Leistikow: How Iowa guard Sean Welsh has used his personal battle with depression to lift up others
IOWA CITY, Ia. — When he lines up at right guard on Iowa’s first snap of Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl, Sean Welsh will make his 48th and final career start in a college football game.
Last year, he was named a second-team all-American by USA TODAY.
Last month, he was voted a first-team all-Big Ten Conference lineman.
A few months from now, there’s a good chance he’ll be drafted to an NFL roster.
Yet none of those athletic accomplishments — rare durability, prominent recognition and perhaps professional riches — could compare to the impact he’s had in the past five months since going public about his battles with depression.
“People will reach out to you from wherever,” Welsh says. “It’s definitely been a really cool thing for me. It’s something I never anticipated.”
He’ll get contacted via social media. He’s received hand-written letters. The support comes in from all over the country.
He says he tries to make time to write them all back.
Parents tell him about their kids finding inspiration in the story he’s told, about the journey and disease he’s faced — and continues to face.
“They talk about how the story fit into their life,” Welsh says, “and it’s something special for me. It’s making an impact.”
In July, just before he was set to be one of Iowa’s three player representatives at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Welsh distributed a heartfelt letter detailing his depression and read it aloud in front of Iowa media.
He told of times when he didn’t leave his room for three days.
“The bottom line is that I didn’t care about anything at all,” he wrote. “Then it got worse.”
Welsh left the team after his redshirt freshman season, after which he saw a therapist in his native Ohio and was diagnosed with depression. With help from lots of people, including longtime Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, Welsh eventually rejoined the team.
As he reflects on his fifth-year senior season, in which he’s started all 12 games and been by far Iowa’s most valuable lineman, Welsh is moved by the number of lives he’s been able to touch.
Yet, even as he offers encouragement to others, he knows his own depression never really goes away. It’s always lurking, ready to take him down.
The Hawkeyes’ 7-5 season, as you might imagine, was for Welsh filled with high moments (like a 55-24 win over Ohio State) and lows (like one-possession losses to Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern).
“It’s a day-by-day thing. And that’s why it’s so unique,” Welsh says. “You can have a really great week. And then certainly with the year being the way it was with the ups and downs, it’s hard to keep it level. You have good days, and you have bad days.”
Rather than ask him about his worst days, I asked him about his best day.
“Ohio State,” he says with a grin and without hesitation. “That was probably the best day.”
A widely cited Drexel University study released in 2016 found that 24 percent of Division I college athletes reported “clinically relevant” depressive symptoms, with 6 percent having moderate to severe symptoms.
This isn’t an isolated thing.
The main reason Welsh decided to publicly profess his struggles was so he could help others.
Now as his college career winds down, he hopes he has.
“The more that you’re open about it, the more it kind of takes the teeth away from it,” Welsh says. “There’s way less of a stigma than there used to be, but it’s still lingering. The more people that can talk about it, the better.”
In his July letter, he urged anyone who thinks they — or a loved one — might be suffering from depression to seek professional help.
“If you know of someone struggling with depression,” he wrote, “be understanding and caring. You will make a world of difference.”
A 6-foot-3, 295-pound lineman who's tasked with being a bully on the field has done his best to be a loving person off it.
His parents, Matt and Deb, are surely proud of their son.
“They were really proud. And it’s something that ran in the family. It’s a genetic deal,” Welsh says. “Their parents were part of the Greatest Generation, and they didn’t talk about that stuff too much. It was just really good for the family to pull it out into the open.”
Welsh is thankful of all the support he’s received over the past few years to help him dig out of the darkness.
Along the journey, he's happened to become an all-Big Ten football player, too.
“I’m really grateful,” he says. “It was a lot of hard work. But I had a lot of people in my life that have really helped make it possible.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.