DALLAS – Captain America is up to no good.
While waiting for his mocha Frappuccino at a Starbucks near DFW Airport a couple years back, the man with one of the planet’s all-time squeakiest, cleanest reputations gets noticed. Gets approached.
Gets … mischievous.
“Hey, you look soooo familiar,” says the woman working the counter.
“Well, yeah, maybe,” the man says sheepishly, “I’m ..”
“You’re from Tyler!” the barista exclaims, growing giddier by the syllable. “Tyler High School! You taught... oh, what was it ... ?”
“Chemistry,” the man deadpans, suddenly channeling a person he’s assembling on the spot. “Mr. Carney.”
“Of course!” she squeals. “Mr. Carney. Wow. How are you?!”
“One of my students?” he inquires, fanning the flames. “Were you there when we had the, um, the big fire in the lab?”
“Yes!” she exclaims, exercising some form of caffeinated manifestation. “Oh, my God!”
Before the man dares to spin out of control with his impromptu fish tale – perhaps asking to compare invisible scars from a blaze that never occurred in a phantom teacher’s classroom that doesn’t exist – he grabs his coffee, quickly nods to a wide-eyed customer that has clearly made him out, and high-tails it for the exit.
“Bye, Mr. Carney!” the starstruck woman waves.
Says the perplexed next customer in line, baffled by the employee’s naivete, “Wait, you do know who you were talking to, right?”
Roger Staubach never looked back.
“We had this whole back-and-forth thing going pretty good,” Staubach tells me about the exchange one day in his Dallas real estate office. “I’m sure in the end she was plenty embarrassed ... I know, I know. I’m bad about that.”
And, turns out, nothing else.
During his exemplary, Hall-of-Fame life, the legendary 78-year-old former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback has won Super Bowls. Captured the Heisman Trophy. Served in Vietnam. Earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Been married to his high-school sweetheart (Marianne) for 56 years. He’s “God’s Quarterback”, the architect of cardiac comebacks, and a devout family man, successful businessman and pristine role model to whom all other Dallas-Fort Worth heroes are measured.
On DFW’s Mount Sportsmore, Staubach’s granite mug would be the grandest.
But even one of the most flawless icons in the history of Texas sports and American humanity has proven mortal in a – until now – private battle against a nasty opponent: a disease that transforms his daughter’s mundane molehills into morose mountains.
Staubach’s titanic trophy case means little when Michelle suffers chronic, depressive episodes that (in the fifth grade) caused her to believe she had a brain tumor and (in 2017) led her to the drastic option of undergoing electric shock therapy. He may have started four of the Cowboys’ eight Super Bowls, but …
“There have been some very rough times for Michelle and for our family,” Staubach says. “I’ve been a dad that’s tried to be there for his daughter. But there were times I just … I didn’t quite understand what was happening or how to deal with it.”
Says Michelle, “Dad’s always been there for me. He and mom have always been supportive. They did the best they could for me when I was growing up. They just didn’t know a lot about dealing with mental health issues, because nobody did. Really, we still don’t.”
With her illness temporarily in check and her motivation to help others fueled by relentless energy and empathy, 52-year-old Michelle Staubach Grimes is becoming an advocate for mental health. And with an uncomfortable nudge from his daughter, Staubach is – for the first time – publicly addressing the challenges of dealing with the disease in his own family.
“Roger’s not a loquacious man, so for him to come out and support Michelle like this means the world to her,” says her husband of 23 years, John Grimes. “Through all of all this, he’s been strong and compassionate. He’s sort of steadied her through his quiet actions. His support has been absolutely critical.”
Per his legend, Staubach’s timing and accuracy are again right on cue as America – and its athletes, including current Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott – deals with unprecedented depression, suicide and mental illness prompted by the COVID crisis, financial hardships, social injustice and political unrest.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not crazy about speaking out on things like this,” Staubach admits during our phone call in early January. “But we have real mental health problems in this country, and it helps when Michelle tells her story and athletes like Dak share their experiences. The dialogue is a positive, no question.”
Says Michelle, “An important step is just talking about it, and that’s why I’m so proud of dad for supporting me publicly. We first must erase the stigma of mental health.”
Growing up the second of Staubach’s five children was the stuff of the All-American dream.
Nice house in Richardson. Famous father. Doting, stay-at-home mom. Plentiful financial resources.
“She’s Roger Staubach’s daughter for crying out loud,” says close friend Kristin Clancy Ciccarelli, who has known Michelle since 1983. “She’s got everything. What in the world could she be depressed about? At least that’s how we all used to think.”
