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Miami Dolphins: Depression leads wide receiver Kenny Stills to get -- then give -- help

Palm Beach Post - 7/22/2019

MIAMI -- Kenny Stills isn't speaking from the heart because he's looking for sympathy. No, this is more about what he can give, about handing a set of keys to all the young people staring at him on the stage of a venerable theater in the Overtown section of town, who are hearing a professional athlete talk in tones you won't find on TV soundbites.

For Stills, entering his fifth season as a Dolphins receiver, to talk publicly about depression and mental health first required him to have that discussion with himself. There are no statistics charting how few elite athletes succeed at that first step, let alone the second.

None are needed to quantify the degree of difficulty for each.

COMPLETE DOLPHINS COVERAGE: Keep up with the team during training camp (and beyond) here

"Honestly, as a Taurus and just like a stubborn individual, it was very difficult to take that step to go out and get therapy, to trust somebody and to talk to them and tell my story," says Stills, 27.

The short version of his story: He lacked confidence while growing up, and although he managed his low self-esteem enough to earn a scholarship to Oklahoma and a ticket into the NFL, things changed in 2016, when Stills and several teammates began protesting social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, a practice he expects to resume this season.

There was backlash from those who saw it as disrespecting the flag and the military. President Donald Trump said those players should be fired. In the no-limits world of social media, criticism was even worse. There were death threats.

"That really catapulted me into reaching out to get therapy and then being diagnosed with mild depression," Stills says.

It caught him off-guard. Athletes are wired to believe they're above such things.

"I thought that I was a strong-enough individual at the time to read all the Twitter comments, read all the Instagram comments, read all the stuff on Facebook and think that I could just laugh it off and that everything was going to be OK," Stills says.

Realizing he wasn't OK didn't lump Stills with the weak. It placed him in a class with Michael Phelps. In May, attendees at The Palm Beach Post's Best of Preps sports awards banquet at the Palm Beach County Convention Center heard Phelps discuss how a record 23 Olympic gold medals offered no shield against his battle with depression. At the darkest point, Phelps had wondered if life was worth living.

It's OK to say you're not OK, Phelps told the crowd.

Neither Phelps nor Stills was forced to share such personal information. But looking down from the platform sports has afforded them, they saw opportunity. It's the "if even one person is listening" line of reasoning.

That's what Saturday's gathering was about in Overtown for 238 kids, parents and chaperones from as far away as Port St. Lucie. Stills, remember, has won the Dolphins' Nat Moore Community Service Award the past three seasons and has been their nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award the past two.

The foundation baring his name labeled the Overtown event the "Still Growing Summit," attracting speakers, medical professionals, Breakfast Club radio host Charlamagne Tha God and teammates past and present, including quarterback Josh Rosen and defensive back Michael Thomas, now of the New York Giants.

Lori Ludwig, Stills' "mindset coach," got kids' attention by recalling the December game against the New England Patriots in which Stills was convinced his mental gaffe, which cost the Dolphins a first down, would also cost the team the game. That was before The Miami Miracle. Stills kick-started the play by catching a pass from Ryan Tannehill. Two laterals later, Kenyan Drake was racing into the end zone for a walk-off winning score.

"Kind of in the dumps" is how Stills describes his emotions in the minutes between mistake and miracle. It was a strange feeling for him: "The field has always been a safe place for me."

Looking back, Stills recognizes that he lacked confidence growing up in Southern California because he misunderstood lessons from elders.

"They wanted me to be humble," he says. "I understood that as not having any confidence."

It didn't reach the critical point until the tumultuous 2016 season, with a national eye on Stills and teammates who were kneeling.

"It got to a point that I mentioned in there (in the theater, to the children) that I was tired of feeling the way that I did, and I wanted to figure out a way to help myself," Stills says. "There were important people around me that I was negatively affecting. And I love them and they love me too much for me to want to bring them down. I didn't want to be energy-sucking."

Over the course of 5 1/2 hours, kids were given advice on how to build self-esteem and handle peer pressure. They were told they would become "the average" of the five people they spend the most time with. They heard real-life experiences, including one speaker who allowed himself to get mixed up with a gang of armed robbers even though he knew better, but he was lucky enough to get out before the others were caught. Kids were shown how to "rewire" their minds to think of themselves in a more-positive light.

"My hopes with this camp is that I can help younger people be much further along than I was at this point," Stills says. "If they can learn in middle school and high school these types of things and start paying attention to it, their mental health and awareness and consciousness and growth will be so much further along.

"And we'll have healthier communities and we'll treat each other better and we'll be a lot happier."

hhabib@pbpost.com

@gunnerhal

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(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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