Depressed and stressed, this is what helped me transition to life after football

To: My fellow former athletes

From: Xavier Cooper (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To my fellow athletes, 

Like many of you, after I stopped playing football, I felt lost. For a long time, football was everything to me. 

In middle school, I began to recognize that I had a lot of challenges learning. Reading, writing and comprehension were hard for me. Diagnosed with several learning disabilities, my school placed me in a special education program, which hurt me. I was 14 years old and already dealing with a lot of insecurities. So, I wouldn’t go to class. A lot of the time, I would roam the hallways and get in trouble.

However, in eighth grade, I also tried out for football. While I made the team, I barely played because I didn’t know how to make contact. But during my junior year of high school, I earned a starting spot at defensive end and led the state in sacks. That’s when I realized I had the talent to play in college.

Coaches from big-time programs started coming to my games: Clemson and the University of Wisconsin. It was a real slap in the face when they told me that I was good enough to play but I wouldn’t qualify for a scholarship because of my grades. 

Football motivated me to accept that I learn differently and I started going to class and grinding. Ultimately, Washington State University offered me a grey shirt scholarship. Before heading to WSU, I had to go to junior college first and improve my grade point average. When I finally got to WSU, I couldn’t believe I was there. I couldn’t believe I made it happen. 

In college, my whole life was football and school. I never had a chance to explore my passions and interests outside of football. All I cared about was football. At school, I used to get up in the morning, eat, work out, go to class, eat, practice, eat, watch film and go to sleep. That was it, every day.  After my junior year, I declared for the draft. 

The draft was exciting but stressful. I was predicted to go in the second round, but that didn’t happen. After the third round started, my cousin, who was incarcerated, called and told me not to get discouraged. He told me whatever happens to recognize my blessings. In the middle of my conversation with him, I got a call from Ohio. It was the Browns, telling me that they drafted me with the 96th overall pick. 

My mom and everybody cried. I didn’t cry until that night when I was about to sleep and I just started bawling. It was a huge moment for my whole family. We didn’t have a lot of money. My parents were blue-collared people and there were times we struggled. To me, it was crazy that I worked hard and made it that far. 

Once I got to the league, it was once again football non-stop. People think we only work six months out of the year, but most of us work every day. While you are only in season for six months, the rest of the time, you are working out, watching film and trying to figure out how you get better for the upcoming season.

Ultimately, I played two years for the Cleveland Browns, a half of a season for the San Francisco 49ers and a half of a season with the New York Jets. 

When I got cut by the Jets, I remember sitting in my hotel room thinking, “What am I going to do next?”

When I got cut by the Jets, I remember sitting in my hotel room thinking, “What am I going to do next?”

At the time, I wasn’t feeling right mentally or spiritually. So, I went back home to Tacoma, Washington, to reassess my life. While I got a few calls from teams, I decided not to return to football. I wasn’t happy and mentally, I wasn’t healthy. 

Transitioning to life after football has been incredibly difficult. Depression and stress, at times, have overwhelmed me. At first, I really didn’t know much about who I was or what I liked outside football. Not myself – I lost a relationship. Simultaneously, I also started to see people’s true colors. When I was in the league, I would get a hundred texts a day. Suddenly, I was only getting five texts, mostly from my mom, dad and sister, and a couple of friends.

The depression and stress were only getting worse. 

Then, my best friend encouraged me to start writing. January 22, 2020, I started putting pen to paper, writing about my depression, memories, or past experiences. I write about 1,300 words every day. Through writing, I can declutter my mind and find more clarity in my life. 

Writing has helped me realize that I am interested in business and finance. I enjoy philanthropy and helping the community. Also, I love sharing stories, especially my own. 

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Throughout the past year, I have been able to put many of my newfound interests to work. 

I have a scholarship for teens called Everyone Learns Differently. The goal is to provide financial assistance for higher education for teens with learning disabilities as well as teens who’ve been in the juvenile justice system. Also, I went back to my old high school and asked them to take my jersey out of the Hall of Fame, explaining to the principal that our high school, Woodrow Wilson High School, was named after a racist. I wanted to take a stand and start a conversation. 

Ultimately, we drew enough attention to the issue, the Tacoma Public Schools’ Board of Directors recently voted to change the name. My alma mater is going to be named after a heroic and trailblazing black woman, Deloris Silas.  It will be the first school in Tacoma to ever be named after a black woman. 

I still deal with mental health as far as depression and stress. It is up and down, but thanks to writing I’m able to manage it more.

Writing is magical. It’s the key to our soul. 

But ironically, who knows if I would have ever had the discipline, the patience, or the courage to learn to write if I had never had football to motivate me to accept my learning disabilities and find ways to get through school.

There is absolutely a dark side to football, with concussions and the psychological effects of playing such brutal sport in extremely competitive and high-pressured environments.

Still, there is so much we can take from football as we enter this new phase of our lives.  As athletes, who made it to the very top of our sport, we know structure and discipline. We have opportunities, resources and notoriety. Unlike most, we also have the time to learn ourselves. 

If you are struggling, wake up every morning and create a new routine that allows you to explore new interests. 

When I first left the game, I may have felt lost. But it’s the tools football gave me off the field that are now helping me to write the next chapter of my life. 

While I still don’t know how my story will unfold, I hope you find comfort in knowing that I am now excited to turn the page. 

It can get better. 

Xavier Cooper
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