When she tired of riding her bicycle, Michelle took the option of mounting the Heisman Trophy – as if it was a toy horse.
“Pretty funny, right?” Michelle says. “Football was dad’s job, but it wasn’t our whole life. It was the ’70s, before social media. Today if you’re the Cowboys’ quarterback – like Dak – forget about it. We were a pretty normal, happy family.”
But during our three-hour interview in the office of her affluent Devonshire neighborhood home over the holidays, Michelle provided details of how – despite her loving father and nurturing home environment – her internal monologue was almost immediately hijacked by caustic contemplations.
By the first grade she was already suffering extreme anxiety. When Staubach left for six weeks in the summer to attend Cowboys’ training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., he called home every day to talk to his family. In a further attempt to soothe Michelle’s fears, Marianne played home movies.
But when Staubach appeared on film, his daughter burst into tears that didn’t stop flowing until she cried herself to sleep.
“I think my brain, to some extent, was just wired to be anxious,” Michelle says.
One night lying in bed, at age 7, she asked her mother, “What happens we die?”
By the fifth grade, Michelle began exhibiting signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in the form of incessant hand-washing and ceaseless counting.
“If I didn’t count to 20, like 10 times in a row,” she says, “Dad or someone I loved would die.”
She grew so consumed with death and dying that she became convinced she had a brain tumor.
“I was 100-percent sure, but of course I didn’t,” she says now. “I’ve also had cancer 100 times without actually having it. It’s just that, even early on, I knew something was wrong with my brain. With my thoughts.”
At age 10 – around the time Staubach was leading the 1970s’ Cowboys to three Super Bowls in four years – Marianne took her daughter to a Dallas psychologist. With unsatisfactory results.
“I didn’t like her at all. Didn’t trust her,” Michelle says. “Just not comfortable. We didn’t click.”
Michelle won the battle not to return to the psychologist, but she continued losing the war against herself. She went through a hoarding phase, and consistently declined summer camps and overnight sleepovers with friends.
By the time she reached the all-girls, college prep school Ursuline Academy and began driving at age 16, she literally could not navigate a speed bump.
“I’d go over it and think, ‘Wait, what if that was a person?’,” Michelle says. “I’d drive around the block, come back to the same speed bump and check to see. But then I’d have to drive over it again and … over and over. Same cycle. Sometimes 20, 30 times.”
Known for high-pressure problem-solving such as being down 13 points with only two minutes remaining, Staubach was frustrated – at times, heartbroken – at not being able to “fix” his daughter.
“I looked at her and wanted desperately to help but … really, I just didn’t understand,” says Staubach. “To me, mental illness was something you only saw in older people, ya know? I’ve learned a lot through the years.”
But little is understood about the complexity of the brain in 2021, much less 1981. By utilizing his sneaky athleticism and double-meat guts, Staubach authored 23 fourth-quarter comebacks. Instead of frenetic rallies, he resorted to calm, collected words to soothe Michelle.
“Despite all my suffering I knew I’d be OK because I was protected by a loving family,” Michelle says. “In high school I took the car out before I got my license and got in big trouble. But I’ll always remember what Dad told me. ‘Michelle, there is nothing you can ever do to make me stop loving you.’ All the times I’ve been depressed and sad and freaked out … his words have saved my life countless times over.”
Despite her mental obstacles, Michelle not only persevered, but somehow excelled.
“She’s a very smart girl,” Staubach says. “College. Law school. Always busy, always doing something productive. Most of the time it wasn’t obvious that something bad was going on inside her.”
She went from Ursuline and graduated from college, even squeezing in a year working near the White House for the George W. Bush administration before earning a law degree in 1994 from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Though away from home and family she didn’t take medication or see a psychologist, only occasionally consulting a campus priest.
The result? Many dark periods, ruminating alone.
Why was I born financially healthy and white and not poor and black?
What did I do to deserve these great parents?
Am I really worthy of all these luxuries I’m afforded that others don’t have?
Michelle says she’s never reached the point of suicidal thoughts, though at times she teetered on the brink of suffocation by guilt.
“Externally, I was able to hide it,” she says. “But internally, I was beating myself up. I had extreme guilt and it was like my OCD was exacerbating it, almost to the point of sabotage.”
Holding it together for years, she returned to Dallas, practiced as a lawyer, married John (an investment banker) in 1997 and started a family.
“I didn’t really comprehend the depths of her illness until after three kids and a decade of marriage,” says John, whose family has also dealt with depression. “Everyone has crazy moments or emotional responses to things that happen in their lives. But this is a different, much scarier animal.”
