Out of the darkness: finding my why

Opening up to my teammates and building an identity outside of football

Photography ByAnh Le

I think of myself as a loner, a loner who is known because I play football. A lot of people know of me; they know I play football, but none of them know me. They don’t know how often I’m in my head overthinking or that I go to a dark place when something goes wrong. How I immediately get down on myself. That dark place messes with everything.

Being a loner sprouted from my childhood. I grew up in New Orleans in the 9th Ward, and we had to leave because of Katrina. We bounced around from Killeen to Baton Rouge and back to New Orleans. When I was eight, my grandmother died in New Orleans, and we moved to Houston. All I knew was my family and most of them stayed in New Orleans. I didn’t know any outsiders.

I was always the biggest kid, I always stood out, and I always played sports. Being the bigger guy when I was young made me feel people were scared of me. But I’m a gentle person, a real gentle person. Growing up, I never felt comfortable putting myself out there. Friends naturally came to me because of my athletic ability. I always thought, damn, if I wasn’t playing football, would I have as much popularity or as many friends? My entire identity became playing football.

Out of high school, I chose Oklahoma to go play for Coach Lincoln Riley. When I got to Norman as a freshman, I had to redshirt because I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my hip. That hurt. I felt like the only reason people loved me was because I was a football player. And now, I was still a football player in my mind, but I wasn’t playing football. I wasn’t the man anymore, I was riding the bench, and that made me struggle.

The hardest part of football being taken away from me was not getting on the bus to go to the game. The team is in Waco, and I’m in Norman watching on TV by myself. Emphasis on by myself. My friends and family were watching on TV and saying, ‘damn, I thought you were playing.’ I was by myself in that room and in that dark place. I was really down on myself and really depressed.

That’s when I picked up smoking. I needed another outlet to make me feel comfortable and find an easy way to feel good while watching my teammates play football. I called my people back home to teach me how to roll a blunt. I thought, I’m about to be in this room by myself for more than 24 hours. And I want to find that outlet to make me feel good because I’m down about not making that trip. And it all went downhill from there.

After my redshirt season, I made the move from safety to linebacker. So I had a new position coach and was trying to make a good impression and gain the weight to play LB. But on my birthday, my roommate and I got caught smoking in the dorms. It was a recruiting weekend, and our room was across the hall from a recruiting lounge. It was a bad look, and I understand why Lincoln Riley was disappointed in me. He knew my potential and knew I was smarter than that.

When I finally got it together, got the smoking under control, and got my head under control, things started looking good. Things started looking really good. In the first game of 2021 against Tulane, I got some reps. But in crunch time, in the fourth quarter, I made a tackle on the sideline and I broke my wrist. I knew what that meant for me. I was back behind the eight ball.

After the injury, I went back to being a loner and smoking heavy again. I was back in my dark place. I was still making some plays on special teams, but while playing with a cast on my wrist, I knew it was not looking good for me. I didn’t give up on getting reps, but I knew I would never get the chance.

When Lincoln Riley and his staff left for USC, I thought it was time to get a clean start. Brent Venables and the coaches from Clemson took over, and I was told to call Venables, but he wouldn’t answer or return my calls. It was time for me to make a change.

I was thinking of getting into the portal, so I hit up Hasaan Hypolite, who I played against in high school. I was begging him, ‘Please show Coach Mac (UH linebacker coach Archie McDaniel) my film.’ I told him I wanted to come home, I’ve got a baby on the way, and there’s no place I’d rather be. I knew I could come to Houston and help make a difference.

Yeah, I found out I was going to be a dad.

So I hit up Coach Mac, but he wouldn’t text me back because of NCAA rules. Once I got into the portal officially, he hit me up right away. He said he wanted to see me, and I got ecstatic about that. When I met him, he said he liked my film. They talked to my past coaches and knew my character and had no issues. So I came to Houston in January 2022.

I thought I had a good first spring at UH and a great fall camp. But when decision time came, I was still third team. I went to talk to Coach Mac, and he told me that I couldn’t have three good days of practice, then get in my head, then have two bad practices.

He told me I couldn’t be that inconsistent. He couldn’t put me in a game to let me get mad and bust assignments. He said, ‘When you’re locked in, when your head’s straight, you can make 10 tackles a game easily. But when you’re out of it, or you’re thinking about the future or things you can’t control, you’re gonna miss five tackles.’

Coach Mac was right. The physical part of football is easy for me. It comes naturally. But some of the other stuff doesn’t come naturally, like mental strength. Instead of stacking good days on top of each other, I worried about why they weren’t moving me up the ladder. And while I did that, I might let a guy run free for a touchdown.

