Giving A Dangerous Shout Out

By Jeff Darlington
Updated: September 14, 2008

MIAMI — The bullet that grazed his left buttock wasn’t a laughing matter. Not at first, anyway.

So when Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter returned to the field three weeks after being shot as an innocent bystander in 2003, even this trash-talking terror was surprised to find out a near-death experience could become fodder for his critics.

”You hear some of the worst things,” Porter said.

This one might have topped them all. Two months after the incident, which occurred outside a Denver bar when Porter was with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was preparing to play the Seahawks in Seattle when an opposing fan approached him.

‘The guy says to me, `I wish somebody would have shot you in the back instead!’ ” Porter recalled. “And I’m pretty sure he was serious.”

Porter is a confident person and has been known to dish out harsh comments of his own, so he believes he’s very capable of handling any criticisms that come with his high-profile job.

It’s a tough man’s sport, Porter said. And a tough mind often can be as important to success in the NFL as a tough body. But as the prominence and competitiveness of the league grows, the mental pressure on the athletes is capable of testing a man’s strength more than any bench press.

Some athletes are simply more able to handle the pressure than others.

”If you struggle, it can affect every thought if you let it,” safety Jason Allen said. “You have to deal with the fans; you feel like you let your teammates down, and you feel like you let your coaches down. And it’s not like we only have fans in this city. We have fans throughout the whole country.

“It can be tough.”


This past week, questions about the mental state of Titans quarterback Vince Young caused many to wonder whether Young isn’t tough enough to handle the NFL. His mother, Felicia, told The Tennessean newspaper that Young was ”hurting inside and out” after being booed last Sunday in a 17-10 victory..

But according to a police report, the Titans asked the police for help when no one could find Young on Monday night because his therapist had told coach Jeff Fisher that Young had mentioned suicide several times and drove away fom his home with a gun.

Young has since said he wasn’t depressed — just “hurt a little bit.”

Because Young’s emotional state caused enough concern for his coach to contact the police, it’s tough to argue this type of situation happens all the time. Nonetheless, other NFL players say Young’s situation really isn’t all that unusual.

Shawn Andrews, the Eagles guard who missed training camp as he battled with depression, said he has since realized many others are affected by the constant pressure.

”A lot of guys, you’d be surprised, are going through what I’m going through and don’t admit it,” Andrews told reporters in Philadelphia on Thursday. “I think guys are sensitive to it. If they haven’t been through it, they know somebody who has.”

Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is willing to take it even further — suggesting every player deals with some depression when it comes to the competitiveness of football. It isn’t the initial depression that matters, Williams said. It’s the ability to bounce back from it.

”If you’re not depressed after you lose a football game, you’re not healthy,” Williams said. “But how long that depression lasts, and how you respond to it, that’s the more pertinent question.

“For all intents and purposes, football is our lives. Even on our day off, football is thrown at me at the grocery store or anywhere I go.”

Just ask Dolphins rookie quarterback Chad Henne about that.

Henne can remember plenty of times during his up-and-down career at the University of Michigan when the booing on the field carried over to his everyday life. His fiance often dealt with the ridicule when she attended classes, put into the awkward situation of hearing others poke fun at his performance.

Type Henne’s name into, and the most popular video is called ”Chad Henne is a Joke,” which is an expletive-laced song that rails against Henne. It has been viewed more than 217,000 times.

”When it gets to the point where it’s really bad, it almost feels embarrassing,” Henne said. “In college, you don’t want to go to class or go out in public. But you still have to face it each day.

“You’re going to face it, whether you like it or not — especially at the quarterback position. It’s going to be good and bad, and at times it’s going to be really bad.”

Henne said he hasn’t been fazed by outside criticism since his sophomore year of college, when he realized how irrational the criticisms often were.

Offensive coordinator Dan Henning believes that early branding at Michigan could make Henne a perfect fit in the NFL. His skin has thickened, and it could be argued he is mentally tougher than many college athletes who endured nothing but praise during their athletic careers.

Some weren’t as fortunate (or unfortunate) to get those early lessons. As a result, coach Tony Sparano said, it’s increasingly important to make sure coaches evaluate a player’s mental capacity and sensitivity before digging into them with critiques.

”It took me a little while to learn our people, and you’ve got to push some buttons before you can do that,” Sparano said. “I think once you’re able to do that, you certainly can’t handle everybody the same.”

Still, the Dolphins’ new coaching staff promotes toughness more than any other quality. They want ”tough guys,” players who are ”mentally strong” and capable of handling the burden that the NFL can place on athletes.

So it seems Miami will try to avoid these potential situations by drafting or signing a certain type of player capable of handling the criticism. That’s one way of avoiding such issues — but even the strongest men can be cracked.

That’s why Williams doesn’t believe there is enough being done to help players battle with the potential mental problems that can face them.

”I don’t think we’re given a lot of help in doing it, but there’s definitely a way,” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s anything in place to help players deal with it — especially young players like Vince.”


The Dolphins are still taking precautions. Safety Renaldo Hill said players often are reminded to approach John Gamble, who holds the title of director of player development. Gamble’s responsibilities include helping players deal with the transition in and out of the NFL and any family matters that arise. Gamble, a former strength coach, does not have an extensive background in psychology, but he is viewed by the players as a trusted off-the-field mentor in times of need.

Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown would like to see the NFL take its assistance with athletes a step further by matching former players with current players in a specially designed mentorship program.

”If the league would understand that certain people relate to certain people, it would help,” Brown said. “The league should understand there’s some people they should try to put with these young men to help communicate with them.”

Brown said the background of a given player — whether he was raised in poverty or without a father — can have an impact on the way that player should be treated later in life.

And empathy can be the best approach.

”I’m just saying, if you’re in a culture with no fathers, you can’t be demanding and rough and aggressive with a player to get through to them,” Brown said. “You’ve got to be understanding and caring. These players have already dealt with the rough times. In some sense, these players are already fractured.”

How players are handled during their careers can dictate how they deal with the inevitable criticism that comes with their high-profile jobs.

When it comes down to it, though, some players believe the task of overcoming adversity isn’t the responsibility of anyone but the person dealing with it.

It can be a cruel world and a cruel league at times. But Allen, who has dealt with plenty of criticism in his first two seasons after being drafted 16th overall, said the rewards can be that much more satisfying after dealing with the harshest of criticism.

”You have to surround yourself with positive people and maintain a positive attitude,” Allen said. “You’ve got to look in the mirror and be able to deal with what you’re looking at. At the end of the day, it’s going to be on you.

“You’ve got to make up in your mind that you can get the job done.”