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Golden: Osaka's battle with depression stirs memories in former Texas DB Kobe Boyce

Athletes battles with mental health are often overlooked

Former Texas defensive back Kobe Boyce, right, seen with teammate Malcolm Roach after the 2019 loss to Baylor, stepped away from football before the 2020 season. He cited depression issues, similar to what caused tennis pro Naomi Osaka to withdraw from the French Open this week.
  • Osaka, the world's No. 2 player, shocked the sports world when she withdrew from the French Open after her first-round win.
  • Roland Garros fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping a post-match press conference and threatened to suspend her if she did it again.
  • Osaka cited battles with depression dating back to 2018 in statement after with withdrawing.

When tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced this week that she was stepping away from the sport to work on her mental well-being, a nation noticed, including former Texas football player Kobe Boyce.

Boyce had been there, a defensive back on a large stage, playing in front of huge crowds, all the while battling depression as he tried to live up to the high expectations that have followed him since childhood.

Just like the 23-year-old Osaka, Boyce, 22 also left his sport. But unlike Osaka, his athletic career is likely over. Next month will be one year since he announced he was taking a break from Longhorns football.

“I knew I wasn’t the only athlete going through this,” Boyce said this week. “I can only imagine how she was feeling. I didn’t get interviewed as much as she does, but I understood what she was going through.”

More:Kobe Boyce steps away from football

World tennis star Naomi Osaka of Japan, seen here celebrating winning the Australian Open title in February, sent shockwaves through the tennis world on Monday when she withdrew from the French Open after the first round. Osaka, who had been fined $15,000 for skipping a post-match interview, cited bouts with depression as a factor in her decision.

Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory interview session after her first-round win at the French Open and was threatened with suspension before announcing on Monday that she was withdrawing from the tournament.

In her statement, she cited her bouts with depression that dated back to 2018, which coincided with her rise up the world rankings. That year included a massive upset of the longtime queen of tennis, Serena Williams, in a U.S. Open final that's remembered as much for fans booing officials during the trophy presentation with Osaka covering her face as Osaka's on-court brilliance that day.

While some on social media criticized Osaka's timing and questioned her motives, fellow tennis players rushed to her defense and praised her for being so open about her private struggles.

“I think there definitely needs to be more open dialogue on what not only her but everyone on tour goes through,” tennis pro Sloane Stephens told reporters. “I think we don't talk about it enough.”

By numerous accounts, Osaka is a tremendous young woman. She has a shyness about her that belies the power game that has propelled her to the top of the sport, but she also displays an inner strength that has shown through in her actions. En route to winning last year’s U.S. Open, she wore masks depicting the names of Black Americans who had been killed by police and civilians. This came two weeks after she pulled out of her Western Southern & Open semifinal as a reaction to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The tournament halted activities for the day and she returned to action.

At an estimated worth of $55 million, Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in the world with a humongous platform on social media and all the perks that come with being an international star. That said, being a champion athlete comes with certain media responsibilities.

She admitted that she could have handled things differently media-wise this week, but we cannot allow that to overshadow the most important issue at play here, her mental health.

More:Opinion: Naomi Osaka has sparked a mental health conversation. Are we willing to have it?

The dollars will continue to flow in, but all the greenbacks on God’s green earth can’t buy peace of mind. That has to come from within.

The public often falls into the trap of assuming that just because a person is on a large stage, everything must be OK. Often, that's not the case.

Boyce, a cornerback out of Lake Dallas, picked Texas in 2017 over 17 other schools, including Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas A&M. After redshirting his freshman season, he appeared in 19 games over the next two years with six starts, including the 2019 classic against eventual national champion LSU.

All the while, Boyce was going through bouts of depression. He received therapy while playing at Texas, but it got to a point where it felt repetitive and, he said, eventually non-productive. His playing time was up and down, which added to his frustration. He leaned on his mother Mary, his sister and Reese Leitao, his best friend on the team at the time.

“If I wasn’t putting my heart and soul into it, I would have left after my redshirt year,” Boyce said. “I had put a lot into playing, so I stayed. Just me going through the process of not playing and then playing … that was hard.”

Boyce said he has battled depression for years. As a seventh grader, his parents enrolled him at the Shelton School in Dallas, which services children with learning differences. Boyce said he had been prescribed drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, but didn’t like the sluggish feeling he got from them.

“I would write five pages of notes for a class and then when it wore off, I wouldn’t want to read or do anything,” he said. “When you’re off it, you’re tired as hell.”

He transferred to Lake Dallas for his final two years of high school, found his stroke on the field and fielded scholarship offers from all over the country. Entering his junior year at Texas, he was expected to compete for a starting job. But he wasn’t feeling like himself, so last July he announced that he was stepping away to work on his mental health.

Boyce planned to return to campus this spring, but was rocked by his father’s death from cancer in January. With the pandemic still making its rounds and the winter blizzard in February, he decided to do a reset by sitting out the spring. He plans to return this fall to work on his degree in youth and community studies and then graduate in May.

“Coming home made me realize I had bigger things than football to deal with,” Boyce said. “I loved the sport, but it wasn’t my life. I found that bigger things were more important to me in life. It was really hard to let people know I was stepping away."

Boyce is in a better place, but there are still days when things just don’t feel right for him. When he saw the news of Osaka’s withdrawal and her statement on her own battles with depression, he empathized. He had been there.

Unlike Boyce, who wasn’t a star — which meant interview opportunities were limited — Osaka is one of the biggest names in her sport, so when her announcement came, it sent shockwaves.

“I thought it was big, especially with her platform,” Boyce said. “I loved seeing it. I looked back when I did it. People didn’t expect a football player at that high caliber, especially at Texas, to step away.”

Boyce said he received a direct message from Texas A&M cornerback Devin Morris in March, thanking him for speaking out on his mental health battles. Morris told him it helped give him the courage to step away from football earlier this spring.

No one has all the answers, but open dialogue is so important in helping those affected by this disease. Boyce said he is still reeling over his dad’s death, but that his family has been a source of strength over these last few months.

While he still retains two years of football eligibility, he doesn’t plan on playing again, but is certain he will be back on the academic grind this fall.

He isn’t sure the school will honor his scholarship since he took a semester off, but it’s an opportunity for Texas to show that some things are bigger than football. The school should allow him to keep his scholarship, earn his degree and send the message that Texas really is committed to the well-being of its student athletes’ lives after football, even if football ended earlier than expected.

Hopefully we will see Boyce carrying a backpack on campus this fall, around the same time Osaka returns to the court to defend her U.S. Open title.

Depression is more formidable than any athletic opponent these young people have faced, and like many Americans and others worldwide, it’s a battle they will wage for the rest of their lives.

“Being honest with yourself is so important,” Boyce said. “If you have people out there who love you and respect your choices, it will be fine.”