Being Authentic

Former NFL star destigmatizes mental health challenges in honest talk with students

April 24, 2024 at 11:23 a.m.
Caleb Campbell, former NFL linebacker and U.S. Army lieutenant, speaks with Donovan Catholic students April 22 about the importance of asking for help when overwhelmed. EmmaLee Italia photo
Caleb Campbell, former NFL linebacker and U.S. Army lieutenant, speaks with Donovan Catholic students April 22 about the importance of asking for help when overwhelmed. EmmaLee Italia photo

By EMMALEE ITALIA
Contributing Editor

What Caleb Campbell is most proud of, he told Donovan Catholic students, isn’t his recognition as a lieutenant and football player in the U.S. Army or his career in the NFL, but something he did in high school: “When I found the courage to open up and allow another person to see the real me and ask for help.”

Speaking April 22 before a student assembly in the Toms River high school, Campbell addressed mental health challenges and his own struggles with debilitating depression. He recounted his journey from Texas high school football hall-of-famer to playing ball for the U.S. Army at West Point and finally as linebacker for the Detroit Lions, the Indiana Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs – emphasizing that while it appeared he had it all together, it was a façade he spent years perfecting.

“From the outside, it looked great – but if I’m being honest with you, I spent the majority of my life secretly and silently suffering,” he admitted.

As part of the school’s dedication to educate students about mental health awareness, Campbell was invited by principal Jillian Kelly and Kim Gleinig, social studies teacher and student life coordinator, to share his story and offer them an alternative.

“We all have our unique ways of hiding our truest self,” he said. “Living life like that – it’s exhausting … I’m here to help you push back against that pressure… What would it look and feel like to love who you are? I have a suspicion that it would change your overall experience of high school.”

Facing Darkness, Finding Hope

The common denominator that connects every single person, Campbell told the students, “is that at some point and time, life gets hard. Life is full of mistakes and failures, unmet expectations, pain, setbacks and trauma … and it’s so easy to feel like I’m the only one going through it.”

He noted that when people don’t talk about their difficulties, and use all their energy to bottle up feelings and hide their truth, “that’s when life can become very overwhelming, that pressure begins to build.”

It was that mindset, he recalled, that led him down a dark path one afternoon in high school.

Despite his football successes, Campbell’s dedication to his sport and studies earned him an untrue reputation as “better than anybody else.” Although he tried to maintain the image that everything was okay, the spreading rumors and embarrassing tricks played on him began to take their toll.

“We know that words carry power,” he said. “They can either uplift somebody … or they can tear somebody down and make them feel so incredibly small … your words matter.”


Caleb Campbell

Feeling like he couldn’t ask for help, as much as he wanted to, because his coaches might question his ability or his friends might not be trustworthy, Campbell found himself at his wits end on the afternoon of a district football playoff game. The weight of the looming state championship and trying to keep up appearances became too much, and he composed a goodbye letter to his family in his final class period of the day. Although he was visibly tearful in the hallway departing for his car, not a single student stopped to ask if he was all right.


“It kind of validated the story that I already had on repeat: ‘Nobody cares about you, you’re not important, you don’t belong here,” he remembered.

Alone in his darkened house with the curtains drawn, as he wept while considering what he was about to do, the doorbell rang. When Campbell didn’t answer right away, the visitor persisted.

“I opened the door, and there’s [my teammate] Ray,” he said. “I didn’t even know he knew where I lived.” Ray told Caleb he had seen him upset at school, and had tried to catch up to him. “He asked me a question I can honestly say saved my life: ‘Caleb, do you need help?’”

When Campbell admitted that he was in fact in need of help, Ray hugged him and gave him the contact information for a resource that had helped him through something similar just a few months prior. That marked a turning point for Caleb.

“I started for the first time in my life talking about all the things I was hiding,” he said. “Allowing another person to see you, especially when you’re at that moment of feeling so weak – it’s scary to let another person in … But none of the things I’ve ever accomplished in my life would have transpired if I had not found the courage to ask for help.”

