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A level field Ravens: Punter Greg Montgomery has struggled with the emotional highs and lows of bipolar disorder, but so far, he has adjusted successfully

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Candles light the room. Orange ones, green ones, tall ones, short ones. Greg Montgomery opens the doors to the terrace that overlooks the Inner Harbor and says, "Look at the ceiling."

As a soft breeze plays with the candles' flames, a golden silhouette in the shape of a flickering Aztec sun dances on the ceiling. One more warm, artistic display by this gentle man who is better known as the Ravens' sometimes goofy, always unconventional punter.

It's easy to see the unconventional. When national television networks come to talk to him, they play up the bleached white hair, the tattoos, the earrings and the pranks. When Baltimore magazine puts together the perfect body, Montgomery's manicured feet, complete with painted nails, are included. They are all part of this man, who at 33 is in his ninth year in the NFL.

But there is more to Montgomery than his sculpted, 6-foot-4, 215-pound body.

He is a perfectionist who strives every day to overcome bipolar disorder. It is a condition, formerly known as manic depression, in which he experiences soaring highs and devastating lows.

Though he has always had bouts of depression and anxiety, Montgomery didn't experience a real manic episode until this spring. That experience, followed by an equally low depression, finally enabled doctors to diagnose the disorder.

Ravens physician Dr. Andy Tucker said the disorder is thought to be caused by the rise and fall of serotonin levels in the brain.

Montgomery is now being successfully treated with the prescription drug Zoloft, which keeps his moods level.

From 1 to 2 percent of the general population have the condition, says University of Maryland psychiatrist Don Thompson.

But not too many are willing to talk about it. Montgomery is, and he gave his doctors permission to participate in this article.

"I don't see it as a negative," Montgomery says, lounging on a comfortable white couch in his 12th-floor apartment. "If anything, it's good. Intelligent people get it and, believe it or not, it's made me smarter."

Not everyone who suffers from bipolar disorder is smart. But some very well-known, intelligent people have had it -- Winston Churchill, poet Robert Lowell, columnist Art Buchwald and television newsman Mike Wallace among them.

The one thing all bipolar sufferers share, however, is emotional extremes that cause them great pain and cause their families and friends great worry. Because of that, Montgomery said he wants to share his experiences to give people hope.

Not what you see

Montgomery spent his early childhood in Shrewsbury, N.J., the son of a Wall Street investment banker. He is the oldest of three children, and though he was protective of his brother Steve and sister Margot, he sometimes drove his mother to distraction.

"Greg was always very physical, hyperactive and aggressive," says his father, Greg Sr. "He was also very smart and was just more driven to perfection. He'd tie his shoelaces just so, making sure they were exactly even. He'd pull his belt so tight it almost tore him in half. And he tested his mom, Diane, to the limit when it came to discipline."

And yet, when his 6-year-old sister came home from the hospital after an operation and was in obvious pain, it was Greg who reached out his hand to her.

"He was about 10, and he could see I was in a lot of pain," Margot recalls. "He gave me his hand, crunched up his eyes and told me to just squeeze as hard as I needed to whenever it hurt. I'll never forget that. And when I was addicted to heroin and cocaine and I was getting sober, when he was playing with the Houston Oilers, he came to be with me without batting an eyelash. He has always been there for me -- for our entire family -- because it's important to him.

"It's always amazing to me that he gets all this publicity because of his outrageousness, and no one seems to know about his gentleness."

It's not a side he shows to everyone. It's not a side everyone wants to get to know. Often strangers see Montgomery's bleached hair and pierced tongue and move to avoid him.

"I'm told I'm very unapproachable," he says, the candlelight reflecting in the yellow lenses of his glasses. "I'm very intense, and some people are a little intimidated by that."

The attack

His family had seen him down before. In high school, he had loved playing hockey and being a linebacker. But a back injury forced him to become a punter, and he wasn't happy with that.

At Red Bank (N.J.) High, he refused to wear his letter jacket his junior year because it had a "P" on it for punter.

"Even in college, sometimes, he'd be down, upset because he was 'nothing but a punter or kicker,' " his dad says. "He still wanted to be a linebacker."

So the downside was familiar. The high side wasn't.

In the spring, after the Ravens' minicamp, Montgomery suffered a manic attack while visiting his girlfriend in the South Beach area of Miami.

"When the manic stage hits, you are bulletproof," says Greg's father. "You are the best at everything. It's a very scary phase."

Dr. Stanley Platman, chief of psychiatry at Helix Behavioral Health/Union Memorial Hospital, says when the high attack kicks in, people who are bipolar are suddenly energized, their sleep patterns are disrupted, their minds race, they have what they think are great ideas about what they can do.

"Basically, they can get in a whole lot of trouble," Platman said. "They feel great, and they will deny that anything is wrong. They're everyone else's problem."

Greg Montgomery Sr. can nod knowingly at that. On the phone from Miami, he heard his son tell him a string of outlandish proposals. He was talking about starting a European sports clothing line, about putting a tour together, "like Lollapalooza" only with techno music, and about being the star and dancing "better than Michael Jackson." He might retire from football, he said, and make a lot more money in the process.

And it was none of those things specifically that caused his parents to worry. It was all of them together, tumbling out on top of one another, that tipped them off that something was wrong.

"Greg said this was his 'New me. Accept me for what I am now. The old me is dead,' " Montgomery Sr. says. "He said everything was all right. But his mother and I flew down there to confront him."

Shortly thereafter, Montgomery's condition was diagnosed as bipolar. He was given a drug designed to curb the manic stage of the illness. But he had an adverse reaction to it, and two days before training camp, he hit rock bottom.

