After battle with depression, Falcons assistant hopes to change NFL culture

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Suddenly, the cheers were gone.

Playing football meant everything to Jeff Ulbrich during his 10-year career as a linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers. But Ulbrich, now the Atlanta Falcons' linebackers coach, suffered a career-ending concussion in 2009 while covering the opening kickoff in a win over the then-St. Louis Rams.

He says he suffered concussions at every level of football, yet he can’t pinpoint how many he sustained before the one that ended his career. The final concussion, in his mind, was just a normal play.

"It was just one of those things: It was a hit that I had taken before that didn’t cause a concussion, and it caused one this time," Ulbrich said. "And that was it."

He coped with headaches and memory loss for a couple of months. Sleepless nights mounted. Doctors urged him to step away from the game for good. Ulbrich announced his retirement in December 2009, and he figured he’d get over the change by immediately pursuing a new profession: coaching. But leaving his playing days behind was harder than he ever imagined it would be.

"I found so much of who I am through this game as a player," he said. "I found self-confidence. I found identity. I found purpose. I found great friendships. And I found an opportunity to prove to myself how strong I could be.

"And when the game left, I said to myself, 'Next phase, next thing.' But I never really sat back at that point and thought about how I was losing a part of myself, probably one of the favorite parts of myself ... I tried to numb all the feelings. I numbed it through anger. I numbed it through overworking and just burying myself in my job. And I numbed it, sometimes, by drinking too much. But I never dealt with what was really going on."

The depression he dealt with after his career ended led him to a new mission: changing the stigma surrounding seeking treatment for mental health.

"You live in a culture for so long where it’s not OK to be sad. It’s not OK to be vulnerable. It’s not OK to ask for help. We’ve got to teach these guys that it is OK, that sadness is normal, and that anxiety is normal," Ulbrich said. "Depression is normal, in a lot of ways. It’s OK to ask for help. That’s a sign of strength -- to ask for help."

Finding the open window

Former linebacker Takeo Spikes saw Ulbrich’s potential as a coach firsthand.

When Spikes signed with the 49ers in August 2008, Ulbrich took it upon himself to get the late-arriving veteran up to speed, despite Spikes’ presence squeezing Ulbrich out of the starting lineup.

"What was surprising to me was to the degree that he helped me," Spikes said of Ulbrich. "He went overtime. … Jeff was a very smart football player. He’s a great teacher. I think that’s what separates him from all others."

"You live in a culture for so long where it's not OK to be sad. It's not OK to be vulnerable. It's not OK to ask for help. We've got to teach these guys that it is OK." Jeff Ulbrich

Then-49ers head coach Mike Singletary had some advice for Ulbrich after the linebacker's retirement.

"I do remember telling him that God was not through with him and that all things happen for a reason," Singletary said. "The fact that happened and that door closed means God opens a window somewhere. You just have to see it."

Singletary’s words proved prophetic. Ulbrich traveled to the Senior Bowl in January 2010 intent on getting into coaching. He connected with new Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll there. A week after the Senior Bowl, the two spoke for a half hour by phone. Then Carroll told Ulbrich he planned to fly him out to Seattle.

"I figured it was for an interview," Ulbrich said. "But when I received the email, it was for a four-month stay at a hotel. I was like, 'I guess I got the job.'"

Still struggling

Ulbrich had a new career as a special-teams assistant, yet he still felt an emptiness. When the Seahawks opened the 2010 season -- oddly enough, against his old 49ers in Seattle -- Ulbrich glanced into the stands and came to a harsh realization.

“I just remember that first game that I coached and seeing those guys prepare and get ready for the game, and it was like, ‘You’ll never get to do that again,'" Ulbrich said. “It was like, ‘Who are you?’

"I enjoyed coaching, but I just denied that other part that was going on in my head. I was like, 'Why would you be sad? You’re moving on to the next thing.’ And then eventually I said, ‘I need some help. I’m not right at all.’”

Ulbrich finally sought help, and he found it through Dirk Eldredge, the Seahawks’ life-skills consultant. Ulbrich also began attending group therapy sessions outside the organization.

