Seahawks linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was diagnosed with depression in 2012. He's nervous about the reaction to this story, from fans and teammates, but that doesn’t make him uncomfortable. “It’s not for them,” he said. “It’s for the person who needs it.”

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He tried not to, but Kevin Pierre-Louis cried. Bawled, actually.

He sat in his coach’s office at a loss for words, unable to explain himself or his feelings other than through tears. He tried to reel in his emotions — he had never been so vulnerable in front of his coach — but there was no stopping it.

His position coach had asked to see him that day, in the middle of Pierre-Louis’ junior season at Boston College in 2012, and Pierre-Louis knew he was in trouble.

Contacting Anxiety and Depression Association of America

General website:adaa.org

Finding help:adaa.org/finding-help

General phone number: 240-485-1001

He knew it as he walked to his coach’s office, thinking about how he would answer the questions he expected his coach to ask.

He knew it before he saw his coach’s bulldog expression: a look of disappointment in how Pierre-Louis had played that season and in his slipping grades. He knew it before his eyes drifted to the floor because when he disappoints someone he respects, he has a hard time making eye contact.

“Like a dog that knows it’s in trouble,” he said.

On the surface, Pierre-Louis had every advantage and everything together. Strong and muscular, he was remarkably agile for someone weighing close to 220 pounds. He heard about his immense potential growing up just as often from his art teachers as he did from football coaches.

“Looking at Kevin from the outside, you’d never expect this story to be a part of him,” said Jason Bouton, the athletic trainer at Pierre-Louis’ high school. “He’s such a jovial, outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy on the surface. That was always him.”

His life until that point had been a series of challenges: Growing up with his mother in prison because she shot his father, struggling with his identity at an elite private school, moving out of his father’s house and in with his high-school coach.

Somehow, he navigated them all.

“Everything is mental,” his father reminded him, and he believed it.

But he wasn’t happy. He slept just a couple hours each night, barely ate and stopped returning texts and calls. Something was wrong; he’d just been hiding behind a cloak of happiness to avoid confronting it.

“Every time I smiled, it hurt more because I wasn’t being true,” he said. “I wasn’t being authentic. I just had to cover these things up.”

His coach glared at him from behind his desk that day in 2012. And then he said the three words that changed everything.

“What’s going on?”

 

•••

 

Kevin Pierre-Louis takes an online course at his home in Renton, as he pursues his MBA in his free time to prepare himself for life after football.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Kevin Pierre-Louis takes an online course at his home in Renton, as he pursues his MBA in his free time to prepare himself for life after football. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

 

Every time I smiled, it hurt more because I wasn’t being true.” - Kevin Pierre-Louis

He was depressed. That’s what Pierre-Louis found out a few months after that meeting.

He couldn’t answer his coach’s question, but he also couldn’t pretend anymore. A curtain rose inside of him. The truth came out in tears.

“I couldn’t tell exactly at that point what it was, but my body told me,” said Pierre-Louis, now a 25-year-old Seahawks linebacker. “I couldn’t hide behind that wall. It was over for me.”

It was his breaking point and the beginning of his enlightenment.

Eventually, during the winter break of his junior season, he was diagnosed with depression. He started taking anti-depressant medication and seeing a therapist.

“Mine isn’t triggered,” he said. “It’s purely chemical. Sometimes I just can’t help the way I feel.”

Most of the research about depression in the NFL deals with retired players and concussions. It’s hard to get an accurate sense for how many current players deal with depression, but the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says depression affects more than 15 million Americans.

Pierre-Louis is nervous about the reaction to this story, from fans and teammates, but that doesn’t make him uncomfortable.

“It’s not for them,” he said. “It’s for the person who needs it.”

There are still days when he doesn’t feel like talking, when it’s hard to hold a meaningful conversation, when that familiar fog reappears. On those days, he doesn’t tell his teammates or coaches how he’s feeling, but he does try to tell the people closest to him so they can understand.

He knows he can’t stop taking his medication. He cried after he started taking it because he wondered, Why can’t I feel like this all the time? He doesn’t like needing it, but without medication, he’s worse than he was at Boston College.

