Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh up front about bouts with depression

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh (79) looks to make a block during a game against North Texas on Sept. 16, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Fifth in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Offensive line.

GREEN BAY - In the weeks leading up to the Senior Bowl and NFL scouting combine, agents around the country spend countless hours preparing clients for the non-football portions of job interviews with 32 prospective employers. Their verbal game plans are designed to handle the most common inquiries from coaches, scouts and general managers while also addressing more treacherous topics, be it academic issues, criminal history or something more personal.

For Sean Welsh, an offensive lineman from Iowa, the meetings were always going to carry extra significance in the wake of July 19, 2017, an important moment roughly a month before the start of his senior season. On that day, Welsh published an op-ed piece on the Iowa athletic department website detailing his battle with depression.  

“My whole point with teams was I wanted to be as truthful and forthright as possible,” Welsh said earlier this week. “And I figured if I did that, they would give me the benefit of the doubt. So far, that’s been my experience is that teams have been very receptive (whether) I’m talking to, a coach or a scout or whoever. I’ve yet to have one negative experience at all. It’s just being able to articulate it and really give them a full picture of more or less the timeline of what I’ve gone through and my experience with mental health here at Iowa.”

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The football portion of Welsh’s collegiate experience included nine starts as a redshirt freshman and three subsequent seasons as a full-time starter, splitting time between left guard (12 starts), right guard (21 starts) and, in a pinch, right tackle (6 starts). He earned third-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior and was named second-team All-Big Ten as a senior. At 6-2¾ and weighing 306 pounds, Welsh offers three-position versatility at the next level — both guard spots and center, where he took reps in practice — and projects as a fifth-round pick. 

All of that sounds terrific when taken at face value, which is why Welsh wrote in his op-ed that he understands one of the more common reactions to his story: “What in the world does a college athlete like Sean Welsh have to be depressed about?”

“It's a fair question but one that shouldn't be skewed by things like the number of career starts or postseason honors,” Welsh wrote. “The simple truth is that it doesn't matter if it's on the football field, in the classroom or in a corporate office — success doesn't immunize you from depression.”

So Welsh lumbered through the loss of appetite and constant tiredness. He noticed himself withdrawing from teammates and spending more time watching television. He was sad, anxious and angry every day. He forgot to attend classes and missed a midterm. Once, Welsh said, he didn’t he leave his room for three days.

Realizing something was wrong, Welsh left the football program in spring 2015 and began seeing a therapist more regularly. He started taking medication after he was diagnosed with depression and noticed slow-but-steady improvements in his overall mood. But there are ups and downs with depression, and Welsh stepped away from the team again in summer 2016 before returning a week later in a better state of mind.

That he actively sought help was far more important than extra reps on a football field.

“People always ask me how I’m doing, and there’s always a feeling that they’re asking me about my mental health, they’re not asking, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” Welsh said. “And I always tell people I’m taking it a day at a time. It’s exactly like you said: There’s good days and there’s bad days. It’s just a matter of knowing what works for you and knowing the coping strategies. It’s such a unique affliction, you know? It affects people differently, and different things work for different people in terms of treating it. For me I’ve found that structure, staying organized, getting good sleep, good diet, staying active and busy — those are all things that really helped me in my mental health.”

Exactly how NFL franchises would respond to Welsh’s depression was a legitimate concern. The absences were crucial to Welsh’s overall health, but he wondered if teams would confuse his time away from football for a disinterest in the game. Scouts will often tell you their jobs boil down to a single question: Does this player truly love football?

Welsh wanted teams to know football and depression don’t have to be linked. He wanted them to know a player can love the former and still be affected by the latter. 

Their responses were overwhelmingly positive, Welsh said, and he encountered more than one coach or scout who opened up about their own struggles with mental health or the struggles of close family members and friends.

“What I’ve found is that … the biggest threat to the disease is the (level of) general knowledge that people have,” Welsh said. “I think the biggest way that we can fight ignorance and really improve the stigma against the disease is just to educate people. That’s what I’d love to do moving forward if I get an opportunity to keep having that platform. I’d love to be an advocate for that. I think that’s the biggest piece of the pie is educating people and keeping them informed.”

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Though he projected as a fifth-round pick, which is squarely in the middle of day three, Welsh said he is entering the draft free of expectations. There are countless examples of players sliding due to last-minute injury concerns or off-field issues, and Welsh is muting the excitement until his name is actually called.

At that moment — if and when it happens — Welsh can take his next step forward.

“It would be a validation,” Welsh said. “There was a point in my time here at Iowa that I really considered, you know, whether it was worth it playing football or not. And I decided to stick with it. Now I find myself lucky enough to be here. It would be a validation of, you know, making that right choice.”


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