Still dodging episodes and struggling to identify triggers into her 40s, Michelle was finally moved to action by the OCD self-help book, Brain Lock. She started seeing a Dallas psychiatrist, who officially diagnosed her with Clinical Depression, Major Depressive Order, Anxiety, ADHD Inattentive and OCD. Zoloft helped. As did a return visit to her childhood psychologist, the one she abruptly abandoned 30 years earlier.
“She said she remembered me being anxious and depressed, and that I didn’t want to talk to her,” Michelle says. “She said she was sad for me. It was a whammy for me, because she understood that, at that time – as a kid – I couldn’t explain something that I didn’t understand.”
Better but still vulnerable, Michelle flirted with deep depression in 2006 until sessions of talk therapy allowed her to accompany her family on a vacation to Disneyworld. But in 2017, she hit rock-bottom. Bed-ridden. Catatonic. Hopeless. Unable to string together a single positive thought. Indifferent to food, she dropped 30 pounds.
“I convinced myself,” she says, “that I didn’t deserve to be happy.”
After four IV infusions of anesthetic ketamine proved ineffective, Michelle opted for what she calls the “last resort.”
Electroconvulsive therapy. ECT.
“It’s shock therapy,” she says. “Gives your brain a seizure. Of course I was scared.”
That June, Michelle was driven by John and/or Marianne three times a week for a total of 19 ECT treatments at Dallas’ UT Southwestern Medical Center.The first eight, one-minute unilateral (treating only one side of the brain) sessions ignited no significant improvement, so the next 11 were bilateral and more invasive. Each time she was administered muscle relaxers, had electrodes placed on her head, was put to sleep by an anesthesiologist and awakened disoriented.
“We were all afraid because there’s this huge stigma around it,” John says. “It was extremely difficult. There were many days I had to go exercise just to keep my sanity. But Michelle was never suicidal, and I was always confident that we’d get through it and there’d be brighter days ahead. She’s a fighter.”
Eventually, her mood improved. So much so that she went on a family trip to Ireland and, by September, felt “better than ever” during a visit to her son at the University of Georgia.
“It’s no magic wand,” Michelle says. “I mean, I have memory gaps from that summer. I don’t really remember Ireland. But in the end, it worked for me.I’m not saying I want to ever go through ECT again. But if I have to, yeah, I will.”
Says Clancy Ciccarelli, “We have this Ursuline text-chain support group and, sure, we were all scared for her. That kind of treatment is the very bottom … not much to do after that. But I’m glad she did it. It worked.”
As an NFL player that retired at age 38, in part, because he suffered 20 concussions – six in which he was knocked unconscious – you would have predicted it would be Staubach being treated for head trauma, CTE or mental illness, instead of his daughter.
“(ECT) was very difficult for everyone,” Staubach says. “She had a great support system with Marianne and John. They probably knew a lot more than I did about what was really going on. But it obviously wasn’t easy to watch my daughter go through all that.”
Near the end of their tumultuous 2017, the family gathered for Thanksgiving. Per tradition, they wrote what they were thankful for on a slip of paper and placed it in a jar. Passed around the table, each family member randomly withdrew a note and read it aloud.
Michelle, by chance, got her dad’s.
I’m just grateful that Michelle is feeling better.
The paper still hangs in her office, a testament that her journey is not alone.
“I’ll always remember his hugs from that year,” she says. “They told me everything I needed to know.”
Though Michelle realizes she’ll never be cured, these days she’s in a light, bright place emitting relative calm and confidence.
She’s seeing a psychiatrist who conducts therapy and monitors medication.
She keeps a “gratitude journal.” Most importantly, she can now spot her mental triggers – the feelings of guilt – and drown them in positivity.
“I think I have an important voice,” Michelle says. “I’m not going to let guilt steal my spirit again.”
She has authored two children’s books, has a senior in high school and two kids in college, and possesses boundless – sometimes unbridled – energy and charisma. All powered by the same ADHD that has her furious fingers regularly sending 100-word text messages and her mind seemingly striking three matches at once.
“I’m retraining my brain,” she says. “Choosing positive words. Talking slower. Reminding myself that there are no coincidences … this is all happening for a reason. Oh, and prayer. Prayer helps.”
Outside of family, she’s focused on two passions: Social injustice and mental health.
“My missions,” she says, “are the same as Dak’s missions.”
On the social injustice front she is again – after a 25-year “vacation” – practicing as a lawyer, sitting on the board and working pro bono for the Fort Worth-based Innocence Project of Texas. Moved by last year’s tragic death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, she now adeptly quiets her chaotic inattentiveness to pore over stacks of evidence in search of an obscure detail that could potentially overturn a wrongful conviction.