"I couldn't function," he says. "I was having trouble breathing. Every day I came to camp, I just felt like getting in the car and leaving. I couldn't get out of bed in the morning."

He lost weight. Couldn't eat. "My anxiety got to a point where I wouldn't work out and I didn't have any confidence," he says.

Greg Montgomery is a very good punter. He is a former Pro Bowl player who ranks ninth on the NFL's all-time list with a 43.5-yard career average, which is second-best among active punters.

But this season has been different. Because of his illness, he fell behind in training camp and then overworked trying to catch up. His punting has been erratic and his average is a disappointing 42.1 yards. But he is a survivor. His punting has been improving. He has been great at placing the ball inside the 20, leading the league with just one touchback, and he had his best game of the season Sunday against his former team, the Tennessee Oilers, producing a 48.3 average.

Sunday, he will play in the Ravens' last game of this season. And just that he is there kicking at all, he says, is "quite an accomplishment." There were times when he didn't think he'd be anywhere.

"In one preseason game against Philadelphia, I walked on the field and I didn't feel like I could do anything," he says.

And all the time his mind was going about 100 mph.

"I'm a thinker," he says now, a close-fitting wool hat pulled to his eyebrows. "It's what makes me good at punting. I think about all the angles, about the technique, about all the little things that go into the perfect punt. But you've got to know when to turn it off."

He couldn't turn it off. And he couldn't control what he thought.

He thought about suicide. Every day. It's a symptom of the disorder. From 10 to 15 percent of the people who suffer from bipolar disorder will die by suicide, Platman says. But Montgomery said he never got to the point where he actually tried it.

"I've never had a gun in my mouth," he says. "But there were a lot of prayers at camp time. There was so much mental pain, sometimes it seemed so easy to end it. And I'd pray, 'Please give me strength to complete this day.' I believe in God, definitely. I believe there is a supreme being to me, and that is Jesus."

Feeling better

His friend Matt Stover, the Ravens' kicker, who is just about as straight-laced as Montgomery is loose, tries to help his friend focus.

"I've seen him high and low," Stover says. "And it's scary to see both sides in one person. When he's way up, he thinks too much. And when I see that, I just say to him, 'Punt the ball!' When he's depressed, you know that, too. Then I just say, 'What are you so sad about? There are 30 punting jobs in the NFL, and you have one of them. Be happy.' "

It took his teammates awhile to warm up to this playful, sometimes moody individual. Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa says he thinks they were somewhat afraid of him. Siragusa, on the other hand, thought Montgomery was a hoot from the get-go.

"The first time I saw Greg, I was in the locker room, and this nude guy with bleached hair and tattoos comes up to me and says, 'Hey, dude, if you want to know who's really cool on this team, just ask me,' " says Siragusa, with a wide smile.

And safety Bennie Thompson says: "When I first met him, I didn't think his elevator stopped on all the floors. But he's a good guy. A wild kind of guy. He's the guy responsible for all the pranks around here. Once he took [a photo of] my body -- everyone could tell it was my body, it had my jersey number on it -- and put a mule's head on it and hung it up here in the locker room for everyone to see."

Greg Montgomery simply loves to laugh. Nearly everything he does is done with that in mind, and it has nothing to do with being bipolar.

He has dozens of pairs of glasses -- red ones, purple ones, "Elvis" ones. His tattoos are fun. His hair, fun. His painted toenails -- of which he has a framed photo sitting in his living room -- and fingernails, pure fun. His many hats, you guessed it, fun.

And, perhaps a little surprisingly, the one person who may have had the least trouble adjusting to him was veteran coach Ted Marchibroda.

"Oh, I see his hair, and I've been told about his pierced tongue and tattoos, but I haven't really thought much about it," Marchibroda says. "I don't see his toenails.

"He's a good performer, and that's all I care about. He works hard, and his first thought is for his team."

Survival

The medication he is on has brought Montgomery's life back to normal -- as normal as a fun-loving NFL punter can expect anyway. But he says being a football player makes dealing with bipolar disorder more difficult.

Dr. Thompson, the consultant from the Maryland Sports Medicine unit, says the illness can be harder to deal with for lawyers, doctors, politicians and athletes, because of the pressures that go with those jobs.

"You don't have the ability to hide," Montgomery says. "You have to do interviews, perform on TV, be the best -- they pay me to be the best. You can't hide away, go to a minor-league team to regroup or stay in your house for a year."

So he works out hard, takes his medication, consults regularly with his doctors and watches what he eats in an effort to stay on an even keel.

His father has heard him say he is enjoying being in Baltimore.

His sister has heard something in his voice that had been missing.

"I can't explain in words," she says. "But he's the way he used to be when he wasn't depressed. He's happy. Our parents are very conservative, and they'd like Greg to look like he just stepped out of Brooks Brothers. But the way I feel, his hair can be purple with all his eyebrows pierced, as long as he's happy."

And Montgomery, who just had his navel pierced, is looking to the future. He says he is feeling good and hopes to be back here next season. If so, he's planning to buy a house and start a foundation in support of others suffering from bipolar disorder.

"The first thing I'd tell someone who is bipolar is that there is hope, and even though it might seem you may die, that that feeling is never going away, it will pass," he says, looking mellow in the glow of his 50 candles. "Look at me, I'm still alive. You simply have to work hard at weeding your garden."

To learn more

For more information on bipolar disorder, contact the Depressive Related Affective Disorders Association, a national self-help group that meets at Johns Hopkins Hospital, at 410-955-4647. Or speak to your family doctor, who can put you in contact with a specialist.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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