Vulnerability is big for him, and so he shares even moments he’s not proud of. He stopped taking his medication for a few days around the end of training camp this year. The stress of football, life and upcoming roster cuts flooded him, and he punched a hole in his bathroom door.

Mentally, I kept trying to push through things. I almost brainwashed myself.” - Kevin Pierre-Louis

“The old me came out for a quick second,” he said.

 

•••

 

People always ask what happened between his mom and dad and how he dealt with it, but his answer is surprising.

In 1996, his mother, Tabatha Rowley, shot his father, Windzer Pierre-Louis, in the back at a park in Norwalk, Conn. Kevin was just 4. His mother was convicted of first-degree assault and sentenced to seven years in prison.

He remembers being in the courtroom, his family split in half, and how much he enjoyed running between both sides. He talked about the shooting with some of his teammates, and they wondered how he dealt with the trauma. But that’s never how Pierre-Louis viewed it.

“I can search as deep as I can,” he said, “but nah. That was just life.”

He explained to his teammates, as he has explained to friends before, that the shooting was just something he dealt with. He never really had a relationship with his mom, but she’s coming to visit next weekend. The reason is pragmatic and sentimental. At some point he wants to have kids and, when he does, it’s important his kids know their grandmother.

After the shooting, he lived with his father, got the opportunity to go to private school in seventh grade and moved in with his high-school football coach the following year because his father moved out of town. Someone paid his AAU basketball travel; teachers, particularly art teachers, talked about his potential.

He experienced the influence a person can have on someone’s life.

 

•••

 

One of Kevin Pierre-Louis’ most prized possessions is this photo of him and his teammates from his senior year in high school at King Low Heywood Thomas, a private school in Stamford, Conn.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
One of Kevin Pierre-Louis’ most prized possessions is this photo of him and his teammates from his senior year in high school at King Low Heywood Thomas, a private school in Stamford, Conn. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Pierre-Louis lived in two worlds: elite private school during the day and hanging with his friends back home outside of school. Neither world understood the other.

He was attending King Low Heywood Thomas, the same private school in Stamford, Conn., where billionaire George Soros and Mets owner Jeff Wilpon sent their kids. Pierre-Louis’ family couldn’t afford the tuition, but he was a good enough student and athlete to get a scholarship, leaving the friends he grew up with.

“I’m sitting down next to a couple of the homies,” he recalled. “One of them is hearing me speak and goes, ‘Why do you sound like that?’ ”

Pierre-Louis didn’t understand.

“You sound white.”

He never felt more like an outsider.

“That hurt sooooo much,” he says. “I wanted to get kicked out of school. I didn’t want to go there anymore.”

Around that time, the summer before high school, a classmate’s dad told him to take a seat at the kitchen table. It was a house Pierre-Louis had been in before: great view, pool, fancy cars.

The dad sat at the kitchen table with a stack of monthly bills, and he had something to say. People always confide in Pierre-Louis. Something about him puts them at ease.

You see the house, the cars, but I struggle every month to pay for everything. Do I make a lot of money? Yes, I do. But it’s almost sickening to have to keep up with this certain lifestyle, this image.

Pierre-Louis can find meaning in any interaction — he films mundane moments of his life with a GoPro for a video diary — and that interaction has stuck with him. A metaphor for his life.

“That made me realize that someone on the outside isn’t always how it is on the inside,” he said.

 

•••

 

Nobody could tell what was wrong at Boston College, but there were signs.

Pierre-Louis had to drop classes that year because he was failing them. The classes he didn’t drop, he was on the brink of failing.

He slept for a few hours each night, filling time by scanning the computer, watching TV or listening to music — anything to coax him to sleep. When his father saw him over winter break, he couldn’t believe how skinny he was.

He stopped responding to calls or texts, and when he did respond, it was often with just a word or two. His friends and family had a term for it: “going dark.”

He nervously worried what people would think if he failed out of Boston College, if he blew his chance. What about all those people back home who believed in his potential?

“Mentally, I kept trying to push through things,” he said. “I almost brainwashed myself.”

It wasn’t until he broke down in his coach’s office that his family could help. He got in touch with a therapist and gradually started opening up, learning about himself and depression.

