By the time he had won the 1998 Heisman Trophy and been drafted by the New Orleans Saints, Williams's social anxiety had intensified to the point that he would conduct interviews without removing his helmet. He would seldom make eye contact-much less speak—with teammates unless absolutely necessary. He would quickly leave practice and head to the Burger King drive-through, only to realize that he'd have to interact with someone to place an order. So he'd head home and spend the rest of the day in seclusion. "At practice my teammates would be like, 'Hey, what did you do last night?' " he says. "I'm thinking, I went from the living room to the office to the bedroom."
During a disappointing second NFL season—exacerbated by a risible performance-based contract—Williams broke his ankle. His recovery was treated by the team as a matter of vital importance. Trainers and rehab specialists oversaw his every move and asked for near-daily updates on his condition. Williams marveled that while his bum ankle was getting all the attention, his wounded psyche was going unnoticed. "There's a physical prejudice in sports," he says. "When it's a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it's O.K. When it's a broken soul, it's like a weakness."
Finally Williams decided to get help. He tooled around the Internet trying to diagnose his symptoms and confided in the mother of a childhood friend. Together, they concluded that he suffered from social phobia, or social anxiety disorder. He went to see a therapist, who confirmed the diagnosis. Williams approached the Saints' coach, Jim Haslett, to explain that he was seeking treatment for a psychological issue. Williams says that Haslett used profanity to tell him, in so many words, "to stop being a baby and just play football." ( Haslett did not respond to SI's questions about the incident.)
Williams's story nevertheless took a happy turn. With the help of psychotherapy sessions (which included going to malls and other crowded public spaces) and a daily dose of Paxil, he grew increasingly comfortable in social situations, so much so that he agreed to be a spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Paxil. In the 2002 off-season Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins, and the new environment is serving him well. With no funny looks from teammates and with a franchise that has more than a passing familiarity with mental illness—in 1999, Dolphins defensive tackle Dimitrius Underwood, affected by bipolar disorder, took a knife to his neck—Williams has thrived. Quite apart from his status as an elite running back, he cuts a genial, confident figure. "Just going into a mall or walking through the airport now and not worrying about it, I can't describe how good that feels," he says. "It's like I got my old self back."
New Orleans fans would be within their rights to wonder if the league's top rusher wouldn't still be in the Saints' backfield had the team been more enlightened about Williams's social phobia. But the Saints' reaction was hardly atypical. "That's how it is in football," says Bradshaw. "We're supposed to be big, tough guys. 'You have depression? Shoot, that's not depression. That's weakness.' That's how the thinking goes."
Take the case of Robbins, who got scant sympathy from his teammates after he missed the Super Bowl. The memorable postgame quote from Robbins's linemate Mo Collins spoke volumes: "Whatever rock he came up from, he can stay there as far as I'm concerned." Even after Robbins's circumstances came more sharply into focus and the team was given a crash course in mental illness, players' statements of support seemed forced at best. "I've heard his teammates saying things like, 'The ball's in his court,' " says Bradshaw. "The ball's in his court? The guy's brain chemistry needed to be regulated. Can you imagine if a diabetic had suffered from insulin shock and the response was 'Hey, the ball's in his court'?"
Robbins is uncomfortable talking about both his Super Bowl weekend episode and his bipolar disorder. During the off-season he turned down numerous opportunities to speak publicly about his condition. When groups sought his services in campaigns to raise awareness and even when pharmaceutical firms offered endorsement deals, he politely demurred. Profusely apologetic, Robbins declined a request to be interviewed one-on-one for this story. "I just want to move on," he said through his agent, Drew Pittman.
Not that insensitivity toward mental illness is confined to football. When pitcher Pete Harnisch, then with the New York Mets, suffered what he later learned was a depressive episode around Opening Day 1997, he discovered just how clueless teams can be. First he told Mets manager Bobby Valentine that he had not slept in five days, and Valentine responded, "Good April Fools' [joke]." Harnisch then complained to other team personnel, and according to multiple sources, a trainer offered him Benadryl, a drug usually administered to counteract allergies, to help him get some rest. The Mets then speculated that Harnisch was experiencing severe tobacco withdrawal and then Lyme disease before concluding that he suffered from depression, an illness that figured prominently in his family history. Later in the season Harnisch accused Valentine of, in effect, calling him "gutless" in front of the team and says he angrily confronted the manager in the lobby of the team hotel. (Valentine denies having talked about Harnisch in front of the team.) Valentine told reporters he was instructed not to address Harnisch's situation because "I was told by Dr. [Allan] Lans [the Mets' team psychiatrist at the time] that he might be suicidal." Several days later Harnisch was traded. (Harnisch was released by the Cincinnati Reds this season.)
The media are not always helpful in burying stereotypes, either. When Shayne Corson, an enforcer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, suffered panic attacks last spring that caused him to leave the team—and surrender millions of dollars of his salary—midway through a playoff series, members of the press unsheathed their daggers. PRIDE HAS BIG PRICE TAG: SHAYNE CORSON'S WALKOUT WILL COST HIM DEARLY, AND HE KNOWS IT screamed the headline of one column. Likewise, a thoughtful article on Rob-bins that recently ran in the San Jose Mercury News was accompanied by an online poll asking readers how they would handle him. One of the four choices presented: Robbins "should be tied up and stoned."
Even teams and leagues with the best intentions often fall short in their efforts to help athletes. Though sports psychologists are now in vogue, there's a world of difference between glorified performance coaches who help athletes "enter the zone" and "reach peak performance," and psychiatrists or clinical psychologists trained to diagnose and treat mental illness. While the players' associations in all four major sports have programs to aid athletes with mental health issues, those, too, can be inadequate. When he played for the Seattle SuperSonics, forward Vin Baker was perpetually melancholy and took the brave step of acknowledging his depression. He contacted the NBA Players Association for guidance, and it arranged for counseling sessions not with a mental health professional but with former players Dirk Minnifield and Cliff Robinson.