Authenticity and Vulnerability

The times in life when we feel at our lowest, Campbell emphasized, are when “we actually have the opportunity to step into the strongest versions of who we are mentally and emotionally. … But that doesn’t happen without two things: authenticity and vulnerability.”

He invited the students to stand if they had experienced a profound fear recently; about 30 students stood, whom he congratulated for their courage. “We’re often ashamed of our fear and think of it as a weakness, so we act like it doesn’t faze us. But fear is not weakness – it’s part of being human.”

He then asked those who had recently experienced some form of mental health challenge to stand; about 30 percent of the students stood.

“Maybe you see a friend standing up, and you didn’t know they were going through something,” Campbell pointed out. “How can we respond differently now, knowing what we know? How can we become the ‘Rays’ of our school? How would that change not just your life, but the culture of this school?”

Encouraging the students to recognize their mental health challenges not as brokenness but as a very human experience, he said that they can become a catalyst – as they did for him – for the life they want to live.

“We can’t go back and change the things that happen to us,” Campbell said. “But we can make a decision today to change how we are going to respond to the inevitable challenges that we are going to face.”

A Story to Tell

When asked how he went from football player to inspirational speaker, Campbell candidly explained another chapter of his journey.

“Because of the pressure in the NFL, the expectations, the failures, a lot that I was dealing with, I found myself back kind of at square one,” he admitted. “So, I walked away. I replaced my life, pieced it back together.”

He left the NFL in 2012 and moved to Canada to work as a janitor of a church, sleeping on the basement floor of a boiler room for five years.

“Every day I woke up and washed windows, vacuumed floors and changed lights in exchange for free therapy,” he shared.

After about three years, still unclear on what to do with his life, he got a call from an organization down the road from the church from someone who was familiar to him.

“He had followed my story through the NFL, and he found out that I was living down the road. So, he invited me to speak to his organization,” Campbell explained. “I spoke, and there was a 75-year-old woman sitting in the back. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was one of the owners of the company.”

The woman waited for him after his talk and approached him. “She said, ‘Son, I’ve heard a lot of speakers in my life, but nobody’s moved me quite like you.’ … She gave me a hug and put something in the palm of my hand.”

To his great surprise, when he unfolded the paper she had given him, it was a check for $10,000.

“And she wrote in the memo, ‘Don’t stop telling your story,’” Campbell said. “I used that money to start a speaking business.”

Food for Thought

Students were moved by Caleb’s testimony, evidenced by the pin-drop silence in the gym during his talk, and the reflections they offered afterwards.

 “When he said everyone stand up, I thought it was so good seeing that,” said junior Sloane Stellmach, “… and seeing friends or people you don’t even think are going through that stuff.”

Isaac Correa, also a junior, agreed. “Those people need to see that [standing up], that they’re not the only one going through that,” he said. Campbell’s talk made him rethink how he might respond to some of his classmates. “Even the littlest saying hello to somebody can help because you don’t know what they’re going through.”

Sophomore Audrey Barrett was struck by Caleb’s description of leaving his school in tears, “how he thought nobody noticed him, but when he saw that someone had … you think you’re alone but you actually aren’t.” After hearing his talk, “I’d definitely go up to people if they looked like they needed help – that stood out to me.”

“There were a lot of people I saw stand up that I didn’t expect to – people who are usually smiling, then they got up and they were one of the first ones, I didn’t expect it,” said Laura Perec, sophomore.

Emma Cookson, fellow sophomore, observed, “You don’t really hear people talking about stuff like that. You think about it, but once it’s finally brought up and an adult is talking to a bunch of kids about mental health … it sounds real. I definitely did not expect to hear that from him.”

“His story almost made me cry,” said sophomore Michelle Walsh. “It definitely made me feel like I’m not alone, the emotional space – where he said if anyone laughs, you leave [the gym] – because people were sharing real emotion.”

