How a former CU athlete is leading a new path for mental health

Sean Tufts is searching for the right words.

The former Colorado linebacker is sitting in front of a beer, a basket of wings and a virtual stranger. He's attempting to have an uncomfortable conversation about the countless uncomfortable conversations he has been attempting to have for the past year. The stranger wants to know if all this talking has made him any less angry.

He considers the question carefully, approaches it from a couple of different angles, stopping and starting anew a couple of times before settling on the most direct answer.

"No," Tufts says. "Am I still mad at him for that decision? Yeah. Am I mad at myself, that I didn't know, that I didn't do something sooner? Yeah. There's no tithing that I think can wash that away."

Tufts is the new president of the Buffs4Life Foundation, a 13-year-old nonprofit originally aimed at helping former Colorado athletes and their families deal with a wide variety of medical problems. A little more than a year ago, in the wake of two high-profile suicides of former members of the football team -- including a close friend of Tufts' -- the group shifted focus to "never again" have a member of their athletic alumni take their own life. This week, the organization announced a fundraiser partnership with Hilinski's Hope, a mental health charity started by the family of deceased Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski.

Tufts' personal connection to the tragedies started him on a search for ways to help. Their approach to reaching such a lofty goal is organized and proactive in a way that hasn't previously been attempted in the sporting world.

Tufts grew up in the Denver suburbs before manning the middle of the defense for the university's 2001 Big 12 championship team and for two more seasons after that. When his three years in the NFL came to an end, he returned to Boulder for a master's degree. He volunteered during that time as one the handlers for Ralphie, Colorado's live buffalo mascot who famously does a full-speed lap of Folsom Field at the start of each home game.

The continent's largest land mammal lumbering at up to 25 mph in front of a crowd of 50,000 people ought to be a recipe for calamity. Yet a handful of college students in black shirts and cowboy hats manage on a weekly basis to corral 1,200 pounds of muscle and clumped fur around the field, up the home sideline and directly into her trailer in the corner of the end zone without incident.

Tufts was the anchor on Ralphie's team for two years, which means his role in this regularly scheduled high-wire act was to stand a few feet behind the buffalo and serve as part rudder and part brakes as he attempted to steer this rare and massive creature while sprinting through a cloud of whatever the friction from her harness rubbed free from Ralphie's hindquarters. He is, not surprisingly, the only former football player to have ever served as one of the buffalo wranglers.

Anyway, the conversations that Tufts started to have in earnest a year ago in his new role as the Buffs4Life president haven't really made him feel any better. He knows they won't, but he's still here searching for the right words.

Conversation No. 1

Tufts is sitting at a coffee shop in an area of Denver that the hipsters call SoBo. He is talking to Brian Cabral, his former linebackers coach at Boulder whose longevity in that position made him the connective tissue that strings together two decades of former Colorado players. It's a Sunday morning in early September 2017.

Tufts and the man he sees as a mentor are hunched over a pair of coffee cups, either empty or ignored, scratching out notes on a napkin. They've been here for more than an hour now, hatching a plan and talking about Tufts' old linebacker partner, Drew Wahlroos.

Wahlroos arrived at Colorado a year before Tufts, and they played alongside each other for three seasons. They sat two stalls apart in the locker room and next to each other in every meeting room Tufts can recall. He says it's hard now to find a photo of himself in a Colorado uniform without seeing at least part of Wahlroos in the frame. Teammates say they were both wild men with different personalities -- Tufts went on to become a class president. Wahlroos told reporters he enjoyed doing his work in the shadows. Looking at Wahlroos was like looking into a mirror for Tufts, opposites in ways that didn't keep either man from recognizing himself in the other.

"Yeah," says Gary Barnett, their former head coach. "They were close."

They both played three seasons of professional football before injuries ended their careers. They drifted apart without football and went nearly a decade without meeting in person. Tufts reached out on Facebook a couple of times with half-hearted attempts to reconnect that never materialized.

The day before Tufts met Cabral in the Denver coffee shop, he learned that the friend he once considered a mirror image of himself was dead. He found out from a group text message.

