Clemson’s Jay Guillermo talks openly with others about his journey through mental illness
By DEAN LOLLIS
That’s a description many throw around when talking about Clemson’s 2015 football season.
And, who wouldn’t? Clemson fans had plenty to celebrate as the Tigers finished the season ranked No. 2 in the AP and Coaches polls.
En route to a 14-1 record, Clemson won the ACC Championship, defeated Oklahoma in the first round of the College Football Playoff and narrowly lost to Alabama in the National Championship game.
It was definitely a good time to be wearing orange and white. Yet, that celebration was a little sweeter for one Clemson football player.
Seven months prior to the start of that season, center Jay Guillermo talked with his coaches about what he was experiencing. And, he left the football team to return home.
“I was dealing with depression for a while,” Guillermo said. “I left, went home and really did some soul searching.”
Walking away from football, with the possibility that he might not return, had been a difficult decision for Guillermo who had dreamed of being a Tiger for as long as he could remember.
With the impression that he made in high school football, Guillermo’s dreams of playing in orange and white became a reality. ESPN rated him as the No. 89 player in the nation and the No. 1 center. Given the opportunity to play for his favorite team, Guillermo became the first player to officially commit to Clemson’s 2012 recruiting class.
After redshirting in 2012, he saw his first chances at playing time in 2013. In 2013 and 2014, he was the primary backup to starting center Ryan Norton.
Despite those dreams and expectations, Guillermo began a journey on Oct. 4, 2014 that led him to walk away seven months prior to the start of the 2015 season.
On that day, things changed for Guillermo in the second quarter of Clemson’s win over NC State. He broke his right foot and he would be sidelined for the next five games.
He would come back and play again that season. However, the injury and what followed sent Guillermo spiraling into depression. With the injury, he found himself separated from the sport he loved and it started to affect many other areas of his life.
His battle with depression led him to keep things from those who were closest to him. Guillermo says that he had started to hide what he was going through from those he talked to the most — his mother, his grandfather, his friends and teammates.
As he experienced his depression, Guillermo found himself “self medicating.” While he was injured, Guillermo says that he did not have many options on things that he could do and so he would drink three or four times a week “because I could.”
“I was not, in any sense of the imagination an alcoholic, but I definitely abused,” he says. “It took me to a different place from where I was.
It also started to take a physical toil. When the 2014 season began Guillermo was listed as 6’3” tall and 315 pounds. Following the injury, however, his weight jumped from 315 to 365 pounds.
What he was experiencing led him to talk his coaches about leaving football and going back home to spend some time with his family and heal. The coaching staff was supportive and, in February 2015, he went back home to do his “soul searching.”
“I just really wanted to get back to my normal self,” he says. “I just wasn’t very happy with where I was in any aspect of life.”
While it was a tough decision to walk away, he holds it in perspective with the bigger picture.
“I didn’t know if I was coming back to football,” Guillermo says. “If anything, I just wanted to make myself healthy again.”
In an interview with ESPN, Guillermo described the extent of illness that he was experiencing when he walked away. Aside from the illness and depression, he said his blood pressure was high and he had thyroid issues.
Going home gave him a chance to spend time with his family and to get help from doctors, counselors and specialists.
In his recovery, Guillermo was working out six times a week to try to get back into shape. He also worked to cut down trees with his grandfather, a former football coach.
His healing process was more than just working through the mental and physical aspects of depression. He also had to address his spiritual health.
God, faith and church had always been a part of his life. His stepfather is the music minister of his home church and his mother assists in the music ministry. Many of the tattoos on his arm are related to his favorite passages of Scripture. For him, that foundation had always been there.
Yet, as he was wrestling with depression, Guillermo found himself pulling away from his faith connections and God.
“I grew up in a faith-based home and I had really gotten away from it,” he said. “I started to question, ‘Why me, what do I do to deserve feeling like this?’ I didn’t know what to believe.”
Guillermo admits that he had been “very hesitant” to get back to his faith when he returned home from Clemson. But, then he had a breakthrough.
“I really saw the light one day and I just really thought I had hit rock bottom and I wanted to put myself on a different path than I was going,” Guillermo says. “My faith really helped me out a lot with that.”
As he was working to become health mentally, physically and spiritually, his teammates and coaches, including Offensive Line Coach Robbie Caldwell, were encouraging him from a distance to keep working.
“They knew that a big thing for me was getting away from it all and not feeling any pressure of when I was coming back,” Guillermo explains, adding, “There was really no talk of football or when he was coming back.”
As his healing progressed, Guillermo found himself missing football, the coaches and his teammates. The return to the field that seemed so unlikely when he left became more and more of a possibility.
At the end of spring football practice, Guillermo made a decision that he wanted to return to play. He called Coach Dabo Swinney and told him that he made his mind up and wanted to come back. The coaching staff worked with him to make it happen and he was back with the team at the beginning of the second session of summer school in 2015.
