Jelani Woods already had a keen interest in mental health before he was drafted by the Colts this spring. He completed a research project while in college looking at the mental health resources available to student-athletes, and why so many of those student-athletes either are not able to or are discouraged from accessing them.
The juggling act student-athletes face between the demands of their sport – practice, film study, injury treatment, etc. – plus schoolwork and life outside of campus can take a significant mental toll, Woods said.
"You're just trying to balance that out, and you got your authority figures being like, well, do you think you can push through, and with that pressure as well you're like, yeah, well, I can push through even though you truly can't," Woods said. "You need that extra help. And just being able to sometimes acknowledge that you need that extra help and use those resources, that was the main challenge I've definitely found."
For Woods, then, supporting Kicking The Stigma – the Irsay family and Colts mental health initiative – was a natural fit for his first "My Cause, My Cleats" game this Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys (pictured above are Woods' custom cleats for the game). To date, Kicking The Stigma has committed over $17 million to mental health awareness, research and treatment in Indiana and nationwide.
The messaging from Kicking The Stigma and the emphasis on mental health awareness, treatment and research – which carries added meaning coming from a football team – hit home with Woods thanks in part because of the research he did on the topic as a student.
"There's a lot of resources out there, but as individuals it's hard to get into those resources," Woods said. "One thing I found, which makes sense, is the notion of most coaches or people try to say, fight through adversity, fight through the mental part of the game.
"But a lot of things are hard to fight through and you need somebody to lean on."
The Colts' focus on mental health, tragically, became personal and even more important for Woods in mid-November.
Late on Sunday, Nov. 13, a shooting occurred on the University of Virginia campus. Woods, who had stayed close with his former UVA teammates after being drafted, eventually learned the names of the victims who died in the attack: Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry.
All three were football players; Woods was close with each of them.
Woods, who had injured his shoulder the day before in the Colts' win over the Las Vegas Raiders, was on his way into the team's facility when Director of Player Engagement David Thornton called him. Thornton asked if he knew the players who died. Woods said he did, Thornton told him to come see him as soon as he got in.
"As soon as I pulled up, (Thornton) was in the hallway, I broke down crying," Woods said. "Went into his office and I just let it out."
Woods said he felt comfortable expressing his emotions, and supported in addressing his mental health, because of the Colts' organization-wide emphasis on mental health.
"They demonstrate (their commitment), and in all the resources they got me and everything like that to help with the whole situation and to try to hone in on the most important part of it, of trying to celebrate them and find the happiness within the whole situation," Woods said. "You can definitely tell they apply what they preach, and that's something special that everybody might not have, but the Colts do a good job in that."
Linebacker Zaire Franklin offered some advice to Woods, too: "He shot me straight with it," Woods said. "Like, man, don't let it — don't try to put it aside. Deal with it." That only reinforced the Colts' culture of treating mental health as health to Woods.
Instead of pushing through in the middle of a season – and while getting treatment for his physical injury – Woods had the space to acknowledge where he was with his mental health and use the resources available to him. And with the support of the Colts behind him, Woods is doing what he can to support his former Virginia teammates as they navigate the pain and trauma of losing friends and teammates in a mass shooting.
"Running from it really won't save you," Franklin said. "I think he's done a great job of taking that time to himself. He's still in that journey. It only happened a couple of weeks ago. I know in the NFL, it seems like our lives change every week because the story changes every week. But tragic loss where someone's taken from you is an extremely tough situation. I know our organization does a lot of great work with Kicking The Stigma and creating conversation around mental health is extremely necessary."
So when Woods takes the field on Sunday night against the Cowboys, in primetime, he'll be supporting Kicking The Stigma – a cause that's supported him.
"Having the opportunity to wear it during the game is pretty special," Woods said.