“His background speaks volumes,” said principal Jillian Kelly. “He can talk openly about mental health, something that should be acceptable among all of us. ... The staff really embrace and talk about mental health with all of our students, so they feel comfortable going up to all the teachers.”


Donovan Catholic principal Jillian Kelly encourages the students to seek the counsel of their trusted teachers and advisors. Photo courtesy of JoAnn D'Anton

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.


Related Stories

What Caleb Campbell is most proud of, he told Donovan Catholic students, isn’t his recognition as a lieutenant and football player in the U.S. Army or his career in the NFL, but something he did in high school: “When I found the courage to open up and allow another person to see the real me and ask for help.”

Speaking April 22 before a student assembly in the Toms River high school, Campbell addressed mental health challenges and his own struggles with debilitating depression. He recounted his journey from Texas high school football hall-of-famer to playing ball for the U.S. Army at West Point and finally as linebacker for the Detroit Lions, the Indiana Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs – emphasizing that while it appeared he had it all together, it was a façade he spent years perfecting.

“From the outside, it looked great – but if I’m being honest with you, I spent the majority of my life secretly and silently suffering,” he admitted.

As part of the school’s dedication to educate students about mental health awareness, Campbell was invited by principal Jillian Kelly and Kim Gleinig, social studies teacher and student life coordinator, to share his story and offer them an alternative.

“We all have our unique ways of hiding our truest self,” he said. “Living life like that – it’s exhausting … I’m here to help you push back against that pressure… What would it look and feel like to love who you are? I have a suspicion that it would change your overall experience of high school.”

Facing Darkness, Finding Hope

The common denominator that connects every single person, Campbell told the students, “is that at some point and time, life gets hard. Life is full of mistakes and failures, unmet expectations, pain, setbacks and trauma … and it’s so easy to feel like I’m the only one going through it.”

He noted that when people don’t talk about their difficulties, and use all their energy to bottle up feelings and hide their truth, “that’s when life can become very overwhelming, that pressure begins to build.”

It was that mindset, he recalled, that led him down a dark path one afternoon in high school.

Despite his football successes, Campbell’s dedication to his sport and studies earned him an untrue reputation as “better than anybody else.” Although he tried to maintain the image that everything was okay, the spreading rumors and embarrassing tricks played on him began to take their toll.

“We know that words carry power,” he said. “They can either uplift somebody … or they can tear somebody down and make them feel so incredibly small … your words matter.”


Caleb Campbell

Feeling like he couldn’t ask for help, as much as he wanted to, because his coaches might question his ability or his friends might not be trustworthy, Campbell found himself at his wits end on the afternoon of a district football playoff game. The weight of the looming state championship and trying to keep up appearances became too much, and he composed a goodbye letter to his family in his final class period of the day. Although he was visibly tearful in the hallway departing for his car, not a single student stopped to ask if he was all right.


“It kind of validated the story that I already had on repeat: ‘Nobody cares about you, you’re not important, you don’t belong here,” he remembered.

Alone in his darkened house with the curtains drawn, as he wept while considering what he was about to do, the doorbell rang. When Campbell didn’t answer right away, the visitor persisted.

“I opened the door, and there’s [my teammate] Ray,” he said. “I didn’t even know he knew where I lived.” Ray told Caleb he had seen him upset at school, and had tried to catch up to him. “He asked me a question I can honestly say saved my life: ‘Caleb, do you need help?’”

When Campbell admitted that he was in fact in need of help, Ray hugged him and gave him the contact information for a resource that had helped him through something similar just a few months prior. That marked a turning point for Caleb.

“I started for the first time in my life talking about all the things I was hiding,” he said. “Allowing another person to see you, especially when you’re at that moment of feeling so weak – it’s scary to let another person in … But none of the things I’ve ever accomplished in my life would have transpired if I had not found the courage to ask for help.”

Authenticity and Vulnerability

The times in life when we feel at our lowest, Campbell emphasized, are when “we actually have the opportunity to step into the strongest versions of who we are mentally and emotionally. … But that doesn’t happen without two things: authenticity and vulnerability.”

