The only light in Josh Woods’ bedroom streamed from his phone as he clicked from Instagram to Twitter to the UCLA football GroupMe.
Everything he saw reminded him it was Saturday. Game day. And he wasn’t on the field.
The then-senior linebacker stared at the brace that had been locked around his knee for months, restricting him from doing what he loved.
“Days are dark,” Woods said. “You’re just in that dark room, you can’t walk. … You’re just seeing on your phone that your teammates are on the road and you’re in the apartment by yourself and you have no friends. Nobody to talk to.”
After Woods hurt his knee during the Bruins’ 2018 preseason training, he said he thought about calling it quits, becoming a graduate assistant coach and never looking back.
But instead, Woods decided to push through. He promised himself to fight the battle in his head just as much as the one on the field.
“Mental (fitness) is just as important as physical because if you’re not there mentally, you might as well not be out there,” Woods said.
One of the mental adjustments Woods focused on was appreciating everything he had. He may have had a bad knee, but that was physical, temporary. He had seen people go through much worse.
Six months before Woods got injured, one of his close friends and high school teammates, Tyler Hilinski, had died by suicide. Known as the “Comeback Kid” during his years as a Washington State quarterback, Hilinski showed no signs of depression or anxiety, according to his friends and family.
But on Jan. 16, 2018, he played in 7 a.m. practice, went home and never showed up for lifting that afternoon.
“Knowing the type of person (Hilinski) was, and how goofy and funny and what a great leader he was, for that to happen really hit home with me,” Woods said. “With my injuries, I just don’t take any of this for granted anymore. I appreciate every single thing – being able to walk, being at weights, waking up this morning.”
Tyler Hilinski’s parents, Mark and Kym Hilinski, started a foundation called Hilinski’s Hope to honor the memory of their son and spread awareness of mental illness in football by working with NCAA football programs.
As the parents of three collegiate quarterbacks, Mark and Kym Hilinski saw how efficiently physical injuries were diagnosed and treated and conversely, how little attention was given to mental health.
“No one’s ever died because they have an ACL tear,” Mark Hilinski said. “We’re losing kids to mental illness that goes undiagnosed and untreated.”
Before Tyler Hilinski died, not one player, coach or trainer noticed a change in the quarterback’s normally goofy attitude, Mark Hilinski said.
So the family’s foundation now works to teach athletes and coaching staff how to recognize the signs of mental illness and treat them.
“If we couldn’t help Tyler (Hilinski), and he couldn’t help himself, and nobody noticed any changes (in his behavior), we were going to use Hilinski’s Hope to educate the staff and the students and the trainers as to how to help each other,” Mark Hilinski said.
For Woods, it was the trusting relationships with his teammates and coaches that helped him work through his mental battle.
He said having a support system that listened to his internal debate and understood how serious his obstacles were helped him make his return to the field.
“The linebackers, the coaches, the weight room staff, my family, close friends – everybody listened to me,” Woods said. “They knew how strong I was so they knew I could overcome it.”
Recently, the conversation about mental health in the NFL has become more prominent, with players such as 49ers wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas as well as Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen taking time off from the 2018 season to focus on their mental health.
The NFL and its players union responded in May, announcing a requirement for every team to hire a behavioral health clinician who is on site at least eight hours a week to coordinate the players’ mental health care.
Even with growing awareness of mental health, Mark Hilinski said the No. 1 priority is still to end the stigma – especially for athletes, who are expected to be “tough” and push through mental challenges without complaint.
“Athletes are regular people just like everybody else – we all have our problems,” Woods said. “They’re guys in the NFL at the top of their game. That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems and things going on off the field and mentally every day.”
Mark and Kym Hilinski are working to create a push from within the NCAA to prioritize the mental and emotional side of football, and Woods is on their team.
When Hilinski’s Hope sent representatives to talk with UCLA football in July to help spread its message, Mark Hilinski said he saw how dedicated the UCLA football staff has been in helping Woods and his teammates talk openly about mental health.
“(Woods) has gone through an incredible journey himself with physical injuries and he’s taken time to look around and be bigger than himself and be supportive vocally,” Mark Hilinski said. “It’s a testament to the entire team that they’re able to talk about these things and help each other while they’re still competing at the pinnacle of collegiate athletics.”
Ultimately, it was the understanding environment on his team that helped Woods through his mental struggles.
And now, Woods is back.
“We could have really used him last year,” said senior linebacker Lokeni Toailoa.”But it’s just good seeing him running around again without the yellow jersey, out here getting to hit people again.”
Woods has spent five years in Westwood, but will he leave behind a four-year legacy on the field.
What the redshirt senior learned in that other year – the one spent in a dark, empty apartment – will live on with his team.
“I want to leave a mark on my program with the way I go about my business and handle everything, as well as being a support guy for guys mentally,” Woods said. “Being somebody that everybody on the team, even the staff, can come talk to about certain situations when they need support. I’m gonna have their back.”