Chris Hubbard took a ballroom of nearly 300 people through his mental health journey on Tuesday, and the Browns offensive tackle didn’t hold anything back.
The death of his grandpa and “sidekick,” Jimmy Myers, to prostate cancer threw Hubbard into a deep depression during his freshman year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The murder of his 19-year-old cousin, Shannon Fields, shot in the back of the head at a hometown Columbus, Georgia, nightclub when Hubbard was 21, prompted him to leave college for two weeks. In a conversation earlier that day, Fields told him he was ready to get off the streets, escape his world of gangs and drugs, and asked if he could come live with Hubbard in Birmingham. Hubbard agreed.
“It was more than just cousins, we were like brothers,” Hubbard said. “It hits me hard. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I lost a lot of weight. I felt like I couldn’t protect him. You always want to protect the people that you love.”
The disappointment of going undrafted in 2013 after his then-agent told him he’d be a fourth-round pick sent Hubbard into a back room crying. The Pittsburgh Steelers soon picked up Hubbard as an undrafted free agent and Hubbard spent five years there, his rookie year on the practice squad.
The Browns signing Hubbard to a five-year, $35 million contract with nearly $18 million guaranteed in March 2018 as the team scrambled following the retirement of left tackle Joe Thomas brought more pressure. Growing up in a two-bedroom house with six women and his grandfather and struggling to afford two meals a day, Hubbard had never seen that kind of money.
“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘The amount of people I have to take care of because I want to make sure they have what they need and they don’t continue to struggle,’” Hubbard said.
On top of that, his marriage was on the rocks and he and his now ex-wife, Tamara, had a young son, Creed.
“Me and her were going back and forth. It was just a roller coaster ride,” Hubbard said. “We had a seven-bedroom house … That’s too much space for me. I’m sleeping upstairs, she’s sleeping downstairs.
“I had hard times where I would drink. I would drink and be in a dark room and not want to come out.”
Hubbard finally turned to therapy.
Hubbard, 31, poured out the details of his story at the annual May luncheon of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Summit County at the Akron/Fairlawn Hilton. The appearance of Hubbard, a NAMI ambassador, was delayed over two years by the COVID-19 pandemic. To make sure he connected, he stayed for an hour after the event to talk, pose for pictures and sign autographs.
“It’s really amazing to be able to express my story and get the feedback when everybody comes up to you and how they can relate,” Hubbard said.
Since he joined the Browns, Hubbard has discussed how he sought help when he and Tamara were having infertility issues before Creed, now 5, was devised. But Hubbard revealed his struggles go back much further than that.
“A history of events to try to overcome and try to battle through,” he said. “There were a lot of events that I didn’t handle correctly. I’ve had my fair share.”
Hubbard said he still goes to therapy and finds peace on long nature walks, “Just to hear the birds chirp, to get out in the sun and decompress.”
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But Hubbard said the reason he makes talks like Tuesday’s is the crisis that hit him from all sides when he signed his free-agent deal with the Browns in 2018. The Browns brought back the valuable backup on a one-year deal for 2022 even though he ended his previous two seasons on injured reserve.
“A lot of people don’t know the inside of the NFL. It’s a lot. Mentally taxing, physically taxing, emotionally taxing,” Hubbard said, thinking back four years. “You don’t really get to see family like you want … I’m so close to my mom and my grandmother, if I could grill out for them every weekend I would.
“[The Browns] loved what I could do, the versatility I had was right for them. When it came to the contract, it was the most I’d ever seen in my entire life. The responsibility, it really, really hits me. Then on top of that my marriage wasn’t going good. During this whole process of making my transition from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, I had a long road ahead of me and I had to mentally and physically prepare myself to get ready for the upcoming season to try to make it work for me, which I did.
“It was just a difficult time in my life where I really struggled bad. No one really knew until I talked to people about what I was going through. I had a therapist to help me out along the way. Once a week, twice a day we had those meetings with my therapist.”
Hubbard’s Overcoming Together foundation addresses mental health issues, but just because he’s helping others doesn’t mean he doesn’t need help himself. He said he has days when he knows he needs to check in with someone close and talk. He hasn’t always found what he needs in NFL locker rooms.
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“When you’re in that locker room, some people have so many masks on and hide behind the mask and hide behind all these nice things that we can afford,” Hubbard said. “At the end of the day, your life and your well-being is the most important thing in this world. When you’re hiding everything and you’re not having these tough conversations in the locker room, it really does make a difference when you’re able to be honest and be open with one another about what’s going through your head.
“For a long time, I kept it all bottled up on the inside. But when you’re able to physically get into somebody’s space and be able to open up and share the things that you’ve encountered, it makes a person really change their whole mindset about what they may be going through. You never know who you may touch.”
Hubbard made that clear with his conclusion.
“I’m glad you were able to hear my story,” he told the audience. “I hope it touches your heart and you can take this along with you through your life and tell your story as well. You guys are not alone. We’re all in this together.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.