When Chantelle Clark was a sophomore at LSU and had been dating her future husband for almost a year, she started noticing things with his demeanor that were “harder than they needed to be.” Sometimes it happened after DJ returned from football practice and other times just normal conversation, but Chantelle recognized when his mood seemed peculiar.
Truthfully, the Jaguars’ fourth-year wide receiver can remember having to deal with anxiety and mental health issues as far back as eighth grade, especially before track meets.
“I’d get nervous for all kinds of things that came with competing,” said DJ, a second-round draft pick of the Jaguars in 2018. “I hated track because it was an individual sport and all the success and failure is on you. Even though I‘d win my races pretty easily, I was always anxious before the race.”
The same thing happened with taking tests. Despite Chark never missing a day of school in 13 years and graduating high school with a 3.9 PGA, he often felt a bit of anguish going into an academic form of competition.
This went on for years without DJ talking about it, either out of embarrassment or not fully understanding that his anxiety was something treatable.
Even after Chark got help through LSU’s football program and was prescribed medicine for his mental health issues, which sometimes led to depression, it didn’t take long for Chantelle to recognize that treating it properly had to be an ongoing thing.
“We spent a lot of time together in college and she became my best friend,” said DJ. “She would see it. She knew my thoughts just by looking at my face. She knew if I didn’t take my medicine that day.”
Fortunately, Chark is free from that now. All the uncertainty and fear that came with people beyond his inner circle knowing he had a mental health issue, even initially telling his parents, father Darrell, Sr. and mother Shirley, it’s all gone.
DJ is no longer a scared teenager, but a 24-year-old husband and father of a three-week-old daughter, McKenzie, as well as a Pro Bowl receiver who no longer feels encumbered by his medical challenges. Ever since Chark disclosed publicly in December, 2019, about his issue by supporting Anxiety & Depression Association of America during the NFL’s “My Cleats, My Cause” campaign, he has felt liberated.
Through medication and periodic visits with his therapist, which didn’t start happening on a consistent basis until his last season in college, Chark has joined many other athletes – among them swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic gold medalist in history, six-time UFC champion Ronda Rousey, NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, Atlanta Falcons tight end and Bolles School alumnus Hayden Hurst — willing to share their stories about mental health issues. The motivation, beyond their own healing, is also to benefit people still reluctant to seek help or not knowing how to cope with their problem.
“I definitely would say the difference between the DJ in college and now is the acceptance of who he is, how he can impact other people,” Chantelle said. “It’s hard at 18 or 19-years-old to have an accurate image of who you are.
“Through adversity and good times, he’s really grown. He embraces both his strengths and weaknesses, which don’t tear him down. The medication takes the load off to help him grow into that individual, versus carrying the burden every day that may not bring any results.”
Eliminating the stigma
From the time Chark was initially diagnosed with his disorder related to anxiety and depression, and publicly spoke on it, nearly four years had passed.
“At that time, it was common to think if you were taking medicine [for a mental health issue], it meant you were weak,” said Chantelle. “It took time to make DJ more aware of how it was affecting him.”
Though quiet by nature, the Jaguars’ receiver does have a reputation for being insightful and candid. Still, coming from the macho world of football, Chark needed time to get comfortable speaking about his mental health journey.
“I think because mental health isn’t something tangible, those other sicknesses and things, you see it and there’s easy ways to diagnose them,” DJ said. “We all deal with something. Some people might feel their problems aren’t as big as others. My problem might not be financial, but it may hurt me as much as someone else’s financial problems hurt them.
“Those anxieties, there’s so many things that make you feel a certain way. If you can’t put your finger on it, then somehow in other people’s mind, it may not be real. [Anxiety and depression] can be masked in so many different things. At first, I didn’t care to speak up too much about it because there’s people who will look to discredit anything.
“If I have a bad game, are people going to discredit me by saying the pressure’s too much? At the end of the day, we’re all human and we have to take control of our life. If I have a bad game, it’s because I’m either not prepared or it just may not be my day.”