“We always told him, ‘Hey, Kev, you can tell us anything,’” said Dan Gouin, Pierre-Louis’ high-school coach, whom he lived with. “We always tried to get him to open up. He is the most extroverted introvert I’ve ever met in my life. We never thought of depression with Kevin, but we also knew if you knew the whole story, you’ve got to get some of that stuff out. If he hadn’t unloaded and started the process, he wouldn’t be where he is today, and it would have eventually got the better of him.”

 

•••

 

Kevin Pierre-Louis has a small area in his house that resembles a Buddhist shrine, with small statues, incense and words of wisdom, like “The Paradox of our Age” by the Dalai Lama: “These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; Tall men but short characters; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.” (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Kevin Pierre-Louis has a small area in his house that resembles a Buddhist shrine, with small statues, incense and words of wisdom, like “The Paradox of our Age” by the Dalai Lama: “These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; Tall men but short characters; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.” (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

On a rare off day from the Seahawks, Pierre-Louis gives a tour of his home in Renton, pointing out the important things. The painting of him after a big play, his veins popping, muscles flexing, a pure emotion he wants to find again. His diploma, framed in his living room. The words adorning his halls: “Never give up” and “Hakuna Matata.”

Little reminders of where he came from and how he wants to be.

It’s the first place he can call his own, and everything is there for a purpose. He walks to the kitchen table, which he actually uses.

“Having a table, it’s gonna have that family feel,” he said. “I wanted to get a bigger one, but I had to be realistic.”

His kitchen is busy: knives, baking supplies, a stocked pantry. His house is clean but just messy enough to feel real.

“It had to be welcoming,” he said. “That was important to me.”

Kevin Pierre-Louis says he loves animals, and has two sugar gliders as pets that he got at a fair. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Kevin Pierre-Louis says he loves animals, and has two sugar gliders as pets that he got at a fair. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

He didn’t dream of playing in the NFL. He idolized the businessmen who took the train to Wall Street. It wasn’t the money that intrigued him; it was their ability to influence others.

He’s working toward his MBA, taking summer and night classes. He skydives, hikes, cooks and paddle boards. His high-school coach says he’s finding his happiness.

One of his challenges is balancing the kind of person he wants to be away from football with the kind of aggression required in the NFL.

“I’m not there now,” he said. “I’m working on it, but it’s going to be tough because how I feel off the field, I feel so passionate and strong about that. I need to get out of my own head and separate that stuff. I challenge my thought: Why should there be a difference? Why can’t you just be nice? Unfortunately, you can’t be nice in that environment.”

But he’s trying, and one of the ways he’s trying is by being comfortably vulnerable.

Seahawks outside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis comes out with special teams during the second half of Seattle’s 27-17 wing over the Jets last Sunday.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seahawks outside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis comes out with special teams during the second half of Seattle’s 27-17 wing over the Jets last Sunday. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

He isn’t naturally open. His friends and family call it the Kevisphere — the bubble he lives inside, part rabbit hole, part protective shield. And while he lets many people near the bubble, maybe even peek inside, few penetrate it.

He watched a TED Talk during his senior year at Boston College called, “The power of vulnerability,” and the words sounded so true that it was as if the speaker was talking directly to him.

His favorite moments are when he’s in conversation with someone and depression comes up. He tells the person his story, that he can relate, and he always stares at their eyes, first for the surprise and then for the comfort.

He craves that connection.

This whole story started because of a quote from Stephen Colbert, who lost his dad and two brothers in a plane crash growing up but told GQ in an interview: “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

As soon as he heard that, Pierre-Louis’ face changed. Another connection. And very slowly, in bits and pieces, he began relating his own experience from his junior year at Boston College, the year that almost broke him.

He isn’t bitter or angry about what happened. He talks with the conviction of someone who has thought about this before, deep inside the Kevisphere. What he feels, more than anything, is gratitude.

“I always tell people I’m so glad it happened because it allowed me to be this person I am today,” he says. “And thinking even deeper, I just have something else I can make a connection with to someone else. I always tell people: At the end of the day, I have nothing to complain about.”

Seahawks outside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis pressures 49ers punter Bradley Pinion in the first quarter of Seattle’s 37-18 win over San Francisco last month. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seahawks outside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis pressures 49ers punter Bradley Pinion in the first quarter of Seattle’s 37-18 win over San Francisco last month. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)