A Jets Jersey in Patriots Nation
It happened on my first meeting with a new family, during that awkward phase where I try to ask some get-to-know-you questions of a child while a parent fills out intake paperwork. I made a comment on this young boy's hat, a weathered Patriots cap, and his face lit up. “You’re a football fan?” he said. "Do you want to see my jersey collection?” Of course I did.
All across New England, there are countless closets stuffed with Patriots merchandise, from t shirts to sweatshirts to jerseys. And for this young boy, it was especially true. A Rob Gronkowski jersey? Check. A Julian Edelman t shirt? Check. What about Tom Brady? Two of them.
But, right in the middle of the red, white, and Patriots blue, there was something I never expected to see: a jersey for the Pats’ biggest rival, the New York Jets. So I had to ask, why that one? And the answer was simple and immediate: “It’s Brandon Marshall’s, because he’s just like me."
Now star wide receiver Brandon Marshall is 6’4”, 224 pounds, and is set to make just under $10 million this year playing for the Jets. This 10-year-old is… not. I was scrambling to think about some way, any way, that this boy could relate to Marshall, but I couldn't. And he must’ve seen my face, because he explained before I had a chance to ask. “He has a mental health diagnosis, just like I do.”
Marshall has been very outspoken about his struggle with his own mental health, and has been a staunch advocate for an often-overlooked segment of the population. He's worn special green cleats on the field to promote mental health awareness month, even after the NFL threatened to (and did) fine him for doing so. And this ten-year-old kid wanted nothing more than to tell me all about it.
And that really stuck with me. When I was his age, with my own scant collection of sports memorabilia, it wasn't hard for me to see myself reflected in my heroes. It wasn't hard for me to find role models, to imagine myself in their place. It wasn't hard to find people like me doing the things I wanted to do. So it's easy to forget that not everyone gets that same representation. And it's important, especially for children.
For those struggling with mental health, there aren't a ton of reflections out there, let alone positive ones. Our news and media repeat and reinforce the message that mental health issues aren't just abnormal, they're scary and dangerous. For kids, especially those coping with their own mental health issues, it's tough to come away feeling that mental health is anything but terrifying. After all, even Batman's villains are sent away to Arkham Asylum, a "home for the insane."
It shouldn't be surprising that Brandon Marshall's story resonated so strongly with this boy. Marshall's not a perfect person, but he's real. He's fighting the same battle as this child, and he isn't painted like some Batman villain. And that kind of representation, that kind of role model, transcends the superficial things like regional sports boundaries.
Ever since that meeting when I first saw that jersey, I've been looking for more positive reflections of those living with a mental illness. It's important to me to have an answer when my clients say that they feel alone, or that it feels like no one else struggles the way they do. And it's important for the children I work with to know that there's a future for them, a real one, even if it's hard to see at that moment.
The representation matters. The visibility matters. The jersey in the closet matters. And now, I can’t help but see Brandon Marshall the way this boy does: somebody he can look up to, somebody with a future, somebody inspiring, somebody real.
Somebody just like him.