Dr. Nyaka (in-YA-kuh) NiiLampti (Nuh-Lamp-tee), the NFL Vice-President of Wellness and Critical Services, says athletes like Chark and others speaking out has contributed to diminishing the negative perception of mental health issues. About 40 million American adults are afflicted with anxiety, the most common mental illness. Nearly half of those will also suffer from some form of depression.
“What the sports culture has historically done is perpetuate the idea of athletes as super human,” NiiLampti said. “It’s important to humanize athletes. They’re going to have struggles, too. Especially if you think about a sport like football, it glorifies this idea of toughness. So there was this sense if someone acknowledges they have mental health challenges, there was a stigma of them being weak.
“Thankfully, we’re seeing this recognition that athletes are human. It gives them permission of being willing to speak out.”
For the past 18 months, thanks to the support of Chantelle over long, deep conversations, as well as his parents and friends, Chark is totally at ease discussing what he went through. He wants others to acquire the confidence to do the same.
“I’m not afraid to open up and be a guy to talk about it because I’m very confident now in my ability, my things that I can bring to the table and the people that I can help,” said DJ. “If I can help even one, two, three people, that’s big, so I don’t mind speaking at all.”
Dealing with criticism
One unanticipated hint of Chark’s progress with his anxiety came after a Jaguars’ OTA practice on Thursday. In a remarkable moment of candor, head coach Urban Meyer was publicly critical of how Chark performed last season, saying he played “way below average” and adding “he’s a big guy that played little last year and that can’t happen.”
It’s one thing for a coach to say that to a player in private, quite another to do it in a Zoom call with a dozen or so media members, especially knowing Chark would likely be asked about it during his scheduled follow-up session with the same media group.
Chark handled it superbly. He was completely unfazed by Meyer’s revelation to the media of him not being physically strong enough, acknowledging that he loved being challenged by his coach in that manner.
“He’s given me good advice, told me to get in the weight room,” said Chark. “I get in the weight room. I put the weight on. . . . But I love when he pushes me to be better than what I am. To make him happy, you really have to be balling, so I have to step it up to make him happy.
“But it’s definitely a good push. I like having a guy like that, an alpha that’s going to push you to be an alpha.”
While that’s an admirable response, you have to wonder if Chark would have taken such criticism the same way during his LSU years. Chantelle thinks it’s a testament to how much her husband has advanced in dealing with his anxiety issues.
“It would have been more difficult four or five years ago,” Chantelle said of Meyer’s criticism. “He’s very aware of his responsibilities. Coaches and teammates have opinions about how he performs. There’s never a time where he doesn’t give full effort.
“But at that time, it would have affected him more about feeling doubted. Now he’s so sure of what he’s doing. He knows you can’t let a negative or positive opinion affect you too much.”
Daddy’s little girl
Once the Charks were married in October, then learned their first child was on the way, it’s bound to bring with it some anxiety.
But since McKenzie Deanna Jaliyah Chark came into the world at 7 pounds, 14 ounces, her father says it’s been a total positive for his mental health.
“Just since she’s been born, I’m able to guide my daughter and give her the tools to open up to me early on,” said DJ. “I know I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself, my wife and our environment, allowing her to be who she’s going to be. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s definitely not a burden at all. I think it’s relief.”
Chantelle adds the effort she and DJ have put into their non-denominational Christian faith, which includes Bible study with family members, has been “very grounding” for their relationship. She believes that and fatherhood have reinforced what her husband has already learned in dealing with his mental health.
“He’s much better about staying in the present moment,” said Chantelle. “Whatever bridge needs to be crossed, he will cross it when he gets there.”
On the field, Chark has echoed the sentiments of many teammates who have spoken in glowing terms about the culture Meyer and his staff have created. While he expects improvement from last year’s numbers (53 catches, 706 yards, 5 TDs) and likes the possibilities for the Jaguars’ offense with rookie Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, DJ Chark is more focused on simply being ready to be at his best every day.
“I have had special moments in games because I’m a fighter,” said Chark. “At this point, I can’t run from [mental health issues]. I still ran those track meets and won. Now I have the tools to deal with the anxiety.
“I’m in control now. If something doesn’t go the way I planned, I’m going to keep a positive attitude and make it work.”
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