San Diego's medical examiner reported the cause of death as a gunshot wound to the chest, self-inflicted.

Tufts called Cabral the same day he got the text. Cabral and Barnett were hearing from a lot of players. Wahlroos' death came less than a year after Rashaan Salaam, the perpetually grinning former Heisman Trophy winner, died by suicide as well. Their old teammates wanted to know why this was happening, whom they could blame and what they could do about it.

Tuft says in hindsight he saw one or two puzzle pieces out of place, clues that Wahlroos might be struggling. Salaam's closest friends felt the same way after his shocking death. They all wondered if they would have been able to put them together had they talked about it. It still stings a year later.

"I feel like I'm in a good place in my life. He wasn't, and I didn't know it. And that fff...," he exhales through gritted teeth rather than finishing the word. "That hurts."

Tufts is a fixer by nature. He sells cybersecurity solutions to high-powered corporate clients for a living. Before that, he was named to Forbes' first "30 under 30" list in the energy industry for his work in figuring out how to build utility-sized wind farms. Problems in his world can all be wrestled into his submission with logic and a plan.

Tufts and Cabral sat at their coffee shop surrounded by trivial chatter and talked through old memories and fresh regrets. Their conversation shifted from guilt to action. They ran through a list of guys they wanted to check in on. Cabral was already working for a group called Operation Restored Warrior, a Colorado nonprofit aimed at eliminating suicide among military veterans. Barnett and his wife had their own foundation that raised money for suicide prevention. He could offer some guidance as well. Perhaps they could use the infrastructure of Buffs4Life to organize something. Someone pulled out a pen.

Ninety minutes later, Tufts folded an ink-covered napkin into his pocket and left SoBo with a new place to direct his angst.

Conversation No. 2

Tufts crosses his leg and drapes an arm over the back of a gray couch in the middle of an open-plan office building with exposed brick and bright-colored walls. A beagle named for Thomas Jefferson is curled up between him and another Colorado alum.

A dozen other former players and coaches have wedged themselves into chairs crowded around the couch and are peppering the two peer-advocacy coaches seated in front of them with questions. They rolled in one-by-one on a Thursday afternoon wearing Italian loafers and beat-up Nikes and pixelated camouflage boots and wrapped each other in big, friendly bear hugs. Now they are asking how they should go about asking their friends really tough questions.

It has been a little more than a year since Tufts and Cabral met at the coffee shop about a mile down the road, and this is what has become of their napkin.

Using social media, word of mouth and sometimes even voting records, the members of the revamped Buffs4Life nonprofit have been tracking down as many former Colorado players as they can find. Tufts created a database that contains the names, contact information and the five people who would be most likely to know if something were amiss -- usually old teammates and family members -- for each former athlete.

To keep tabs on all those people, the Buffs4Life board recruited and selected three "captains" from each half-decade of graduating classes. That trio's job is to check in on their old teammates and to provide a point of contact if anyone in their group sees warning signs among their peers. They monitor four main pillars where symptoms of a bigger problem might appear: physical health, substance abuse, career issues and family issues.

The captains gather every few months for training sessions with mental health professionals designed to help them learn how to spot red flags, respond constructively when they do, and arm them with a toolbox of resources to which they can direct someone in need.

That's what brings this eclectic group together at Denver's Face It Together substance abuse center on a sunny Thursday afternoon in late September. The folks at Face It Together take a holistic approach to helping clients beat addiction by involving their loved ones and talking a problem down to its root causes.

David Whitesock, the company's chief data officer and leader of this particular session, says the act of seeing a close friend or family member struggling and encouraging them to seek help isn't a step in helping someone solve a mental health issue, it is the step. That is the daunting gap between someone in trouble and the clinical treatment that can help them, and to have a loved one bridge that divide is, according to Whitesock, "the holy grail."

"OK, so what does that actually look like?" asks Ryan Miller, a towering offensive lineman who has battled depression himself and now dedicates a good chunk of his time trying to help others with the same troubles.