“We have to reform the criminal justice system and end systemic racism,” Michelle says. “I believe the root of all these wrongful convictions is a lack of compassion, kindness, honesty and humanity. After what I’ve been through, I’m keenly aware of those qualities. They are precious, but they’re lacking too much in our country these days.”
As for speaking out on mental illness, Michelle decided to tell her tale on World Mental Health Day in 2019. In a Facebook post she wrote, “This is the face of one who has struggled with mental health since I was a child. I’m not ashamed anymore.”
Knowing how lucky she is to be insulated by a loving family and adequate assets during her struggle, she’s determined to provide hope to others less fortunate.
“I don’t have a fear of losing my job. I was born into a loving family. I have the financial means to get help,” she says. “Without just one of those, I’d be a complete train wreck. I’m not saying I’m an expert. But I have my story, and I can only hope that telling it helps someone out there.”
The open forums might not only assist others, says Clancy Ciccarelli, but also Michelle in case of a relapse.
“She’s in a good place right now,” says Kristin, whose own family has a history of depression and mental health issues. “But it’s ever-changing. The conversations help remind her that she’s not alone. We know her episodes – or anyone’s – aren’t a choice, or something she can just easily snap out of. We’re all here to help her. We’re watching out for her, too.”
Since her Facebook post, Michelle says she’s heard from several people battling similar depression and some that experienced irrational fears similar to her speed bumps.
“I’m not abnormal,” she says. “I’ve learned others have dealt with similar issues, so we’re not alone. It’s the reason we need to speak about it and educate people on mental health and break down the barriers. To normalize what most consider abnormal.”
Michelle decided to escalate her passionate pledge, mind you, during the most imperfectly perfect mental illness storm of all – 2020.
The COVID pandemic wreaked havoc even on those fitted with the thickest psychological armor, sending a jolt of dizzying loss across the globe that took a toll on physical and mental health. With the peace-of-mind cornerstones of income, health and human interaction replaced by masks, social distancing, unemployment and constant death, Americans sank to almost unprecedented depths of despair.
“I’m a people person and I love hugs,” says Michelle, whose immediate family rang in the new year dealing with a case of COVID. “But I haven’t hugged my dad since March. Zoom doesn’t cut it. We’re seeing people being mentally broken by this. I’m afraid there will be lingering mental health effects long after the virus is gone.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a “major depression” consists of a period of at least two weeks “when a person experiences a depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities and shows symptoms ranging from loss of sleep, appetite, energy, concentration and self-worth.” In its study released in December, the institute – in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – estimates that a staggering 40 percent of U.S. adults experienced at least one “major depressive” event last year. Of those, 11 percent seriously considered suicide.
Since exercise has been shown to help mitigate depression, the national stoppage of sports in mid-March and ensuing “shelter-in-place” lockdowns amplified the problems. A study from Stanford University released late in 2020 suggests that depression among professional athletes rose 477 percent from March to August, who most leagues were shut down.
Joining the likes of NBA star Kevin Love and Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach in yanking back the curtain on their mental demons, Los Angeles Clippers’ All-Star Paul George went on national TV after Game 5 of his team’s first-round playoff series in August and revealed he too was dealing with depression.
“I underestimated mental health, honestly,” admitted George, who sought the advice of the Clippers’ team psychiatrist. “I had anxiety, a little bit of depression, from being locked in (the NBA’s bubble). I just wasn’there. I was checked out.”
Celebrities such as Howard Stern and Justin Timberlake have also recently opened up about seeking therapy for their psychological disorders, but this was a sports superstar in the prime of his career.
To some, like Michelle, it was refreshing. To others – who embrace toxic masculinity and believe athletes should present themselves as elite physically and untouchable mentally – it was an awakening.
And then there was Prescott.
His mother died of colon cancer in 2013. During her battle, Dak’s older brother, Jace, was her main caregiver. Quietly, that burden apparently gnawed at Jace, and he lost his life to suicide just days before last April’s NFL Draft. That loss, combined with COVID’s quarantines, eventually took its toll on the Cowboys’ leader.
“I started experiencing emotions I’ve never felt before,” Prescott said in September. “Anxiety, for the main one. And then, honestly, a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression. To the point of, I didn’t want to work out anymore. I didn’t know necessarily what I was going through, to say the least, and hadn’t been sleeping at all.”
Prescott also revealed he sought counseling to help endure the trying offseason.
“For sure, I realized (I was depressed),” he said. “When you have thoughts that you’ve never had, I think that’s – more so than anything – a chance to realize it and recognize it, to be vulnerable about it. Talked to my family. Talked to the people around me. Some of them obviously had dealt with it before. I was able to have those conversations and then reach out further just to more people. I think being open about it and not holding those feelings in was one of the better things for me.”
