A Voice for Others
Xavier Fulton is an Offensive Tackle who has played in both the NFL and CFL. In 2016, Xavier came forward to speak about his anxiety and depression that he faces on a daily basis. Since then, he has been an outspoken advocate for mental health, especially amongst his fellow football players. Below is an interview where Xavier talks about his career and how mental health and head impacts are intertwined.
Can you give a background of your football career?
I was offered a scholarship to the University of Illinois in 2004. I was originally recruited as a defensive tackle but I weighed 240 pounds and was 6’5” so coaches told me I was going to play defensive end. I played two seasons at defensive end until I had a knee injury and took a medical red shirt year. The following two seasons I played offensive line at left tackle. I was drafted as a left tackle by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 5th round in 2009 but had another knee injury so that stymied my rookie year in the NFL. When I came back, I wasn’t quite able to perform yet so they released me and I was picked up by the Indianapolis Colts. That pattern continued – I was with the team for a bit, then was released and went to the San Francisco 49ers, then the Washington Redskins. After that, I took a bit of time off from football and started boxing. I fought my way to the Super Heavyweight Senior Novice Golden Gloves Championship in Chicago in 2012. During the time that I was training, I was signed by the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL, only to be traded about six weeks later before I had even set foot in Edmonton to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Less than a week after my championship fight in the Golden Gloves I was up in Saskatchewan for training camp. I was with the Riders for five years and was a part of the 2013 Grey Cup winning team (the big highlight of my career) until they traded me to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2016. I was there until I was released midway through the season in 2017. I then signed with the Montreal Alouettes until I was released in July of 2018.
During your football career, did you ever receive a concussion? Can you recall what it happened?
The very first concussion I was diagnosed with was in training camp of my freshman year at Illinois. I was playing defensive end and our mentality was always “see ball, go get ball” on defense. The tackle went on a down block so I followed off his hip down the line and had major tunnel vision with the blinders on. I didn’t even see the fullback coming as he hit me right in the earhole. I remember going down but after that it isn’t very clear. I only know what happens next because I watched it on film afterwards – I got up and kept running for the ball after stumbling. The next clear memory I have is being on the sideline and the trainer asking me math questions.
I was held out of practice for a few days, limited to light exercise, but in total I only missed three days (four practices). At that time, there was no ImPact testing protocol or anything, it was simply the trainer telling me I “had my bell rung and we are going to hold you out for a bit.” There was nothing else done after that in terms of a protocol.
Since then, I can recall games where I remember being hit in such a way that there was a flash of light or my vision blurred. There are games where I do not remember playing at all. In particular, I was playing against Winnipeg in Saskatchewan for the Labour Day Classic, and it was the first drive of the game. Again, I only have a clear recollection now because I was able to see it on film afterwards. I was already on the ground, trying to get up when a linebacker who was running behind me dropped his shoulder right into the back of my head. This guy was fast and known as a hitter in the league and it was completely unnecessary since I was in a defenseless position. I remember the impact - my body lurched forward and I smacked my helmet on the turf in front of me and then the next thing I know I am in the locker room, sitting in my locker, and the game is over. I played the rest of the game because I did not give any clear signs that there was something going on and I never said anything to anyone about the way I was feeling. When you look at the symptoms of a concussion - headache, don’t feel right, nausea, vomiting, delayed response, fatigue, things like that – in that group of alpha males, you attribute those symptoms to “Oh well I had a tough practice; I’m just tired; I need to toughen up, etc.” A lot of those times I wrote it off as I’m being soft, I need to be tougher; it’s just part of the game.
How was it handled by the medical staff? By your teammates?
My autopilot was good enough that no one really said anything – if someone said something to me, I don’t remember. I don’t have a clear memory of that happening. I know there were times when I would see it happen to other guys and I would check in on them. They would say “no I’m fine, just give me a moment and I’ll be alright.” And that was really the extent of it. There was maybe a handful of times where I actually did go and get a trainer or the team doctor for my teammates, but not for myself.
I never wanted to NOT be on the field – I didn’t want to stop playing. I was a guy that if my shoulder comes out of place, if you hit it right the next time it will pop back in. I was like Riggs from Lethal Weapon. Hit it on something, it’ll go back in and I’ll be fine. I was that guy. If I lost the use of an arm, I would find a way to get it working again and not say anything.
The medical staff had to look after 45 other guys and sometimes coaches have things going on too that require the attention of trainers. There are only so many sets of eyes out there that are actively looking, making sure that each player is in the right frame of mind and quality of health to be playing. In the heat of the moment there are a lot of things that slip through the cracks.
When did you first start noticing changes in your mood?
As the years went on and the games got harder and harder, I had to push myself harder and harder. Almost taking more risk, so to speak. As you get older, the impact you can make with your hands is sometimes not enough to get your point across to the defender. So, the head starts coming in more - leading with the crown of the head; I noticed I was having to do that more and more as the years went on. I especially started noticing it after the games. I would be in this perpetual state of absentmindedness. It was taking things longer to register, and was harder to maintain focus. It was harder to keep my mood in check. I was having mood swings left and right. It was my wife who pointed it out to me: “Babe, the game is over, you can calm down now and relax.” I would start to but then one thing would set me off and I would be back in a tantrum.
This was becoming more and more frequent as the years went on. I had to seek the help of psychologists and psychiatrists who diagnosed me with depression. After having conversations with these specialists and not understanding what depression, I could see how repeated head trauma was exacerbating all my symptoms. It doesn’t take a huge leap to tie the two together.
How did it affect your career?