"Honestly," Whitesock replies. "It can be really simple. 'Hey. Are you OK?' or 'Hey, you don't look the same. What's going on?'"

Miller and the men beside him nod in unison. Whitesock was nervous heading into this session with a room full of successful alpha males. Miller admitted earlier that while playing at Colorado he was made to believe he was "10 foot tall and bulletproof." Now, he might find himself in situations where he needs to convince a like-minded peer that it's OK to admit they are hurting. They are trying to undo decades of wiring that taught their brains to embrace pain.

"Athletes are literally trained on that," Tufts says. "We've got 20 years of pretending problems don't exist and persevering in spite of that, and we've all been successful because of that."

Whitesock debated whether to use a PowerPoint presentation and lecture the former players on all the information they need to collect or try to guide an open-ended discussion. He decided to roll the dice and have a conversation. The group talked for more than an hour without an awkward pause and hardly a prompt. Afterward, they lingered for more than 30 minutes asking more questions and chatting about ways to apply some of what they had learned.

Conversation No. 3

Food attracts a crowd on any college campus, so there are delivery boxes in the corner of the conference room on the first floor of the Dal Ward building on Colorado's campus. It's a Sunday evening, and chairs line the walls of the room where Tufts and another Buffs4Life captain sit along with the athletic department's sports psychology staff and 18 current student-athletes representing nearly every varsity sport Colorado offers.

These are the Bolder Buffs, a student-led group that started this year meeting once a week to learn more about mental health. The group plays an almost identical role for current student-athletes that Buffs4Life tries to fulfill for alumni. They are training to be informal resources inside their collective locker room and serve as liaisons between teammates in need and the department's expanding psychology staff.

A pair of current athletes approached Colorado athletic director Rick George last winter in hopes of setting up a peer advocacy program on campus. George said it was purely coincidental that the students came to him just as Buffs4Life was starting down the same path.

"It's almost like the light bulb turned on for both of us at the same time," George says.

After some discussion in the Sunday evening meeting to iron out the group's mission statement and T-shirt logos to help spread their message, Tufts takes the floor and, as he puts it, tries to take them for a ride in the DeLorean.

"Their identity is tied to something that is likely taken away before they are 25 years old. That's a hard thing." Sean Tufts, president of Buffs4Life

Ten years from now, he tells them, the majority of their teammates will be successful professionals in fulfilling relationships. A few won't be. A few will be lonely without having replaced the camaraderie they found in their locker room. A few will still party like they are 21 years old, trying to hang on to the days when they were "10 foot tall and bulletproof."

Along with being hardwired to show no weakness, athletes typically lose a huge piece of their personal identity when they leave their sport at a relatively young age. That contributes to making athletes particularly vulnerable to letting mental health problems go untreated. Tufts says his group has found anecdotally that at three years removed and at eight years removed from playing college sports are the time periods when trouble most frequently arrives. Those are the times when a first career out of college can lose its luster or when family issues and growing older make it harder to cling to the few ties that remain to an athlete's playing days.

"Their identity is tied to something that is likely taken away before they are 25 years old," Tufts says later. "That's a hard thing."

He encourages the current students to continue speaking with one another and continue reaching out to teammates who look as if they might need a hand. And when their time on campus comes to an end, he tells them Buffs4Life can help them keep talking.

Conversation No. 4

Tufts strides through the 29th floor of a dramatic, glass skyscraper in downtown Denver on a Monday morning, making his way to his desk on the first day of October. A woman three cubicles down from his stops him as he walks.

"Hey Sean, um, I think I saw you on the big screen at the game this weekend," she says. "What was that about?"

Three nights earlier, Colorado's football team beat UCLA to start its Pac-12 season with a dominant win on a chilly Friday night at Folsom Field. During the first stoppage for a TV commercial in each of the four quarters, the message Buffs4Life and their counterparts in the athletic department have been trying to spread was broadcast on the stadium's video board.

