Former Green Bay Packers’ great LeRoy Butler is a Pro Football Hall-of-Fame candidate. But let’s forget Canton for a moment and talk Paris.
Yes, Paris. Because the message Butler sent there Monday identified him as more than a Hall-of-Fame candidate. It marked him as a Hall-of-Fame individual.
How? With a tweet. You heard me: A tweet. It was addressed to tennis champion Naomi Osaka after she withdrew from the French Open, and it read like this:
"Hello @naomiosaka if you ever need a big brother to talk to just contact me, anxiety is real and mental health is Real! Pls don't hesitate to call me!"
Normally, I don’t reprint tweets. But there was nothing normal about this, and it demanded an investigation. So I investigated. I called Butler and asked what provoked him. His answer was simple.
“Anxiety is a real thing,” he said, “and the more athletes speak out about it, the more we can get people help. You don’t know what’s going on in somebody’s head. It’s not based on how much money they’ve got or how successful they are. You only know when they talk about it.”
And Osaka talked.
She withdrew from the French Open on Monday, saying on social media that she suffered “long bouts of depression,” one day after the Open threatened her with fines and a suspension if she continued to skip press conferences. As an introvert, Osaka said she suffered from “social anxiety” and felt “vulnerable” in the “intense” atmosphere of one of tennis’ four Grand Slams.
So the world's No. 2-ranked player left it behind, exiting after a first-round victory.
“I think now,” she said on her social media site, “the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris …I’m gonna take some time away from the court, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
When Butler, an all-decade safety, read her comments, he empathized. He said that he, too, suffered from anxiety and sought therapy to deal with it. In particular, he mentioned a fear of getting into elevators -- especially when doors closed, a trigger that ignited childhood memories he tried to suppress growing up in Jacksonville.
“Everything negative in my life would pop in my head,” he said. “It may be for just three minutes, but those three minutes you can be lost. It depends on who you’re with.
“I used to freak out when we played in Minnesota because we stayed in a (hotel) where you had to use the elevator. My palms would get sweaty, and I’d be like, ‘Where are the stairs?’ It’s almost like a panic attack.
“I would talk to (former teammate and Hall-of-Fame defensive end) Reggie White about it, and he’s the only guy I’d get on an elevator with. I just felt an emotional connection with him. I know when he saw my face, he knew this is real.
"I thought when the doors closed I wouldn’t be able to breathe, but he would distract me. He’d say, ‘You think this is bad? Jesus had it worse.’ The humor would distract me. Then, all of a sudden, the doors would open.
“My daughter used to see if there was a cutout in the ceiling so that I could get out. So I’d look. But still, to this day, I try to avoid elevators. If it’s six, seven, eight floors, I don’t care. I’ll say, ‘I’m taking the stairs.’ “
Through professional counseling, Butler learned how to cope with situations that would trigger his anxiety – with elevators at the top of the list. His therapist, he said, would tell him “to count to myself from 10 to 1, and do it while I’m talking to somebody (in the elevator). And when I get to 1, the doors will open. And if they don’t? Just start over again.”
That helped. So did advice he sought for anxiety dealing with the media, a situation not dissimilar to what Osaka seems to experience. But this help didn’t come from his therapist. It was courtesy of former Packers' public-relations director Lee Remmel.
“That’s my guy,” said Butler. “He would be like my therapist. He’d tell me, ‘Leroy, be yourself. Say what you believe and just keep it about you and the team.’ And that’s what I’d think about. I’d stay in a calm place. I have anxiety for number of reasons, and there can be multiple things that can trigger it.”
The key, Butler said, is knowing how to disarm it. That’s why he reached out to Osaka. Like her, he was a successful professional athlete. Like her, he suffered from anxiety. And, like her, he sought help suppressing a disorder that, at times, threatened to paralyze him.
“When I was talking to my wife,” he said, “I said, ‘I know exactly how she’s feeling. Because with some players it can be losing. With others it can be your family. And sometimes the anxiety goes into depression because you want to say the right thing. And that can be overwhelming. I just wanted to say I’m there for you to give you a hug.”
Butler said he hasn’t heard from Osaka and has no idea if he will. But that doesn’t matter. What does is that he offered to help.
“I applaud her for saying, ‘I want to take care of this first and get back to you guys,’ " Butler said. "What she did makes her a real hero to me, and if you know someone with anxiety you’d identify with her.
“But if she contacted me now, you know what I’d say? ‘I know how you feel’. And that would lower the temperature to say, ‘I’m not alone.’ With depression, anxiety and mental anxiety you can think you’re alone. And that’s when people hurt themselves.”