching staff all the way down to the kitchen staff we were all just one big family and I’ll never ever forget my time there.
In the following months I got myself back into the team after working hard every single day to get my focus back and met a girl who I believe to this day is my soulmate. Nichole brought a new smile to my face and a confidence that had been lacking since the departure of my daughter and the break up from my wife. She has stood by me through thick and thin and I owe her my life. Without her, Jason and the RSL family I was on the road to nowhere.
From Independence Day onwards I had a very consistent finish to the year and then in my first ever play-off game I got injured and missed the return game at the Home Depot vs Chivas, a game which we won and advanced to the Western Conference final at home vs New York Red Bulls.
I was so excited and desperately wanted to play. Jason left me out, a decision which devastated me. I let him know my disappointment but respected it. After the game, which we lost, I was so sad and so disappointed that our season was over I couldn’t move for two hours in the locker room. I sat with my gear on until everyone had left before I eventually got a shower. I sat in the shower motionless for hours.
The 2009 season had started off brightly with a very good pre-season before the injuries started to kick in.
I pulled my hamstring in our final pre-season friendly game vs Austin in the first minute of the game, a week before the season began and I had to sit and watch from the stands which I hated.
Ask any footballer. Sitting from the bench or from the stands is the worst feeling in the world. I tried to come back from injury too early and pulled my muscle a further four times within four months.
Trying to rehab was a nightmare and I began to lose my mind once again. I’d be done with rehab at 11 am, play a round of golf and then go home and drink until I fell asleep. I was slowly fading and slowly losing my patience with life.
I was getting into arguments with my girlfriend, getting into fights on the training field and just overall a pain in the ass. I spent a lot of time with Clint Mathis during this time and he was a first class guy and always found the positive out of life.
He’d always come up with some idea to have fun. A great guy and a great friend.
Right behind my apartment in South Jordan there used to be a train line. You’d never notice the trains during the day but at least 3-4 times a night you’d hear this huge train horn go off right outside my window.
This is irrelevant you might think but to get to the point, I’d often spend my nights wondering what it would be like to jump in front of that train and take away all of my pain.
All of the anger I had inside would all be gone and all the feeling of being a disappointment I would feel no more. I’ve sat on that track 4-5 times when the train was coming and every single time pulled myself off it with seconds to spare.
Why? No idea. Life puts you in funny situations and its what you do in that situation that determines how your life will turn out.
I had to leave Utah and the US and sort out my injuries and more importantly sort my own head.
I went to see a doctor in Germany and he used a technique that helped improve my ratio of injuries and managed to get to the bottom of my personal issues with life. I was depressed. I’m not frightened to admit it.
I owe a great deal to that doctor and since my sessions with him I have found a new lease on life and went the whole of the 2010 season with the Portland Timbers with not one serious muscle tear.
During that time in Germany I found it so ironic that Robert Enke, a goalkeeper for Bundesliga team Hannover 96, threw himself in front of a train after losing his battle with depression. It made me feel extremely sad and terribly guilty for ever considering such an action.
Today my personal joy is not just down to that doctor or my own inspiration for life but it’s down to who you share your life with; friends, family, team mates and last but not least the fans.
I take a huge amount of pride in pulling on a soccer jersey but my final year as a professional was playing for the Portland Timbers and more importantly the Timbers Army.
They gave me huge amounts of confidence which I took from the field and used in my everyday life. My time in front of the Timbers Army will never be forgotten.
The football world and in particular US soccer federation and Major League Soccer needs to address depression before we too have our own regrets about not making it possible for some of our young talents to have someone they can turn to in their time of need.
I feel blessed to have had my family, Nichole, Jason Kreis, my room mate Nat Borchers and the Real Salt Lake family to turn to in my time of need, and I’ll forever be in debt to the fans of FC St Pauli, Real Salt Lake and the Timbers Army for giving me the confidence to be the person I am today.
As for who I am today! The best father I can be. The best person I can be to everyone who shares my life with me.
R.I.P Gary Speed, Robert Enke and the millions out there who have fallen this deadly condition.
Follow Ian on Twitter – @JOYPAULIAN
Ian hopes that if telling his experience inspires just one person to help a family member or a friend in need, then it’s worth it. He assures his fans that he personally is now past those times and feels blessed to be able to share this story.
He hopes this piece acts as an inspiration to any fellow professional or any fan that they are not alone and others are far more willing to help than you may imagine in dark moments.
Any professional who wants to talk to Ian in person can contact us and we will pass on your details to Ian in complete confidence.
Ian Joy to Commentate for FC Dallas – Feb 2012