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Mental health awareness is personal for Abraham

20 days ago
South Carolina Athletics
Photo: SOUTH CAROLINA ATHLETICS

You have to admire a guy like John Abraham (1996-1999). Not just because he was a feared pass rusher that led to him being one of 10 who will be inducted into the University of South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame on October 14, but because he had the courage to seek help with a social anxiety disorder that affected him for much of his life.

"I've been struggling with social anxiety and a lot of other anxious stuff, so I think this will be my first time going out and being around people and trying to be free, talk and open up to people," said Abraham, who splits his time in Atlanta and Columbia. "It's been a while since I've been able to talk and really be around people, so hopefully this will be a coming out party so I can start coming to more games and be more social with the people of South Carolina.

"I didn't want people to think that I didn't want to be around. When you're suffering through things you can't control, it hard to explain to people when my mind and my body act differently than I want them to. It's been a problem my whole life, but with football you sometimes had a way out. I had no problems talking to reporters but going to big events was tough. I missed out on a lot of events throughout my life and lots of things people have asked me to do."

Seeking treatment and learning about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) have put him on a better path.

"I learned about CBT and DBT, and if I'm able to make it through this event, it will be big for me," Abraham said. "It should be really good."

Abraham encourages others who are struggling with such issues to seek help and is glad to see the elimination of any stigma associated with seeking help with one's mental health.

"Just know that you are worthy," Abraham said. "You are worthy of the praise or attention that you get. For me, I didn't feel worthy, and that's something I want people to feel for themselves. It's going to be tough sometimes. They have a lot of treatments now that people can work on. You don't have to be the life of the party, but you really have more people that want to see you than you think. I know what it is now, so now it's something I really have to work on.

"Back in the day, we didn't look at mental health as much as we do now. I always thought I was just a scared person, and with social anxiety, you don't think anybody wants you there anyway. I always thought if I went to something, I wouldn't be able to talk to anyone and they wouldn't want me there. It was so nerve-wracking. I actually wanted to be around more people. I missed out on so many awards shows and banquets that I could have gone to. I think people might have lost respect for me because they thought I didn't want to be around."

Abraham didn't have a typical path to greatness on the gridiron. Born in Timmonsville, S.C., he was better known early on as a track start at Lamar High School where he set the state record in the 200-meter dash. He didn't play organized football until his senior year, and that came about mostly because he was being competitive with his girlfriend.

"I was trying to get more accolades in the yearbook," Abraham said with a laugh. "I was going into my senior year, and I had played track and basketball, and I was thinking I needed more. My girlfriend at the time had more accolades than me!

"I was shocked when I was recruited to play football. When you don't play a sport for a long time, you don't have a lot of knowledge of how to play and what colleges are looking at you. I started getting recruited late, like during basketball season. It was definitely a moment that changed my life. I remember sitting in the lunchroom, and everyone was saying (then South Carolina coach) Brad Scott is here, and I was saying, who the heck is Brad Scott? I was still preparing myself for basketball when he came in and surprised me to recruit me to South Carolina."

His natural athleticism made him a menace for opposing backfields as he tallied 23.5 sacks during his Gamecock career, while leading the team in sacks in all four seasons. He earned second-team All-SEC honors in 1999.

"Some of my best memories including making my first start my freshman year, playing against Georgia and getting my first sack, and also playing against Clemson and getting a sack there," Abraham said. "When you're playing Clemson, it's a totally different type of game. You really know why you're at South Carolina when you play Clemson."

Abraham was a first-round selection in the 2000 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. He went on to play 15 seasons in the NFL with the Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, and appeared in five Pro Bowls. He is also the Falcons' all-time career leader in sacks.

"Going to the NFL from college, all of the sudden you have more time," Abraham said of his transition to the pro game. "The speed is different and you're dealing with grown men. The biggest thing was just trying to find something to do with your time. In college, you have classes on top of everything. In the NFL, you're done at 3 o'clock and you don't have any study halls or anything like that."

Abraham retired in 2014, and now likes spending time with his three daughters, age 20, 12 and 5.

"I've just being trying to enjoy spending time with my family and working on my mental health," Abraham said. "I don't think it's hard to make that transition from football, but you definitely need to make a plan. You should always plan four or five years ahead to know where you're going. I played for 15 years, and I was lucky to have collected enough where I don't need to rush into any kind of job. So, I can take my time and travel and enjoy life with people."

He was a part of the 2017 SEC Legends class, which features former football standouts from the league and was honored in events surrounding the SEC Championship game that year, and when he received the call from South Carolina about his Hall of Fame honor, he was relieved.

"I'm not going to lie, that was one of my big goals in life," Abraham said. "I was happy. I got the call from (Special Assistant to the Athletics Director) Charles Waddell, and I was like, I'm ready!"

Abraham looks forward to being back on campus and sharing his experience with his daughters.

"Now that I'm getting older, I want to make memories for my kids," he said.

"When I come in town, I see how nice things are on campus. They're doing a great job. The things we have to offer now are so great. I love going by the new track there now. The stadium is so much nicer, and the (Dodie Anderson) Academic (Enrichment) Center is beautiful."

This year's Hall of Fame class includes Abraham, Mike Durrah and Connor Shaw from football, Michael Roth from baseball, Scotti Ward from men's basketball, Brantley Southers and head coach Nancy Wilson from women's basketball, Ron Willis from track & field, volleyball coach Kim (Hudson) Williams and Athletics Director Dr. Mike McGee.

They will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Thursday, October 14, and recognized at the South Carolina-Vanderbilt football game on Saturday, October 16.