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Cleveland Browns’ Chris Hubbard hopes to tackle the negative stigma around mental health

The offensive tackle tasks those afflicted to not fear seeking help: ‘Whatever’s going on in your head, get it out.’

Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Chris Hubbard is used to battling opponents on the field, but his biggest fight has come from within. Previously with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 28-year-old, six-year NFL vet has sought help dealing with the pressures of the NFL, the suicide of a friend who was bullied for being gay, and even societal challenges facing black men in America. As part of Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in July, Hubbard is opening up about his own struggles as he tries to normalize seeking help. He spoke with The Undefeated in a wide-ranging conversation on the importance of mental health in the black community, toxic masculinity and even why Baker Mayfield will be a Hall of Famer.

Why is mental health such an important issue for you?

You go through a lot of trials and tribulations as a black man, [as a] black athlete. You go through situations differently in life, even traffic stops. You’re set up to fail. People constantly tell you that and it’s in the back of your mind. Everyone’s background is different and we all deal with stressors that others don’t necessarily have to deal with. I wanted to make this a big cause because it’s not talked about that much. It needs to be put out there more and more. Then maybe you can help somebody out before it’s too late.

What were some of your mental health struggles?

Black people are often put in this cell, especially where I’m from, Columbus, Georgia, where it’s hard to get out. I lived in a community where you see a lot of drug dealing, people getting shot. Being around that leaves something in the back of your mind that’s a constant reminder of where you’re from. You struggle with that. That’s why you need help or surround yourself with people you love who will be there for you to talk to.

When you saw that type of crime as a child, how did you internalize that?

It motivated me to put forth the effort to do more, do something positive. I’ve been around a lot, especially when I was younger. My cousin was slinging dope. I watched him go through getting shot. It motivated me more to make it out. Push myself harder, grind harder and educate myself more.

You had a traumatic experience in high school. What happened to your good friend?

He was pushed around a lot. It was a constant reminder that something’s not right. He needed help. He kept getting bullied [for being gay]. Then the [suicide] happened. That was a tough experience. I never got to talk to him or try to get him some help.

How did you end up coping with your friend committing suicide?

I had football. Football was there for me. Kept my mind off that. Family, too. The thing about our community, people would come over and play basketball in my backyard and that would help keep our mind off what was going on at the time.

You’re a big dude — 6-foot-4, 295 pounds — a successful athlete — but a common misconception is that having money somehow masks any mental health problems. What would you say to that?

That’s a lie. You have family and people coming out of nowhere asking for money. You’re on this big stage where you have to play at a high level. People look up to you. It’s a stressful game you play. Stressful on your mind, your body. It takes you away from your family for the most part. You put your brain, your mind and body on the line. It wears on you. If you get a concussion, that’s even more trauma. Dealing with life is stressful by itself, you have to be able to overcome those things in a way that benefits you.

As an NFL player, you’re surrounded by the most alpha of alpha males. It’s the rare space where old masculine tropes can actually be physically measured. How does that environment lead to mental health issues?

Everybody’s competitive, man. For the most part, people feed off that competitiveness and that overrides what’s going on in their life. They’re not really attacking the things that are going on in their life [off the field].

Mental health in minority communities is an interesting topic. In the traditional Asian community, masculinity is often viewed as how much can you take without saying anything. Traditional Asian fathers are known for rarely talking about their feelings and seeking help for any trauma is viewed as soft. What is the stigma of mental health in the African American community?

It’s the same exact way. People will tell you, “Man, you’re good. Nothing’s wrong with you. Go about your day, you’re fine.” [Help] is shown as a weakness. It’s just not talked about enough.

In the NBA, stars like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love are trying to bring awareness to mental health issues. But this is a recent development and it’s not like we just started developing mental health issues in the last few years. What’s taken so long?

People are afraid, man. That’s what it is. For the simple fact you might have some mental problems going on and be judged. But you shouldn’t. In reality, you’re helping yourself get help, [understanding] your actions and what’s going on in your head. I see it a lot, bro. You just have to talk about it. Even if you don’t have the time, talk about it with a loved one just to get your mind clear. Whatever’s going on in your head, get it out.

What’s the consequence of not properly dealing with mental health?

I know for a fact that if you’re not in the right headspace, you’re liable to lose weight and have some kind of health condition build. The list can go on and on, man.

Moving to [Cleveland] was a big turnaround for me after playing for Pittsburgh that long. Becoming a new starter. Family members coming out of the woodwork asking for money. That was a lot to take in. You want to be this superhero and save everybody but you can’t. That’s a big battle. I lost almost 30 pounds. Playing football, I need that weight. [Had] a little depression but didn’t fall too deep. [Lots] of anxiety. With the help of my family, with counseling that helped out.

How well is mental health being handled in the NFL?

I’m still trying to figure that out. They have different seminars and bring people in to help. A counselor comes in every week. Another doctor if you’re not sleeping or have a lot going in your head. You can tell them what’s going on with you and they can get some help for you. I think they’re upping the help in the NFL.

But is there concern if a player does seek help, it’s considered weak?

That shouldn’t be a fear. If anything, you should help your brother out. Be a shoulder they can lean on. It shouldn’t be a weakness. That’s bull. You’re supposed to be my brother. If you can’t be there for me when I’m going through something, I can’t trust you. There should be no judgment at all.

Cleveland Browns offensive guard Chris Hubbard celebrates after the Browns defeated the Carolina Panthers 26-20 in an NFL football game Dec. 9, 2018, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/David Richard

Remiss if I didn’t ask any football questions. We can all be honest. Cleveland has been a laughingstock for a long time. How would you describe the hype surrounding the Browns this year?

It’s surreal. It’s a great feeling to have and be a part of. Everyone’s so ready and anxious for the season. I’ve already heard a lot of games are close to being sold out. To hear that coming from where we were two years ago at 0-16, it’s a wonderful feeling but it’s still a long season in front of us. And Baker Mayfield … man … that dude’s gonna be a Hall of Famer, bro.

What?! He’s one season in!

Trust me. He has all the intangibles. He reminds me of Drew Brees, man. I’m telling you.

What do you remember about the first time he was in the huddle with you?

He was like, “All right m—–f—–s, let’s go!” That’s what type of player we have. He’s so loose, holds everyone accountable, trusts everyone’s gonna get their job done. He’s gonna talk noise. That’s what I love about him. He’s not scared. He puts his nuts on the table, how’s that?

Cary Chow is a freelancer for The Undefeated and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager for a Fortune 500 company. He has an unrivaled talent for breaking video equipment, still thinks Omar was wronged in "The Wire," and roots for both the Clippers and Lakers and doesn't care about your fandom rules.