Rick George's video played first. Then one featuring some of the current student-athletes. In the fourth quarter, Tufts appeared on the screen with Barnett to explain what they had been doing for the past year. In a crowded, noisy stadium the message stuck just enough for his co-worker -- a fellow alumni who wasn't aware about Tufts' football-playing past -- to ask for some more details about what he was doing on the video board. It sparked a conversation.

"It was kind of a relief," Tufts said after watching his video from the stands. "It felt like, 'It's about time.' Here's a public message for something we've been living privately. This is not a topic to shy away from. This is a topic that should be on JumboTrons."

There have been tangible successes in the past year. They range from setting up one former player with a stand-up comedy mentor to help him chase career goals to finding counseling for former players who said they were having suicidal thoughts. Tufts says he gets four to five calls a month where he feels as if Buffs4Life has an opportunity to help in some form.

Measuring incremental success, however, when the goal is mostly to keep one another from feeling isolated and stop problems before they become serious, remains inevitably an imperfect science. The school's athletic department has yet to settle on a metric to gauge their growing efforts in mental health. Both groups readily admit that they are operating without a playbook and figuring out most of what they're doing on the fly. There will be mistakes and lessons to learn still, they say, but it sure beats the idle alternative.

The biggest challenge for Buffs4Life remains awareness and letting their community know that help is available. Tufts is thrilled to have run-ins like the one he had with his co-worker. He knows there are many more of those that need to happen.

Conversation No. 5

There is a decades-old study published in the Western Journal of Medicine about the Golden Gate Bridge and the small group of people who have survived jumping from it. The paper is often cited by those who work in suicide prevention and counseling. It mostly advocates for a barrier or a safety net to be added to the iconic San Francisco landmark that has long attracted people looking to end their lives. But the part that interested Tufts, Barnett and other people in their shoes was the interviews those researchers conducted with the jumpers who survived.

The exact numbers and context have been muddled by years of passing the stories from one speaker to the next, but the takeaway for those who share it is that the overwhelming majority of people who survived the plunge into the mouth of the bay didn't attempt suicide a second time.

Tufts is back where we started, at the bar with the basket of wings and a beer in front of him. He has already explained what Buffs4Life built in the past year and how it hopes to expand to more people and Colorado alumni who played different sports moving forward. He has talked through the way he used football as a lever to get an education and opportunities he would not have otherwise had after his playing days. He says 90 percent of his former teammates have done the same and are doing incredible things with their post-football lives.

Some of them, though, will struggle to rebuild a new identity after defining themselves through sports for the first few decades of life. A few of them will have a hard time coping with the loss of the sense of belonging that comes with being on a team, the sense of purpose that comes from working toward a shared mission. Tufts says all of them will feel those losses, and he wants to help the 10 percent who are hit hardest by their absence.

He's talking now, though, about the Golden Gate study he learned about in one of the captains' meetings this summer. Their speaker that day told the group that the researchers asked the jump survivors their first thoughts when they leapt. It wasn't relief for most, it was regret. One respondent said the second his hands left the giant red iron beam he realized what a terrible choice he had made.

Tufts remembers that anecdote from the study as he worked his way through a circuitous answer to a question about what all of this work in the past year has done for him. Why is he here? Does he feel any different than he did when he sat down to get coffee with Brian Cabral last September, the day after Wahlroos died? He wonders aloud about his own friend's final thought.

"I wish I could ask him that question, right?" Tuft says. "It does feel good when you think you're able to provide a little bit of help, but you asked if my anger was taken away. It's not taken away, no. It manifests itself in me calling old friends. There's one guy you can't call, and that sucks."

Tufts spends his free time now having all the other difficult conversations, trying to chase down a massive, unwieldy society-wide problem in his little corner of the world. He and Buffs4Life have built a new system to try to reach an incredibly lofty goal, one that seems at first glance as if it ought to be impossible. The right words haven't come any easier. The conversations haven't become any less awkward or painful, and Tufts suspects they never will. But the opportunity to talk is no longer taken for granted so he picks up his phone and begins again, attempting to wrangle another Buffalo.