Mac broke it down for me: if you want to be the guy, you’ve got to be consistent mentally, physically, and emotionally. He preached I had to be the same guy every day. Be the same, consistent guy every day. Otherwise, he said, you’ll stay on the emotional rollercoaster, and that takes you nowhere. That’s the coaching I needed: be the same guy every day.

He also talked about weed with me. How weed is a depressant, and with the feelings I have, it makes me overthink even more. I put myself in this hole that I couldn’t climb out of, and weed made me think about it more. I was creating situations in my head that were not really the situation.

It took me a while to get it together. I was still learning a new position and also learning a new system, and now I was the father to a baby boy. I played a lot in 2022 but didn’t pick it up until the bowl game. That was my best game. It took almost a year at UH to get off that emotional rollercoaster. But once my life became routine, my mind followed.

I give credit to Coach Mac. He changed my whole perspective and helped pull me out of that dark place where I was immediately down on myself if something went wrong.

I have moments where I want to shut down, just like everyone else. But I have to observe that I’m starting to feel down. Mac told me that my body language makes my mood obvious to others when I’m not smiling or talking or laughing. So I made a change and made my life a routine. During camp, I have to walk into the building at 6:30 a.m. I have to get in the cold tub every day. I have to stretch every day. I have to do some type of extra work every day. I have to watch film every day. I have to look over my notes every day. I have to pray every day. I have to call my family every day.

Now, I feel like I’ve made great jumps, and it’s showing on the field and in my personal life.

Opening Up To My Teammates

The night before fall camp started a few weeks ago, Coach McDaniel asked everyone in the linebacker room to get up and introduce themselves, tell what they’re about, and explain their why. I knew I couldn’t hold my emotions in anymore, so I took that opportunity to open up. I wanted to tell people my story, I wanted to tell people I did this and you can do it, too. We just have to fix our mindset, and then we can excel in what we’re doing.

So I decided I’d just give everything to my room and now I’m not a mystery anymore. Now I feel like my teammates will run through a wall for me, and I’ll do the same for them. They know my story and that my why is my boy, and I just want to put my family in a better situation. And now, I feel like my room knows me.

Mac made us have these conversations because he knew it would benefit the unit. He asked us that day, “How can you go to war for somebody if you don’t even know if they have a system? How can you go to war with somebody if you don’t know their why? Why they’re doing this?” I’m glad Coach gave me the opportunity to just open up because it definitely helped.

My teammates now know how to approach me when I’m in my head. When they see I’m in my head, they know that sometimes I feel like I can’t talk to anyone. They come up and tell me they’re on my side, telling me that opening up and talking about my feelings didn’t make me look weak. It made me look strong.

On our first day of practice, I had a tough day. It was the day after I opened up to my teammates, but then I wasn’t getting many opportunities in practice. Others were getting their number called, and I just waited. It wasn’t that Coach Mac didn’t want to play me; it was the situation meant I couldn’t get in at that time. It was out of my control, but I felt down on myself. My teammates Aaron Willis and Treylin Payne saw that and automatically came up to me. Before I opened up, they didn’t know what was going on and wouldn’t know what to do.

This year has been a really strong year for me mentally. I’m not bulletproof mentally because I never will be, but I have a nice shield and a nice framework. I’ll have bad days, but now I have a support system that helps me push through those emotions to get the job done. Opening up made our bond even more solid. Now, I know what the guy next to me is playing for, and he knows what I’m playing for.

I appreciate Coach McDaniel. I’ve never had a coach like him. I’ve told him, ‘When you get your head coaching job, don’t forget about me!’

I didn’t see my boy much during camp, so it’s been hard for me. I find myself looking at videos of him in my phone, and it reinforces why I’m doing this. He’s my why. If I were still in Oklahoma, I’d be a loner still. Being here, being at home, around my family, around this support system, has really excelled me, and I’m on pace to have my best season ever.

I’m just blessed to have this opportunity.


Every Struggle Is Different is our new series focused on mental health issues in UH athletes, coaches, and administrators. Each faces unique challenges due to their public identity, social media, self-discipline, work ethic, expectations at a young age, and shelf life.

If you are a UH student-athlete and want to tell your story via interview, podcast, or first-person narrative, contact GoCoogs for more information.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free, and confidential support for people in distress, prevention, and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. Call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988, or chat online at 988 Lifeline Chat and Text.

Jamal Morris
Jamal Morris
Jamal Morris is a father and a linebacker at the University of Houston.