Leistikow: Why Patrick McCaffery made his 'brave' decision and when he'll be back
IOWA CITY − There’s a basketball game here Thursday night, and it has importance. But 90% of the media conversation Wednesday before Iowa’s practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was about the status of a player who won’t be playing against Indiana.
Junior forward Patrick McCaffery is dealing with anxiety. He has been since high school. And with the symptoms getting to the point where he lacks energy for games, he decided to step away with an indefinite leave from competition.
That announcement came late-afternoon Tuesday. By that evening, widespread local and national support was overflowing on social media surrounding McCaffery’s decision and his willingness to be open about it.
“The outpouring of support has been tremendous from a variety of different people,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, Patrick’s father. “People we know, people we don't know, many of whom are experiencing the same things and going through the same struggles.”
After a family discussion, Patrick concluded it would be more important to be transparent about why he was walking away from the game he loves, at least temporarily. This is not planned to be a long-term thing, his father said. And Patrick will be at practices and on the bench Thursday. He just won't participate.
Fran McCaffery shared that his son was affected by the story of Tyrell Terry. He and Patrick were AAU teammates and close friends, and Iowa tried to recruit Terry. He played one year at Stanford and was an NBA draft pick the following year. In December, Terry retired from the NBA due to crippling anxiety. Terry wrote about “intrusive thoughts, waking up nauseous, and finding myself struggling to take normal breaths.”
Patrick has not gone into great detail publicly about his symptoms, but his statement did outline a lack of sleep, appetite and energy. Patrick’s mother, Margaret, spoke to a group of reporters Wednesday and detailed a moment during the Dec. 21 loss to Eastern Illinois in which she saw her son nearly vomit while on the free-throw line.
Patrick hustled to the locker room, got sick and returned to the game. McCaffery’s energy level continued to wane, as you might imagine with limited sleep and food. The last three games, all losses, have been a struggle for him; he shot 5-for-30 from the floor in those contests.
“By the time he gets to game time, he feels like he’s already run a marathon,” Margaret said. “And his body just has nothing.”
Patrick has always been a people-pleaser. Or tried to be. And he didn’t want to disappoint his Hawkeye teammates.
“It was our job to give him permission to not have to do that,” Margaret said. “To feel OK that he wasn’t letting anyone down, that we love him and we don’t care if he never touches another basketball. I don’t think that’ll be the case, but that’s not why we love Patrick.”
Connor McCaffery, Patrick’s older brother and a sixth-year senior for the Hawkeyes, will take Patrick’s spot in the starting lineup for Thursday’s game against Indiana (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Connor correctly stated that the top priority is to be there for his brother, and he encouraged Patrick to be transparent publicly.
“If you’re open and honest about things, you might feel better yourself because you don’t feel like you’re holding things in,” Connor said. “And also, the outreach and support could help.
“It was mature of him to say something so brave. I’m proud of him, for sure.”
Mom admitted that this season has been hard on the McCaffery family. After winning 26 games and a Big Ten Tournament championship a year ago, the Hawkeyes are off to an 8-6 start, 0-3 in Big Ten play.
Those records don’t seem to matter as much this week, especially after the Monday night NFL game that saw Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffer cardiac arrest on the field. The games do matter, yes. But we've been reminded that they are not the most important thing.
Patrick getting the help he needs is the priority. And he can do that in Iowa City. He has been blown away by the amount of support he’s received.
“I think he’s a little bit overwhelmed by it, because of the state he went into this in,” Margaret said. “He’s already sort of drained. He really appreciates it, and he knows it comes from a good place.”
Iowa plans to give Indiana a fight on Thursday. Kris Murray said he’s been spending a lot of time in the trainer’s room and is ready to play 40 minutes again (as he did while scoring 32 points Sunday at Penn State). Filip Rebraca said everyone will have to step up with Patrick McCaffery out. Fran McCaffery noted that sophomore Payton Sandfort has a big opportunity to fill the 6-foot-9 Patrick’s role of scoring, rebounding and running the floor.
When might Patrick return?
The key, according to his mother, is getting him to a point where he can handle the day-before-game and gameday routines without being drained. Patrick is good during the day, but the morning and nights are trouble spots. If someone with anxiety is reading this, perhaps you can relate.
“When I feel like I'm better and I'm feeling better about myself, I'm feeling better physically and I can help our team, then I'm going to come back,” is what Fran McCaffery said Patrick’s mindset will be. “He also was very adamant, I'm not walking away from the game. I love the game; I'm good at it. But right now, I'm not where I need to be.
“I think that took an incredible level of maturity to be able to stand up and say that.”
Amen to that.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.