It changed things up. We are all getting older every day. The lifespan of football is always finite. In order to stay longer, you evolve in certain things. For lack of a better term, you become a ‘wily old vet’ or, in some guy’s cases, a dirty old vet. Leading with the head more, not using the shoulders as much, not using my hands as much. Doing whatever I could to make my presence felt on the younger, stronger, faster defenders that are out there. It made me take a step back and think “Do I really need to keep doing this? There has got to be something else that is out there.” Especially my last two seasons, I was really thinking that more and more. I can’t do it the way I used to do it and I am just trying to find something that works to slow these guys down because I couldn’t keep up like I used to. That’s the way I looked at it on the field.
Off the field, it was becoming harder to maintain a positive outlook on everything. To not blow up on the younger guys doing outstanding things, to keep my mood in check. That was the biggest thing, I was constantly swinging up and down. For a number of years, I was on medication that stabilized my mood. It helped tremendously because looking back it could have been one hundred times worse than it was. Without the medication I was on, there was no telling what one bad day could have done when dealing with teammates, coaches, and most importantly, family.
What would you have changed about how your situation was handled by your team?
When I went public about dealing with anxiety and depression there an overwhelming amount of support. Before I decided to make that public knowledge, there were some people in my corner that were worried that going public would mark me as someone that was blacklisted and not worth having on a team. But, I decided to do it anyway because there has to be a voice out there for those guys that are going through the same thing. There are way more guys that are dealing with the same kind of things that I am than people ever imagined. When I did it, there were people coming out of the woodworks – complete strangers – saying “thank you for finally saying something. I felt the same exact way.” I had teammates from various teams who said they were going through the same thing. It seems like every day we are out here banging heads, doing this and its making it worse and worse and worse.
I was honestly surprised because mental health is such a touchy subject and concussions and head trauma are something that are best kept separate from the rest of the group. One of the things they do as part of the concussion protocol is they keep the guys completely separate. Unlike other injuries where you only need to do rehab; you are still expected to go into meetings, to participate in everything which you can with the exception of what you are physically limited by. There are some guys I remember who were diagnosed with such severe concussions that they didn’t come in at all. There were a couple guys who got concussions early on in the season who I didn’t see for the rest of the year even though they were still a part of the team. They just kept them completely separate - not a part of the group at all. When guys did come in, they were wearing dark sunglasses, kept in quiet rooms, no meetings, no working out, can’t be out on the field, and for some guys it was so bad, they couldn’t leave their rooms as they got so nauseous moving around. They would vomit uncontrollably from walking. They become almost like outcasts. You see their lockers and all their stuff is still there, but they might as well be ghosts. You know they are around but you never see them.
How are you now taking your experience and making a difference?
Doing things like this. Talking about it. I made that decision years ago that I can’t be quiet anymore. And that’s the best way – bringing light to these kind of things, talking about it. Be that voice for someone else that hasn’t worked up the courage to do it themselves yet. As a buddy of mine from college would say, “If you have something worth saying, being quiet is only going to do yourself and others a disservice. It just isn’t fair to anyone, especially oneself.”
It definitely gets easier the more I talk about it. When you’re talking about it, you’re thinking about it, you’re putting those words/thoughts out in the world and it’s almost like another form of therapy. The way I look at it is, I can’t be quiet about it. Nothing good comes out of being silent about these kinds of things. It becomes a little easier every time and it makes you more aware about how you’re feeling; specifically, how I am feeling, where my thoughts are going, and the course of action I want to take to manage and stay on top of these symptoms and emotions. Keeping all of it inside makes it exponentially worse. We are all our best advocate but also our worst enemy at times.
It definitely helps talking about it, but specifically to have SOMEONE. Someone in your corner, someone in your family, an old coach, even the postman as he comes by. Someone to talk to. Someone you can confide in and be vulnerable with and know that person is going to support you and have your best interests in mind. To further solidify to younger guys or anyone else who is going through something similar that you don’t have to do this stuff alone. There are support networks. Even if you don’t have a support network, group, or organization to go to, there is someone in everyone’s life that just wants, unselfishly, the best for you. And no one should have to deal with this kind of thing alone.
What advice would you give to young athletes?
The advice I would give to other athletes is know when the juice isn’t worth the squeeze anymore. Know when it’s not worth putting your body through the trauma anymore. The scariest thing for athletes is “what comes after?” Most of us have been playing sports are entire lives, our entire being is wrapped up in being an athlete. For me, I was afraid to see what else there was because I didn’t know anything other than football; other than being an athlete, punishing my body in service of the team and the greater good, in that respect. I did not have the courage to look myself in the mirror and say “you can’t do this the right way anymore. You can’t do this without intentionally leading with your head over and over and over again.” I didn’t want to accept that maybe it’s time to step back, reassess the situation, and find a way to move forward in something else that is less dangerous. It was really hard to look at it that way as a young player; since I was eight years old all I have known was play football, play football, play football. Season is over? We workout, we workout, we workout. And then it is time to play football again. Getting out of that cycle of “I’m only good to the world if I am in a helmet and shoulder pads” has been a trying situation.
It has been an adjustment period, a transition. I have always had that Spartan mentality that to go out on your shield is the ultimate way, the highest honour or glory you can have. I have been down on that field enough times where I am laying down and I can’t get up and someone has to help me or carry me off or I have to be carted off – there is no glory in that. The honest reality is that the sport was there long before me and it’s going to be there long after me. Yes, there will be a time when people remember me but after a while, it’s the next man up, the sport moves on, the organization moves on. They give you your last cheque, pat you on the back, thank you for your service, wish you good luck in the future and that’s it. No matter how long you play, or how short of a term you have playing professional football, everyone goes out that exact same way. “Thanks for everything you did for the team, good luck in the future.” It was a really hard concept for me to grasp. I wish it sank in sooner that that’s the way it was going to be. You hear it as a young player but you don’t want to believe it, don’t want to accept that that is the reality.