He invited the students to stand if they had experienced a profound fear recently; about 30 students stood, whom he congratulated for their courage. “We’re often ashamed of our fear and think of it as a weakness, so we act like it doesn’t faze us. But fear is not weakness – it’s part of being human.”

He then asked those who had recently experienced some form of mental health challenge to stand; about 30 percent of the students stood.

“Maybe you see a friend standing up, and you didn’t know they were going through something,” Campbell pointed out. “How can we respond differently now, knowing what we know? How can we become the ‘Rays’ of our school? How would that change not just your life, but the culture of this school?”

Encouraging the students to recognize their mental health challenges not as brokenness but as a very human experience, he said that they can become a catalyst – as they did for him – for the life they want to live.

“We can’t go back and change the things that happen to us,” Campbell said. “But we can make a decision today to change how we are going to respond to the inevitable challenges that we are going to face.”

A Story to Tell

When asked how he went from football player to inspirational speaker, Campbell candidly explained another chapter of his journey.

“Because of the pressure in the NFL, the expectations, the failures, a lot that I was dealing with, I found myself back kind of at square one,” he admitted. “So, I walked away. I replaced my life, pieced it back together.”

He left the NFL in 2012 and moved to Canada to work as a janitor of a church, sleeping on the basement floor of a boiler room for five years.

“Every day I woke up and washed windows, vacuumed floors and changed lights in exchange for free therapy,” he shared.

After about three years, still unclear on what to do with his life, he got a call from an organization down the road from the church from someone who was familiar to him.

“He had followed my story through the NFL, and he found out that I was living down the road. So, he invited me to speak to his organization,” Campbell explained. “I spoke, and there was a 75-year-old woman sitting in the back. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was one of the owners of the company.”

The woman waited for him after his talk and approached him. “She said, ‘Son, I’ve heard a lot of speakers in my life, but nobody’s moved me quite like you.’ … She gave me a hug and put something in the palm of my hand.”

To his great surprise, when he unfolded the paper she had given him, it was a check for $10,000.

“And she wrote in the memo, ‘Don’t stop telling your story,’” Campbell said. “I used that money to start a speaking business.”

Food for Thought

Students were moved by Caleb’s testimony, evidenced by the pin-drop silence in the gym during his talk, and the reflections they offered afterwards.

 “When he said everyone stand up, I thought it was so good seeing that,” said junior Sloane Stellmach, “… and seeing friends or people you don’t even think are going through that stuff.”

Isaac Correa, also a junior, agreed. “Those people need to see that [standing up], that they’re not the only one going through that,” he said. Campbell’s talk made him rethink how he might respond to some of his classmates. “Even the littlest saying hello to somebody can help because you don’t know what they’re going through.”

Sophomore Audrey Barrett was struck by Caleb’s description of leaving his school in tears, “how he thought nobody noticed him, but when he saw that someone had … you think you’re alone but you actually aren’t.” After hearing his talk, “I’d definitely go up to people if they looked like they needed help – that stood out to me.”

“There were a lot of people I saw stand up that I didn’t expect to – people who are usually smiling, then they got up and they were one of the first ones, I didn’t expect it,” said Laura Perec, sophomore.

Emma Cookson, fellow sophomore, observed, “You don’t really hear people talking about stuff like that. You think about it, but once it’s finally brought up and an adult is talking to a bunch of kids about mental health … it sounds real. I definitely did not expect to hear that from him.”

“His story almost made me cry,” said sophomore Michelle Walsh. “It definitely made me feel like I’m not alone, the emotional space – where he said if anyone laughs, you leave [the gym] – because people were sharing real emotion.”

“His background speaks volumes,” said principal Jillian Kelly. “He can talk openly about mental health, something that should be acceptable among all of us. ... The staff really embrace and talk about mental health with all of our students, so they feel comfortable going up to all the teachers.”


Donovan Catholic principal Jillian Kelly encourages the students to seek the counsel of their trusted teachers and advisors. Photo courtesy of JoAnn D'Anton

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.

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