Forty two football players and 14 head coaches traveled to Chicago on Monday and Tuesday for Big Ten Media Days. No one fielded fewer football questions than Iowa Hawkeyes fifth-year offensive lineman Sean Welsh.
Five days after the 2013 Springboro High School graduate published an essay detailing his battle with depression on Iowa’s website, Welsh sat at a podium Monday at McCormick Place with a group of reporters in front of him.
“What has your life been like since last Wednesday?” one reporter asked.
“It’s been a little hectic,” Welsh said, “but it’s all be overwhelmingly positive. Just real positive support. It’s been a great experience.”
Welsh’s story on Iowa’s Facebook page received 1,400 likes. Six hundred people shared the story on Twitter. Welsh spoke to the media in Iowa on July 19, the same day the school published his story. He shared the story with a wider audience in Chicago.
The support Welsh has received since going public with his story has reinforced his feeling that it was the right thing to do.
“It means so much,” Welsh said. “Originally, I started down the road of trying to help some people out. It’s really become a cathartic thing for me. I never really thought in the beginning it was going to be like that. I’ve gotten messages from people on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I get random email messages from people telling me their stories. It’s been incredible.
“I think it’s been a positive experience all around. I think if a big, tough football player can talk about his feelings, it might help out another guy who might feel too proud or it’s not macho enough. That was the case for me. I was too proud to seek therapy. I didn’t think it was very manly to talk about my feelings. I’ve learned the opposite. It’s made me much healthier and happier.”
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Welsh has built a successful career at Iowa. He redshirted in 2013. He started seven games in 2014, earning an All-Big Ten freshman first-team honor. In 2015, he started all 14 games and won a Big Ten honorable mention. Last season, he won the Team Hustle Award, was named to All-Big Ten second team and was named a second-team All-American by USA Today.
Welsh’s problems with depression began in 2014. As he wrote in the essay, “the wheels really came off” in the spring of 2015. That’s when started seeing a therapist and received the diagnosis of depression. He also struggled in the summer of 2016.
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Welsh’s parents, Deb and Matt, were not surprised. They knew depression ran in the family.
“There comes a breaking point when you’re dealing with depression,” Welsh said. “If you ignore it for long enough, it’s going to sneak up on you. The best thing that works for me is staying busy, staying in a routine and staying organized. That’s football season for me. You’re always busy. You’re always doing something. You’re in a routine. There’s a rhythm to the week. As soon as you get out of that and you hit the winter or you hit your break, it throws everything off for me.”
Welsh’s therapist helped convince him to make the story public, sending him pieces written by other former athletes. Welsh knew this would be the perfect time to tell his story. He’s entering his last year at Iowa. He could offer a unique perspective.
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Welsh also considered his future when he made the announcement. He wants to play in the NFL. He knew this could hurt his chances. He considered that when he made his decision.
“A lot of people when they write something or talk about depression, it’s usually after the fact,” Welsh said. “They’re done playing. They’re retired. That’s not really the case for me. I’m in the thick of it. It offers a present perspective, which is important. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to play for an organization that had trouble with me having depression.”
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Welsh’s football family at Iowa has supported him throughout his journey. Prior to writing about his story, he told it in front of his team at the Iowa football complex. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called Welsh a courageous young man.
“To watch him wage this fight the last couple of years has been more than impressive,” Ferentz said. “We get to watch guys play football. It’s a tough, competitive game. But to watch a guy deal with an issue like this the way he has is so important and so impressive. Also obviously the support network that he had available to him, everybody was just fantastic. So I really commend him for wanting to come forward. It was all in the spirit of trying to help other people, whether it’s college-aged students, athletes. Certainly depression doesn’t discriminate. Anybody is potentially vulnerable to it.”