Though, inexplicably, Prescott was criticized by one certain national TV talking head, his honesty created a positive ripple throughout the mental health community.
Love, who has battled his own depression and panic attacks, tweeted “Dak saved lives by what he said.” Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers said “I think it’s phenomenal in speaking out. Because that’s true courage and that’s true strength. That’s not a weakness at all. I applaud Dak. It’s a beautiful thing when people start talking about it because at the bare minimum it makes you more relatable to people. We have the same struggles and the same issues.”
Cathy Hurst went a step farther, saying “It was divine intervention. That my son got to talk to Dak … after all they’ve been through.”
After the Cowboys rallied to beat the Atlanta on Sept. 20, Falcons’ tight end Hayden Hurst sought out Prescott on the field and praised him for speaking out.
“Inspired by what you said,” Hurst told Prescott. “That was really brave.”
Hurst has battled depression and substance abuse and even attempted suicide. He and his mother, Cathy, established the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation to raise awareness for mental health issues in children and adolescents.
“I can’t really explain it,” Hurst told AtlantaFalcons.com of his darkest episodes. “It’s hard to unless you’ve been through it. But, depression, when you feel like nobody’s there … when you’re in the headspace and in that dark spot, you do … you feel alone. Nobody’s there. Nobody cares.”
Powerful wheels are in motion to change that. In the wake of their post-game exchange, there are plans for Hurst and Prescott to collaborate. Staubach called Prescott to offer support after his season-ending leg injury on Oct. 11, and Michelle hopes to further connect with the current Cowboys’ quarterback on mental health initiatives this offseason.
Says Michelle, “We’re fighting the same fight.”
The problem with mental illness is that it’s an inner struggle against an invisible villain.
Is it a disease? Hereditary, traced to DNA? Or, as society often boxes it, is it merely a case of “the blues” or being “down in the dumps”? Likewise, can depression be identified by a “mood ring” and cured by a simple “cheer up!” or by merely “pull up your bootstraps”?
“It’s not that you just don’t feel good,” Michelle says. “It’s that you don’t have the ability to feel good. Your reality becomes skewed and you blame yourself for not being able to feel good. It’s like everything positive is filtered out.”
Despite advancements in studying the human brain, a clear understanding remains an unfathomable endeavor. The brain, for starters, contains the same number of neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy – about 100 billion – all simultaneously making 100 trillion connections.
“The truth is, we don’t know what causes depression,” says Michelle’s current psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Shiekh. “We really don’t fully know the cause of anything in psychiatry, even though we are learning more and more of the biology every day. But as far as treatment, it’s not unusual in medicine to know that something works and not really know fully why it works.”
In other words, we know several of the warning signs of a depressive episode: Isolation. Drastic weight changes. Lack of motivation. And we have workable remedies such as medication, talk therapy and even ECT. Yet we remain clueless as how to stop depression, because we’re not sure how it starts.
“I’ll be managing my mental health forever,” says Michelle. “The best I can do is be aware of my triggers. Everybody has dark thoughts now and then. But you’ve got to remember that both joy and suffering are a part of life. Not everything is going to be perfect and that’s okay. No guilt. No shame.”
Michelle’s family also realizes there is no finish line.
“There’s a good chance she’ll slip back into a dark place, that’s the reality,” says John. “Might be five years or 10 years or whenever. But we’ve accepted that. We’re going to be as well-prepared as possible to deal with it, and that starts with open communication.”
Says Staubach, “I’m Dad. I’ll always worry about her.”
This holiday season, Michelle sent Christmas cards featuring inspiring words from Holocaust survivor from Max Glauben. She often quotes Winston Churchill’s advice: “When in Hell, just keep walking.” And, for now, she’s effortlessly gliding over speed bumps without thinking twice … much less 20 times.
“I just want to help others,” she says. “In doing so, I’ll continue to help myself.”
Says Staubach, “I love my daughter and I’m so proud of her for doing what she’s doing. This thing is much more prevalent than we knew. After hearing her story, we’ve had friends come to us and tell us that they’ve had some of the same issues with their children. By speaking out she’s changing lives, and I’ll do everything I can to support her.”
Careful during COVID, Staubach misses the up-close affection of his 15 grandchildren. Even longs for his sometimes playful interactions with strangers. But with his lighthearted barista bantering long forgiven, he’s moving on to tackling something serious and impactful: the touchy, timely subject of mental health.
Captain America is again up to good.
*Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255