After a four-month absence from the team, Guillermo admits to being “really nervous” about returning. He found himself asking such questions such as, “Are these workouts going to be awful?” or “How am I going to be received by my teammates?”
One of his first anxious moments came in stepping back on the scale with the trainers. His first sign of hope came when he realized that the workouts had paid off and he had dropped 30 pounds. And, things took off from there.
“The first day went well considering I had not been in the conditioning program,” he says. “The first day gave me hope to keep going. Everyday was a step closer.”
His experience with depression and his working to heal changed his perspective and approach to football. In the past, he knew he was going to be the backup center and he prepared for the games as if he would be a backup.
“I changed my mindset to knowing I was ‘this close’ to getting playing time,” he said. In the past, he viewed football practice as something “he had to do.” Now, he says, he saw football as something “he gets to do.”
That would be key in the Tigers’ 2015 season. Starting center Ryan Norton entered 2015 as the only returning starter on Clemson’s offensive line. But a series of injuries — two knee injuries and a concussion — sideline Norton for much of the season.
The new attitude and the new approach allowed Guillermo to step in to the role of starting center during Clemson’s run to the National Championship game.
“ All of that preparing helped and the special season made it more sweet knowing that we came such a long way,” he says.
As Guillermo was getting a chance to play on the field, something was happening for him off the field. He made a key decision in his return to football that would give him an opportunity to help others.
He knew that he was going to be asked about his decision to leave, the reason he left and his return. So, he decided he would not stay silent about what he experienced.
“I’ve normally been a pretty open person,” Guillermo says, adding, “I’m not one of those people that will shy away from a question — I’ll hit them head on.”
That honesty and willingness to talk opened the door for his teammates to talk to him about what they were experiencing.
“During the season, some guys came up and asked me how I had dealt with it,” he says. “I became an ‘open ear’ for anyone who wanted to talk.
“I don’t want to see anyone go through what I went through. So, if I can help them get on the right path again, then that’s enough.”
Clemson’s success during the season and the attention surrounding the National Championship Game opened the door for Guillermo to share his story on a larger stage. He was asked about his story by many media outlets, including ESPN, and that opened the door for others to seek help.
The impact was bigger than he could’ve imagined. The psychiatrists and counselors who had helped Guillermo were now getting calls from others who saw or heard Guillermo’s story and needed help of their own.
“They had more calls in 12 hours than they’d ever had,” Guillermo says.
As he reflects on it, Guillermo says that he hopes his story will become inspirational to others who need or are seeking help.
“I didn’t start talking to get a bunch of articles written about me — I just did what I thought was right,” Guillermo says. “I feel fortunate it has helped as many people as it has.”
Another reason that Guillermo has talked openly about depression is that he understands the reluctance athletes can having in being open about mental illness. He knows it because he experienced it.
“I was a big tough guy football player and nothing is ever wrong and I don’t talk about things,” he says.
“Guys are prideful and say nothing’s wrong and they want to be ‘man tough,’ but you have to put your pride to the side and say there’s something’s wrong and I need get help with it,” he says.
Mental illness, including depression, he says, is something that needs to be addressed.
“No matter how prideful you are, no matter how mentally though you are, these things are going to wear you down,” Guillermo says. “Depression is going to eat away at you and it’s something you can try to stop, but you’re not going to.”
As he has talked about it, Guillermo has had the opportunity to let others have a glimpse into what his depression was like.
“I’m the guy that talks about my feelings,” he says. “I’m more open. My being open with them has helped them to understand more.”
Following the injury, Guillermo started to feel isolated as he experienced depression. Now, however, he sees that he has a vast support network.
“I always knew it was there,” he says,” but I never really wanted to use it. I always knew I had a great support network with my family teammates, Coach Swinney and the other coaches.”
Today, Guillermo is look for what comes next as he works this summer and prepares for the 2016 season. He says he is concentrating on “fine-tuning” many areas of his life.
“I’m doing well mentally, spiritually and physically,” he says. “Im making sure that I give myself the best chance to do as good as a I can this upcoming season.”
For a team that finished less than a touchdown away from a national championship, this season is bringing high expectations from fans and media outlets. Guillermo is taking that pressure in stride.
“We know what we can do and we just have to go do it,” he says. “We know we are a good football team.”
Through his work with mental health professionals, he has found a way to manage his depression.
“I know now how to get through these things on my own,” he says. “They helped me to learn ways to get through it and healthy ways to cope. Everyone that I’ve dealt with and worked with did such a good job.”
He is reminded of something he has learned from Coach Swinney who says, “Your attitude determines your altitude.”
“Going from having it all to wanting to throw it all away, I’ve gotten so much more of an appreciation of it,” Guillermo says. “Having more appreciation for football, for my health and for life in general has made me a happier person.”