Geoff Folsom

Geoff Folsom

Union Mayor Rod Tappe, who runs a mental health-related nonprofit, likes to remind people to “be kind” because they don’t know what another person is going through.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a story on ESPN’s website about a former high school classmate in Concord, North Carolina.

Jay Graham, the starting football running back, was holding court in Mrs. Shuping’s class before we went to some kind of assembly during my sophomore year. Somehow, I became the target of his little roast. Graham started loudly calling me “Charter Pines” after a psychiatric hospital in the area that was well known for its overly dramatic television commercials (they were big in the ’90s), apparently because I came off as “crazy.”

I admittedly did some crazy things, like sending a letter to the NBA commissioner trying to enter the league’s draft as a sophomore in high school who hadn’t played organized basketball since sixth grade. But I thought Jay’s comments were out of bounds.

For most people, getting called the name of a psychiatric hospital would be embarrassing, but they’d move on. But since I’d spent six weeks the previous summer being treated for depression at an inpatient psychiatric program similar to Charter Pines, it really hurt. (The hospital I went to was called Cedar Springs. I guess in the ’90s, conifer trees were associated with good mental health for some reason.)

Although I got valuable help, being in treatment was the toughest point of my life. I had nightmares that I was back there for years afterward. As far as I know, Jay didn’t know about my treatment, but being called out like that made me wonder.

I’ve never really been bitter toward Jay. I think he was trying to be funny. I’ve been bullied by people who were much more mean spirited.

But for all I know, those people are parking cars for a living. Even though I moved away from North Carolina after my sophomore year, I’ve been able to follow Jay Graham’s career since high school.

Graham went on to have a notable football career, first playing running back alongside legendary quarterback Peyton Manning at Tennessee, then playing in the NFL from 1997 to 2002 for the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Sea-hawks and Green Bay Packers.

Graham went on to work as an assistant coach for several college teams, including winning a national championship as running backs coach with Florida State in 2013.

Earlier this year, Graham was hired as special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at the University of Alabama, the defending national champion and the country’s top football program.

But my father sent me a link to that ESPN story March 25. It said Graham had resigned from Alabama the previous day after less than two months on the job. But his reason for resigning is what stunned me.

“The events of the past year have taken a toll on millions of people around the world, not just the loss of loved ones or lost jobs but in the unprecedented anxieties and mental health,” Graham wrote in a statement. “I am taking time away from football to seek professional help immediately, gain a better understanding of mental health and spend time with loved ones.”

Graham added that he wants to rebalance his life so he can return to his passion of coaching and helping student athletes pursue their dreams.

Reading those words from a guy who was so vibrant and had such success took me by surprise. But I think it’s awesome that Graham can discuss his issues and, hopefully, help someone else out.

It brings me back to everyone facing their own challenges. I can’t speak for why Jay acted how he did back in 1991, but I know I’ve been the “class clown” at times to try to hide my own issues or “impress” people (though some stuff at school is legitimately ridiculous and deserves to be made fun of).

I am not writing this to kick Jay when he’s down. I’m writing it because I want to point out how important it is to have empathy for everyone — people who are struggling as well as people who have been rude. I struggle with that and have a bad habit of talking about people behind their backs, so it’s something I need to work on as well.

I’m glad I faced my mental health issues more than 30 years ago, and it’s good that Jay is now. I hope he comes out of it and is able to return to a great coaching job.

One thing I can say treatment did for me was give me the confidence to apply for the school newspaper my sophomore year, something I doubt I would have had the courage to do previously. So, who knows, it might be why you’re reading this today.

- If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 toll-free at 1-800-273-8255 or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room. A list of mental health resources is available at nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help.