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Saving a seat for Everson Griffen: How the Vikings, NFL handle mental health struggles

October 13, 2018

In the three weeks since Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen was told to pause his football career and seek a mental health evaluation, teammates have expressed continuous support, saying the three-time All-Pro selection should take all the time he needs.

Meanwhile, for better or worse, these players are seeing how the modern NFL system tries to support mental health issues.

“When the situation with Everson came up, we knew he was in tremendous hands,” said Stephen Weatherly, who is starting at defensive end, in Griffen’s place.

“It’s always good to have an outlet, and hopefully this is his outlet to be able to get whatever off his chest,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson added.

But others who’ve studied the resources the Vikings and other NFL teams make available — on-site clinicians, mental performance consultants, confidential family assistance programs — still see flaws.

“Those lists are all great,” said Chris Deubert, a New York-based attorney who specializes in sports law and civil litigation. “But if no one takes advantage of them, or you set up road blocks, well, who cares?”

Deubert was part of the legal team for former Vikings linemen Kevin and Pat Williams in 2009, when they sued the NFL after receiving four-game suspensions for using the diuretic StarCaps, and co-authored a recent Harvard study titled “Life on an Emotional Roller Coaster: NFL Players and Their Family Members’ Perspectives on Player Mental Health.” One thing Deubert has learned, he said, is that the NFL’s health care structure is “inherently conflicted.”

“The club doctors and medical staff are supposed to be treating a player,” he said. “But they are also supposed to be providing teams with information relevant to that player’s usefulness to the club.”

‘Ally’ for players

At the Vikings’ new training facility in Eagan, the closest office to the locker room belongs to Les Pico, whose official title is “Executive Director of Player Development/Legal.” His assistant is Don Patterson.

“Every day you see them, they’re always asking, ‘How are you feeling? How’s everything outside of football?’ ” Weatherly said. “Just knowing that you have people like that, that care about you more than just a player, really helps a lot.”

Pico has no medical background, but he’s available to players for anything they have on their mind, including family and financial issues.

“Pico’s one of the best player liaisons I’ve ever been around,” said former Vikings linebacker and current radio analyst Ben Leber. “I think players can trust him and not feel like whatever you say to him, he’s still going to tell the coaches. The players feel like they have an ally.”

Leber noted the proximity of Pico’s office to the locker room.

“How many times in our own lives have you wanted to say something or do something, but in the time it takes you to walk through a building, you talk yourself out of it?” Leber said. “Pico’s right there, immediately, whenever you need the help.”

The Vikings declined interview requests for Pico and chief operating officer Kevin Warren for this story.

Police incident reports from Sept. 22 noted that officers learned from Pico that Griffen “has been really struggling for the past few weeks.” According to those reports, Pico told police, Griffen “has been explosive, screaming and yelling” at practice, and that Griffen was paranoid and prone to repeating himself.

The Vikings told Griffen on Sept. 20 that he wouldn’t be allowed back to the team’s Eagan headquarters until he underwent a mental health evaluation. Two days later, according to the emergency audio dispatch report, Griffen told staff at Hotel Ivy in Minneapolis that if someone didn’t let him in his room he was “going to shoot someone.” Police later made sure Griffen was taken by ambulance to a mental health facility.

The Vikings have provided little details. This week, coach Mike Zimmer disputed an ESPN report that the team isn’t expecting Griffen to return anytime soon,” though Zimmer gave no timetable.

Out of the shadows

Griffen’s usual seat inside the defensive line meeting room, the one right next to his position coach, has loomed empty.

“Nobody else sits in that chair,” defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “He’s still a part of us, and he always will be a part of us.”

The NFL has taken strides to address mental health issues, especially since 2012, when Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau died by suicide — “a pivotal moment,” said Arthur McAfee, the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement.

The NFL now has a 24-hour, confidential mental wellness and suicide prevention hotline for players and their families. Each player also has access to eight counseling sessions per year under their Cigna health insurance benefits.

Since 2016, the NFL Players Association has had its own director of player wellness, Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti.

Football has long fought the stigma that its players are too tough to talk about their mental struggles. But just the past year, former players such as Percy Harvin (anxiety) and Brian Dawkins (depression, suicidal thoughts) have opened up about battles from their playing days.

“I wouldn’t say I savor those moments, but the more that we are willing to have those conversations in a public space, the less stigma is attached,” NiiLampti said. “And the more people are willing to reach out because they recognize they’re not alone.”

Griffen will miss his fourth game Sunday, when the Vikings play the Cardinals. But there’s a seat being saved for him.

“Every guy in that room misses him,” Patterson said. “But every guy in that room wants the best for him. I want him to be healthy. That’s way more important than anything to do with football.”

Staff writer Mark Craig contributed to this story.

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