"I know this won't be received well by everyone. That's ok."
These two sentences, from Landon Donovan's Facebook announcement regarding his return to the LA Galaxy, are the words of someone comfortable with himself, which has not always been the case for one of America's greatest soccer players. From his brash teenage years full of piss and vinegar, to his often criticized mid-career successes and failures, to his post-sabbatical twilight when fans finally saw a more serene person, Donovan's career has been a long quest for comfort and acceptance.
This arc first crystallized when he came back from a four-month sabbatical in 2013. At first, Donovan was vague about his reasons for taking a surprising leave from the sport. Reporters generally wrote it up using words like "physical and mental exhaustion," "tiredness," or "burnout." The phrase "burned out," in particular, was used a lot. But over the year and a half after his return, it became clear something more serious occurred.
"Unfortunately," he told the LA Galaxy website, "in this society and many other societies, we have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and fight through it and it's a little peculiar to me that whole idea, if someone is physically hurt we're okay with letting them take the time to come back, but if someone is in a difficult place mentally, we're not okay with allowing them to take the time that they need to come back."
The following year, during his retirement tour, by which time Donovan was far more often celebrated than criticized, he repeatedly told reporters that he had been depressed prior to and during his sabbatical, and that he has battled depression for years.
Donovan's thoughtfulness on a whole host of complex issues like mental health, fame, and self-doubt has been virtually unparalleled in the American sporting landscape. He has been one of our most reflective sports personalities, and like anyone with self-awareness, his fame has caused him tremendous anguish. Although the criticism faded as time went on, as it so often does with famous athletes, he spent most of his life absorbing the callous venom American fans hurled at him, usually about something regarding his desire, drive, motivation, or personality, which is especially cruel given what we now know about Donovan's troubles.
As someone who suffers from depression, I can promise you it matters a great deal when a professional athlete speaks about it. Donovan didn't convince me that I could be successful with depression because he overcame it. That's obviously oversimplifying. But it mattered in a kind of indirect way. This thing everyone in the American soccer world was talking about was so similar to what kept me down. Other people notice. It's visible. Therefore, it's real.
That realization shook me as I went back and read some of the things people wrote about Donovan. Complex Sports called him one of the 50 most hated athletes, writing, "Donovan has carried Major League Soccer for a decade now, but his failures abroad, his public divorce, and his selfish sabbatical during World Cup qualifying have been spotlighted more than his accomplishments." They were hardly alone in this assessment.
"To some," the New York Times said, "that departure feels like an abandonment, of both the United States team and the Los Angeles Galaxy, Donovan's Major League Soccer club, which has begun its season without him."
Former U.S. Soccer player Alexi Lalas told the paper, "His teammates there can still be his friend — they know him so well. But from a soccer perspective, they can also say he let us down. There's no question it does creep into the way you view him." He went on to say, regarding Donovan's unique capacity of introspection, "There is an element, when it comes to Landon, where you just want to slap him in the face and say, hey, snap out of it."
It hurt me to read those words, because I have so often wanted to slap myself in the face and say, "Hey, snap out of it," too, hoping depression is something you can snap out of by sheer will of force or rousing speech, because that would be so much easier. But it also made me fiercely proud that Donovan was willing to wear it publicly, and tell the world, This is who I am, this is what I've gone through, and I am OK with that.
Unlike his sabbatical, when Donovan largely disappeared from public view, he stayed involved with the sport post-retirement, joining Fox broadcasts for MLS and Copa America matches and weighing in on the U.S. national team issues of the day. "I can be myself around people," Donovan told LAGalaxy.com in March. "I can just enjoy and appreciate the fans that have been supporting me for so long whereas, in the past, I was more hesitant to go out in public and come out of my shell a little bit."
This was another indication Donovan was in a more comfortable mental state. His return to the field is an extension of that.
Donovan is unlikely to hear anything but praise and cheers upon his just-announced comeback. He is a legend now, and deservedly so, which is why nearly every fan and journalist concedes that he has earned the right to "go out on his terms," as so many have said.
It's not so much his on-field accomplishments that convince me he has earned that right, but rather it's everything else. We routinely watch athletes snap a bone or tear a ligament, rehabilitate, and return to play, a straightforward process with institutional support and a medical industry serving as guides. Rarely does one have the candor to share their mental state, explaining their trials in navigating a very different kind of health issue, one with no playbook or guide to health or even a guarantee of recovery at all, all in a sports culture that seems specifically designed to be unsympathetic. But Donovan forged his way regardless. Only he knows how difficult it was, but it couldn't have been easy.
The fact that Donovan can say that coming back is what he wants to do, that this is what is best, and he doesn't care what we think is a remarkable achievement, particularly because he's accepting a peripheral role with "minimal" expectations. It's also a state of being that's so hard for so many people with depression to achieve. The right to be happy, the right to be himself, is what Donovan has earned more than anything else. Not going out on his own terms but going on in his own way.
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