Smith, who retired after the 2016 season and now works as an analyst for the NFL Network, opened up Tuesday about a side of him few ever knew in a column for NFL.com titled “Steve Smith Sr.: My personal battle with depression.” He encouraged anyone trapped in the same mental vortex to seek therapy, as he had for a majority of his playing career.
“What if I told you I never truly enjoyed those moments, never felt genuine delight in my accomplishments?” Smith, 39, wrote. “One common question I contemplated through the highs and lows was simple, but felt so complex: What's wrong with me?”
Smith recalled his first counseling session in 2002, when a sports psychologist taught him how to silence negative thoughts when he was on the field. However, he said he “wasn't able to grasp that concept in my life outside of the game.”
Smith ranks eighth all-time in the NFL for receiving yards (14,731) and is a five-time Pro-Bowl selection. During his career, however, he said none of that could soothe his feelings of helplessness.
“Despite all of my achievements, I routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone. This overwhelmed me internally and often left me mentally, physically and emotionally broken,” Smith wrote. “Thinking back to when I experienced these emotions most significantly, several specific moments come to mind.”
Depression hit Smith hard, he said, even in moments that he thought should have been euphoric. After winning the NFC title in 2003 with the Carolina Panthers, Smith said he was so tangled up in his mistakes that he couldn’t even bring himself to touch the trophy.
After getting to Baltimore, Smith said his continued therapy remedied his mental health a little bit, but not enough. After tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 8 of the 2015 season, Smith remembered stewing on less than a dozen drops he had made, despite the fact that he was only 49 receptions away from 1,000 in his career.
After leaving football, Smith said he’s been able to seek non-sports-related counseling and that his depression has waned.
“My advice to anyone suffering from mental health issues — and specifically athletes who can relate — is this: Ask for help. Stop trying to deal with these serious matters alone,” Smith wrote. “You're not alone. Believe me.”