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Hall of Fame Health helps former players with mental health before it’s too late

In this photo from December 11, 2011, then running back Marion Barber (24) of the Chicago Bears looks on from the bench against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images/TNS)

Kevin Sherrington
The Dallas Morning News

FRISCO, Texas – None of the Pro Football Hall of Famers or mental health panelists who turned out Saturday night at the Star for the inaugural “Heroes of the Game” fundraiser mentioned Marion Barber III by name. Only a passing reference to something that happened “up the street.” A little ironic, but not surprising. Doctors aren’t even sure when the former Cowboys running back died, much less how or why. No use jumping to conclusions, apparently.

Not even if Barber’s sad story is exactly the kind that Pro Football Hall of Fame Behavioral Health tries to prevent.

Few athletes have been as candid about their own mental health issues as Charles Haley, or done more to help, but even he wouldn’t go there.

“Did his doctor confirm any issues?” Haley asked me.

No, no one’s said much of anything about the death of a man approaching his 39th birthday. A man whose ferocious style of play earned him the nickname “Marion the Barbarian.” A man beloved by teammates and coaches. An intelligent, thoughtful, well-read man who played the piano and once ran a football camp for inner-city youth.

A man his former teammates barely recognized.

Terence Newman, who played alongside Barber from 2005-10, was driving to a gas station in 2019 when he noticed a man walking the side of the road. He noticed him because it was raining. Looking closer, he saw it was Barber. Newman had heard that he’d “fallen on hard times,” but he wasn’t prepared for the face-to-face evidence. For the shock.

The old teammates exchanged numbers and parted, at least one shaken by the experience.

“I was scared when I saw him,” Newman told Tyler Dunne recently on his podcast, “Go Long.” “He looked bad. He looked like he wasn’t there, like he was a different person, like he couldn’t function. And that’s why he was walking and not driving. When I tell you I was scared, I thought he might swing on me.

“I was actually scared.”

He had a reason to be frightened. In 2014, Mansfield police arrested Barber after he walked into a church near his house carrying a loaded 9mm handgun. He told the cops he didn’t know where he was. Or what year it was.

He subsequently underwent a mental health evaluation, one of at least two after retiring in 2011 from a career spanning six seasons with the Cowboys and one in Chicago. Whatever the problem — perhaps early onset dementia brought about by CTE from his football career, a rare yet all too frequent result – something clearly wasn’t right.

Besides curious behavior described by neighbors, there was an arrest in 2019 for two incidents in which he damaged vehicles while out on runs. He pleaded no contest and received a year’s probation, 60 hours community service and a fine.

Reacting last July to a video post of Barber running with a football, Dez Bryant tweeted that his former teammate was “down and out bad.”

Dez added, “We are just a stat and moments to most people.”

Not to their peers, they aren’t. Beginning with the birth of Pro Football Hall of Fame Health in early 2020, former players are getting more help. A recent iteration: Hall of Fame Behavioral Health. Partnered locally with Baylor Scott & White Health, it offers a concierge service to help athletes and their families negotiate all types of needs.

Jeremy Hogue, CEO of Hall of Fame Health, wouldn’t put a number on how many cases they’ve made in the last two years. “Dozens and dozens,” is all he’d say. They’re close-to-the-vest, for obvious reasons.

What he will say is that, even with the backing of the NFL and NFLPA, it’s not enough.

“I think what surprised us is the volume of calls that come in on the mental health side of things and the substance abuse addiction,” he said. “Usually not from the players themselves, but from their families, from their agents, from their college friends, from teammates who are saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a guy who’s not gonna be here in a month.’ “

Texas is a big market for Hall of Fame Health, Hogue said. Twenty-five percent of former NFL players live in the Lone Star State, most in Dallas or Houston.

One of the most prominent is Tim Brown, the Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Famer from Woodrow Wilson and ambassador for Hall of Fame Behavioral Health. On a panel moderated by former Oklahoma and Cowboys defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Brown said you could always spot a teammate with mental issues. Every team had a couple.

Marion Barber didn’t show any signs as a player, as far as we know, but he surely did once his violent career was over.

Wasn’t the Hall’s new initiative exactly what he needed?

“Unfortunately, he probably didn’t know about it,” Brown told me. “We didn’t know his situation, right? That’s why the NFL has to be involved. The guys in the locker room have to know what’s going on so they can know how to get guys like Marion help.

“I mean, maybe that could have changed his life.”

Of course, no one can say for sure. We don’t know what went wrong with Barber, and we may never know. His family says the will stipulates his brain won’t be donated for CTE research. Didn’t want an autopsy, either. He takes his sad story with him.


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