The physical pain was just part of the wound.
In August, as he prepared for his final season at Clemson, Xavier Thomas felt a pop in his foot during the Tigers’ final pre-season brawl. To hear the veteran Edge Defender say that, he didn’t do anything different. There is no spin or any other sudden movement to try to get to the middle. Just bend the edge as he has done countless other times in his football career.
But before he reached DJ Uiagalelei, she gave Thomas a foot. He was taken off the field inside Memorial Stadium and taken for an x-ray, which revealed Jones’ fracture of the fifth metatarsal. Thomas’ fear of the worst was too much.
“I’ve never broken a bone in my body before, so I think I’m going out for the season. So I broke down and started crying,” Thomas said.
Thomas received good news, though, when he was told she was not from the end of the season squad. He was initially told that he would miss between four to weeks. That schedule ended up stretching a bit, but Thomas finally returned to play last week against Boston College.
Even with the surgically repaired foot he said was still in some pain, Thomas reminded everyone of what he can do as a fast passer. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder scored two bags and forced stumbles in just six shots. But for Thomas, the simplicity of overcoming another proverbial roadblock to get back on the field was the highlight of his night.
“It was just pure joy,” he said.
To fully understand the scope of this statement, one has to go back further in Thomas’ Clemson’s Journey. Because not many people, including Thomas, still expected him to be here.
However, Thomas returned for the fifth season in an attempt to realize some untapped potential. One of the top 5 consensus prospects out of IMG Academy Florida during the 2018 recruitment cycle, Thomas was a coup for Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney and his staff with the same aspirations as many potential clients: spending three years in college before heading to the NFL .
But that plan was derailed in 2020 when Thomas contracted COVID-19, and a concussion later in the season only complicated things. He was the shell of the player he once was, finishing that season with just 11 tackles in seven games.
He struggled to get out of his head. Thomas battled depression, swelled to nearly 300 pounds and nearly walked away from football together before finally committing to it. His injury this pre-season was another mental hurdle for Thomas, but he said he is better prepared to deal with those struggles given his overall Clemson experiences.
“I’ve been through all these tough times,” Thomas said. “I went through depression and weight gain, and just came back from all this stuff, I know I can get through anything. It can’t really frustrate me too much at this point.”
Swinney said Thomas is just one of the many examples of players’ mental health journeys he took during his 14-year tenure as Clemson coach, some of which have been made public and many of which are not. While physical ailments are common in football, the mental weight of dealing with expectations and performance on the pitch as well as the responsibilities that come with that can be stressful at times.
Sweeney said he’s also thinking of Jay Guillermo, a former offensive lineman who has dealt with injuries and depression during his time at Clemson. Guillermo left the team at some point before returning to finish his college career in 2016.
“I didn’t think I’d see Guy Guillermo again, and not only did I see him, but he came back and became a leader,” Sweeney said. “Anyone can get into that state. Depression is a very real thing, so the way we prepare here, we have layers of connectivity to where we hope to be proactive and can recognize some of the warning signs.”
It’s easy to treat the topic of mental health as a taboo, especially in a sport defined by strength and toughness. But one of those classes that Sweeney has added to his program to encourage players to seek help if they so desire is the hiring of sports psychologist, Milt Lauder, who has been with Sweeney throughout his time at Clemson.
“When I got the job in 2009, the first thing I did was go see (former athletic director) Terry Don Phillips and spoke to him to let me hire Milt Lauder,” Sweeney said. And I remember when I told him he was like, ‘Why do we hire a Melt Lauder? And I said, “Because we need someone.” The mental part of this game and the mental part of life is such a big part of anything, so we should really invest in that and work on it.
“It’s been a huge part of what we do and has been for a long time.”
As someone who knows what it means to wage a mental war with himself, Thomas said he’s also willing to be a haven for his teammates.
“When you go through things like that, you don’t want to tell anyone about these things,” Thomas said. “We are all men, so we want to be those strong men who don’t have any weaknesses. But I always tell guys that they can always come to me and talk to me anytime they want because I know these aren’t easy things to talk about.”
Swinney said he doesn’t feel the sport has “come to perfection yet” when it comes to publicly addressing mental health issues, but he’s glad the conversation hasn’t been as quiet as it once was.
“I am so grateful that people are more willing to talk about it,” Sweeney said. “Ten years ago, it was something people didn’t talk about, especially in our game. Everyone is strong guys and you push through things, but mental health is a huge thing in society, and football teams are a reflection of society. … It’s a huge thing.”
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