Former WSU star receiver Gabe Marks wants to help football players with their mental health

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Washington State Cougars wide receiver Gabe Marks (9) warms up before the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Boulder, Colo. (David Zalubowski / AP)

Gabe Marks caught more passes than any player in Pac-12 history while starring as a receiver for Washington State from 2012 to 2016.

That excellence did not protect him from the anxiety and mental stress he felt while playing, going undrafted and getting waived by the New York Jets after signing a free-agent contract with them.

“But there was nobody that I felt comfortable to talk to at the time about it,” Marks said.

Marks knows there are many other football players who feel that void, and he is hoping to help end that.

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After earning his master’s degree in clinical psychology and just finishing a two-year internship with Open Paths Counseling Center in Culver City, California, Marks is set to start a new phase of his career, one that he hopes will reconnect him with football.

He will be doing intensive trauma work and general psychotherapy through Thrive Health and Collective Wellness in Marina del Rey, California, which was founded by his aunt, Margot Chambers. Marks’ dream is to become a person whom football players will seek out for help with their mental health.

“I thought there was a void for men in general, and athletes, specifically,” Marks said. “The reason why I got into this is to fill that space and to be somebody that can do the work at a high level of quality and care, but who also knows the experience of professional athletes and Division I athletes that go through the pressures of having to perform all the time and being in the limelight. Those are experiences that only a small percentage of the population can really understand. You’ve got to go through it to know it.

“I am hoping to work with teams sometime down the line. This is obviously a life process, learning situation for me of getting proper training. But I definitely have the intention of being that outlet for athletes as part of our work in addition to working with the general population.”

Marks caught 316 passes for 3,453 yards at Washington State. He is 10th on the list of career FBC reception leaders.

But his lack of size (5 feet 11 and 189 pounds) and top-level speed contributed to his going undrafted despite his great collegiate production. After being released late in camp by the Jets in 2017, Marks had to make a decision on whether to try to continue to make it in the NFL or start the next phase of his life.

The publicized effects the game was having on players — including the death by suicide of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who was later diagnosed with CTE — weighed into Marks’ decision.

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“I thought there has to be something I can contribute to society that’s not just me bouncing around from teams and banging my head against the wall, all while I get CTE myself,” Marks said. “I imagine my own brain will have things going on down the line from the amount of time that I played. I am not knocking the game at all — I know it’s a beautiful game, and I love the game — but I was thinking there has got to be something else I can do.”

Marks had always been interested in psychology and sports psychology. He said he spent a lot of time talking to then-WSU coach Mike Leach about what it takes to make a team, “which all comes down to a psychological organization of people and understanding people.”

Leach has been following Marks’ post-football career.

“Gabe is a guy who can do anything he wants to do,” Leach said. “He’s a very talented guy, so anything that Gabe goes to tackle, I think he is going to do a good job of it. He definitely knows about players playing at a high level. It’s always tough trying to find your way and what you are passionate about, and I am excited for Gabe.

“Gabe was a guy who could talk about anything. He was a smart, curious guy, and we did have long conversations.”

The transition from football to psychology has been pretty seamless for Marks, because he has found a new passion.

“I got obsessed with hearing other people’s stories, and talking to people and trying to see if I can find patterns of people’s stories that can lead to insights,” Marks said. “Understanding the human experience has always been my passion underneath.”

Marks said he was lucky because he got a chance to experience life without football when he redshirted for a year at Washington State after his sophomore season.

“I was one-track minded, but that year off allowed me to realize who I was outside of the game, which I found out I had very little knowledge of,” Marks said.

Marks said he was lucky in that he had other outlets to express himself, like writing, but he said leaving the game isn’t easy for anyone.

“As I left the NFL, I found myself in that very interesting position of leaving that bubble,” Marks said. “Us athletes are very self-confident people, and in that bubble we get an overinflated sense of hubris, that we can do anything, and that any challenge we will be able to handle. But when we come out of sports and we come back to the real world, we find that our skills don’t often translate — the anti-social behaviors that we have been lauded for that we suddenly can’t do those — and we are forced to blend in.

“Guys are coming out (of football) and not having a lot of direction. It leads to identity crisis, which leads to depression and higher forms of anxiety, which really sends you down a rabbit hole if you don’t have the proper outlet for it. … When you really don’t know who you are outside of the game, that’s a dangerous feeling, and that is something that has to be figured out — because the game, even if you do it really well, ends at 33, right?”

Marks finds hope in the fact that athletes’ mental health issues are getting more attention, thanks in part to some high-profile sports figures leading the push.

“This is starting to take a turn, but as it takes a turn, we need people in positions that can do the work and connect with these guys, which is where I think my work will come in,” Marks said.

It’s a passion that he takes as seriously as he did football.

“I love it and I think it’s only going to get better,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like work and that’s how you know you are doing something that you are supposed to be doing.”

Scott Hanson: shanson@seattletimes.com; .