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NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young recently opened up about the mental health struggles he faced during both his childhood and playing career at the non-profit Child Mind Institute charity banquet on April 25.
“I didn’t know this, but I grew up with severe childhood separation anxiety,” Young told the audience during his speech at the banquet, per Daniel Brown of The Athletic. “All I knew was that I didn’t sleep over at other people’s houses. I had straight A’s, I didn’t miss a day of school, and I was captain of three sports. I mean, if you knew me back then you ‘d say, ‘That kid’s killin’ it.’ Because I was killing it. But if you said, ‘Hey, wanna sleep over at my house?’ The answer was: ‘It isn’t happening.'”
Young said his nerves were difficult to manage during his playing career, and on game weeks he was particularly miserable from Thursday until Sunday. But before an Oct. 13, 1991 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, his nerves were so shot that he didn’t sleep for three straight nights, and the family he was staying with in the Bay Area urged him to get help.
“Yew we win,” Young said he promised to the family at the time. “Because you can’t show weakness, right? You can’t say that there’s something wrong if you lose, because then it’s an excuse. But if we win, I’ll talk to the team doctor and tell him that something’s not right.”
The 49ers lost 39-34—though Young misremembered the game as a victory in his speech—and Young said he spoke with team doctor James Klint after the game. Klint said Young was suffering from undiagnosed severe childhood separation anxiety and recommended child psychologist Dr. Stanley Fischman to Young.
“I went to the child psychologist, and we’re having a conversation and he asked me 10 questions,” Young said. “And if you answer yes to eight of them, then you have this severe thing—and I answered 10 of them ‘yes.’ It was like just classic!  years old and I finally have a name for this crazy thing?”
Young, 60, was a seven-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro selection, three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time MVP during his playing career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers.
He succeeded the legendary Joe Montana in San Francisco and was one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks of his generation. But he was not immune from mental health struggles, and like many athletes in recent years has decided to open up about those struggles to help others navigate their own battles.
“I really do look at it simply as being lost in the woods when a park ranger comes by,” he said in his speech. “Would you feel ashamed to ask him for directions? No, you’d be an idiot, not to ask him for direction. I want the same kind of experience for everyone as we make this less shameful. It would be foolish not to seek help for mental health. We need to lose that fear about getting that help.”