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Toronto Argonauts linebacker Shea Emry tackling his depression head-on

10/21/2014 05:26 EDT | Updated 12/21/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Shea Emry makes his living being dominant. The Toronto Argonauts middle linebacker has the brute strength to face a hulking offensive lineman head-on and is quick enough to track down a speedy running back in the open field.

But throughout his successful football career, the two-time Grey Cup champion has been fighting a secret battle that he only recently started talking about publicly. Since childhood, the six-foot, 230-pound Emry has suffered from depression.

And at times, it has taken him to dark places.

"Yes, (suicide) is definitely something that's crossed my mind," Emery said during a recent interview. "It was never something I considered doing but I thought about it.

"I thought about how it would affect my family. I knew I always had a greater purpose and life is amazing and luckily I've had a privileged life. I knew I wanted to have a family and share those types of moments with them. That's why I never considered actually doing anything."

Fortunately for Emry, life is pretty good these days. The 28-year-old native of Richmond, B.C., is one of the one of the CFL's top defensive players and last month became a father after his fiancee Devon Brooks gave birth to son Rozen Oak Emry.

"We wanted the name to have some connection with nature and that's where Oak came in," Emry said.

That's fitting as Emry often finds solitude outdoors.

"There's this place in West Vancouver, B.C., called Cypress Falls Park where there's a roaring waterfall with a little lookout point that's never really that busy," Emry said. "I go there with Devon and if we've had any issues I'll try to get her to yell as loud as possible because there's so much natural noise going on that you can just get everything out.

"I really need to utilize these moments where I feel at peace . . . you know how good you feel after a really good workout or a soccer match with your buddies? Those are the moments I search for."

A victim of bullying, Emry's depression began when he was growing up in B.C. Rather than confide in his parents, friends or teachers, Emry kept quiet.

"I wanted to be that alpha male, the tough, strong kid who didn't have any problems," Emry said. "That's where the toxicity of silence occurs . . . not feeling that (talking to someone) was something I could do in my life made it worse for me."

Emry found solace in sports, where he could positively channel his aggression and feelings of frustration. He excelled in football, in 2004 earning a full scholarship at Eastern Washington.

But leaving Richmond didn't help. Emry felt homesick and often took sleeping pills to rest. After games on weekends, he drank.

"The issues I was dealing with in my mind snowballed there because I didn't have the support system I was looking for," Emry said. "I didn't know who I was . . . and it came to a boiling point where I was basically crying out for help to my parents."

After three years, Emry transferred to the University of British Columbia and established himself as a blue-chip prospect. He was selected seventh overall in the '08 CFL draft by the Montreal Alouettes, becoming a starter the following year and helping them win consecutive Grey Cup titles in 2009 and 2010.

But Emry missed the second half of the 2011 season with a concussion. With time on his hands, Emry found himself again struggling with depression.

"When I transferred, that was the first realization there was definitely a problem," he said. "I hadn't put my finger on it yet and I went through the beginning of my CFL career dealing with those issues but it was 2011 when I really first started to uncover what they were and where they were coming from.

"That was the most important part . . . and actually opening up and speaking in my inner circle about what happened, why I felt that way and getting down to the root of the problem."

Emry found inspiration in his mother Patty, who has endured more than 20 surgeries due to reproductive and intestinal problems.

"She provided me the perspective to realize I wasn't being the best person at that time and I wasn't respecting the fact my parents had given me such a privileged life," said Emry.

Not long after, Emry felt strong enough to go public with his story to emphasize the importance of men talking about depression. He also launched the Wellmen Project, a program aimed at empowering males to take initiative in their own mental wellness.

Earlier this month, Emry wrote a story about his depression for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Emry also draws support from home — his fiancee is a sexual assault victim who speaks publicly about violence against women. He also credits Brooks for motivating him to begin the Wellmen Project.

"It's something we as a couple have to deal with on a daily basis," Emry said. "We know we have to feed off each other and make sure we're accountable to our self-esteem and confidence issues.

"Because our stories are completely different . . . we know we can bounce ideas off one other and motivate each other. Meeting her and moving forward in our relationship allowed me to open up and talk about my situation because she talks openly about hers."

But dealing with depression is a life-long journey for many, including pro athletes.

Many retired football players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. Symptoms include depression and former NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson both showed signs of brain disease after they committed suicide.

When Emry was recovering from his concussion in 2011, the issue of depression was in the news with the suicides of former NHL players Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. Emry admits he was initially afraid to resume playing but believes strengthening his mind is one way to limit the potential affects of CTE.

"After doing the research on CTE and communicating with experts . . . I realized the mind is a muscle and you need to work it out," Emry said. "I've tried to fill my diet with as much brain-healthy food as possible, meditate, go to yoga and really do everything I can on and off the field to strengthen my mind.

"I want to be the most confident, strong person I can be for my son but at some point I might falter and that's fine. Men must realize there's no shame in feeling vulnerable or putting yourself out there because everyone's going to be vulnerable at some point."

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