Earlier this year, Dustin Holcomb received devastating news: a man who had served in his unit in Iraq had just committed suicide. The news hit close to home for Holcomb, who’s struggled with depression on and off since he returned from Iraq in 2005. “It really beat me up that someone had gone through the same place and couldn’t pull out of it,” Holcomb says. “If I ever got in that position again, I was scared of not having support from people who knew what I was going through.”
At the time, Holcomb had a friend who worked at the Unbreakable Performance Center, a training facility that focuses on MMA training techniques. Last April, Holcomb’s friend recommended he attend what he referred to as a veterans’ group at Unbreakable. “I was sitting there and told everyone in the group what happened and cried and it felt so much better afterwards,” Holcomb says. He’s been coming back to the group ever since.
Holcolmb is a member of MVP (Merging Vets and Players), a program created by Unbreakable founder and Fox News NFL Insider Jay Glazer and former Green Beret Nate Boyer. The program brings former NFL players and military veterans together for a workout session before segueing into what Glazer refers to as “fireside chats,” or informal heart-to-hearts. Seattle Seahawks tackle Duane Brown and Giants guard Justin Pugh have come to speak with the 60+ men and women in the program, among other current and former NFL players. Actors Demi Lovato and Sylvester Stallone (both of whom are Unbreakable regulars) have also attended.
The goal, says Glazer, is to bring vets and former football players together to bond over a common experience: what it’s like to have a life-changing, transformative experience, and then have to transition back into everyday life.
“Combat vets look up to football players. Football players look up to combat vets,” Glazer told Men’s Health. “The biggest struggle is when people take off the jersey and don’t have a team anymore.”
Glazer was inspired to launch the program in 2015, after speaking to the wife of a friend, a former NFL player. His friend’s wife said he felt depressed, aimless, and embarrassed to leave the house. Glazer realized that his experience was not dissimilar to that of other veterans he and Boyer had known. “All of a sudden you’re alone, and you feel different,” he said of both post-NFL and post-military life. “So we’re just trying to give these guys a new team again.”
Glazer isn’t wrong that both former NFL players and veterans are at heightened risk of developing mental health issues. Studies show that former NFL players are at higher suicide risk, a finding that some propose may be linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is caused by repeated head trauma. It’s also well-established that U.S. military veterans (particularly those who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars) are at higher risk of suicide, as well as mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Glazer refers to the fireside chats at MVP as a form of “peer-on-peer counseling.” “You feel you’re not being put under the microscope of therapy,” he says. (It’s important to note that while MVP does not employ a counselor or offer traditional forms of therapy, Los Angeles program coordinator AJ Perez said people seeking help will often ask others in the program for recommendations for therapists.)
While the link between military veterans and multimillionaire professional athletes might not seem immediately apparent, there are parallels between the two groups in terms of grappling with the post-army/post-NFL transition period. “We both never believe we’ll do anything as important ever again,” says Ryan Leaf, a former NFL player who has been involved with MVP for more than a year.
Initially a promising draft pick, Leaf’s career in the NFL ended when he was 28, leading to him becoming addicted to painkillers and eventually being imprisoned for burglary. He is now an ambassador for a sober living community, and credits MVP with helping him get back in shape both mentally and physically following his release.
“You see individuals who are at the top of their game who have found a place for healthy and positive change there, and I did the same,” he says.
Because it takes place at a gym, the fitness aspect is also crucial to MVP. Every session kicks off with 45 minutes of fast-paced, low-impact workouts. “There’s a lot of circuit training, plus some sort of combat sport – boxing, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu,” Glazer says. The goal is to challenge those in the program while simultaneously making it easier for those with injuries to keep up with the workouts.
“Wen you work out, it gets you in a vulnerable state,” says Glazer. “It tears some of your walls down. That’s why we go and talk right after. Working out was the thing that helped the most in terms of bonding, because it releases endorphins and we’re sweating together.”
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But even though those involved with MVP are among the fittest people on the planet, the workout is ultimately secondary to the camaraderie between two seemingly disparate groups of men and women who are struggling to just find a team to play on again.
“MVP has become the family outside my family that I haven’t had in over a decade,” says Holcomb.
Source: Men’s Health