It took about a year of regular therapy, but Ulbrich eventually started to feel better. The therapists emphasized how his feelings were normal and could be best fixed by not hiding them. He cut back on the heavy drinking. He refused to allow his sadness to transform into anger. He stopped shutting people close to him out and started picking up his phone.

Carroll noticed Ulbrich’s steady progression from a mental standpoint.

“He did struggle, he struggled at times,” Carroll said. “Things got to him and were bothering him, and he wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing. But he was just the easiest guy to encourage because he was so gifted to be able to coach. ... Now he’s gone to [another level] with it.”

Ulbrich says his therapy is an ongoing process.

“I learned finally that showing vulnerability and asking for help was a position of strength as opposed to a position of weakness,” he said. “I know that I didn’t feel that way as a player. I didn’t feel like it was safe to ask for help. I felt like that probably would have been looked at as a sign of weakness. Whether that’s true or not, that was my own perception. Now, I feel like it’s something that needs to be spoken about, so it doesn’t feel abnormal.”

Changing the culture

The NFL took a few steps this spring to address players' mental health, but there’s a long way to go toward changing attitudes surrounding mental health.

The NFL and NFL Players Association announced joint agreements to address pain management and behavioral health. Additionally, the NFL and NFLPA now mandate that each team hires a behavioral health team clinician focused on supporting players’ emotional and mental health.

“I just think we have to, moving forward, encourage -- and it’s not just the NFL, it’s any walk of life -- that mental health is real and it’s something that a lot of people are dealing with,” Ulbrich said. “We just have to talk about it a lot more.”

Does Ulbrich worry about CTE? Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a brain disease associated with dementia, memory loss and depression. There is no specific CTE test available for living persons, though researchers might be closing in on one.

Ulbrich said he doesn’t know if he does or doesn’t have CTE based on his history with concussions. But he firmly believes just because a former football player encounters depression doesn’t necessarily mean it’s due to CTE.

“I acknowledge and recognize that CTE is real, but I also recognize that the problems ex-players are dealing with, it’s much deeper than just CTE and concussions,” Ulbrich said. “There’s a mental health issue that’s not being addressed -- I don’t think -- as it should be.”

Ulbrich hopes to do his part by sharing his message with current players. He’s not ashamed to reveal stories regarding his experiences with depression with his linebackers or any other team member. And anyone who watches the Falcons practice knows when Ulbrich speaks, folks listen.

“One thing I can say is that he’s been blatantly honest with us from Day 1 we stepped through those doors,” said Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones. “He definitely told us about what he’s dealt with. As men, we try to put on this front like we don’t need help.

"Football comes with a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility. It can kind of get hard, so you have to find someone you can at least release to, somebody to talk to."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn believes the message means more coming from a guy who played 10 years in the league and started 75 games.

“He has lived their life, and he knows the stresses of playing,” Quinn said of Ulbrich. “All parts of their world, he’s walked. He was -- probably for a long time in his own mind — unbreakable, unf---withable -- because of his mindset. So for him to be able to share that with other people, to say as strong as he is mentally, as strong as he is physically, to know, ‘Hey man, there’s always times when they need help from a teammate or somebody else that can give that kind of help.’ I think he has some unique perspective that he’s able to offer other players."

Ulbrich feels like he’s in a good place now, mentally and physically. He says he doesn’t have lingering headaches or lapses in memory. He has a supportive wife and loving children to come home to daily. He’s rediscovered a passion for the game he poured his heart into as a player.

“Thank goodness I found this love for coaching and this passion for coaching, and that it enabled me to really focus my energy and bring that positive noise back into my head," Ulbrich said.

“Do I think about my playing days still in San Francisco? I don’t. I never do, honestly. I’ve found so much more joy in coaching and teaching than I did playing. To see a guy find success and make a career out of this or utilize something that we worked on and have success with it, that brings way more joy than any play I’ve ever made or any game I’ve ever won as a player.”

It certainly helped Ulbrich’s outlook to have professional therapists show him the tools for coping with his depression. That’s why he’s no longer -- as he would say -- suffering in silence.