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How Chicago football players’ mental health journeys led them to focus on wellness for Black communities

It’s been almost nine years since the life-changing event that forced Dwight White, then a defensive back on Northwestern University’s football team, to change his trajectory. White took a hit during practice that caused abdominal pain, which led to the revelation that he was born with one kidney, a condition called renal agenesis.

Medical professionals, sports staff and his parents advised White against playing football, but he made the decision to continue to play — until three weeks later, when he was hit in that same spot and had internal bleeding due to a renal contusion. Having never been hit there before, to now take two hits in such a short period of time made White decide in his junior year to walk away from the sport to which he’d dedicated his entire life.

“He said: ‘I can’t do this to my mom. I can’t have her worry at every game,’” White’s mother, LaWanda, said in 2014. “That touched me.”

Giving up football was traumatizing, White said.

“It was tough for a while because I truly did feel lost … especially for a young Black man with golden aspirations of playing at the next level, which would have been professionally eventually,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly who I was or who I could be at that point.”

White would go on to explore life outside the sports bubble with the financial support of the college. He got more involved with the Black population on campus to understand its needs. He spent time trying to intersect his old and new lives.

“I always had an academic/mentor/counselor through athletics, but (university staff) tried to point me in the direction of mental health counseling, actual therapy,” White said. “I remember very clearly, me rejecting it. I was like, ‘This is not going to do anything for me.’ I grew up with tough love, like a lot of us do. I did things and overcame things alone … and I was comfortable with that, personally, until I realized I wasn’t. So when I first got into therapy, it was a couple of sessions in and I slowly trickled out.”

That’s when he discovered art as a healing tool.

“Sitting down with myself …. thinking what can bring me joy in the future as I continue my studies and graduate, I would hang out alone with my thoughts and that’s how I began to communicate, was through art,” he said. “While I was quiet, the creative process started flowing: ‘Y’all come look at this. This is what I have to say.’”

Since White left Northwestern in 2016, he’s been saying a lot through art centered on the Black experience, melding oil paints and acrylics, sociology and experiential design into socially-driven work. White’s colorful murals can be seen around Chicagoland. One is on West Ida B. Wells Parkway between Plymouth Court and Dearborn Street in the Printers Row area. And his creativity has been utilized by brands such as Nike, Levi’s and Pinterest.

The Houston native also spends his time curating art into experiences like Something I Can Feel, an annual event for the Black community that features fine art, street art, music, fashion, design and the artists behind the pieces. The celebration of Blackness launches on Juneteenth, June 19, with a floral design workshop with Planks and Pistils, a Chicago-based floral studio that uses art to highlight Black stories, and a hat customization workshop with artist Samantha Turner.

The Something I Can Feel event has over two dozen free wellness programs that focus on healing through yoga, mental health talks and live music. White said he tries to make Something I Can Feel a holistic experience that uplifts and empowers by focusing on social connectivity and the Black experience.

“A lot of times going to experiences and being in community and just showing up sometimes is good loving on yourself,” he said.

White is a proponent for mental health at a time when Cook County is seeing an increase in reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in historically marginalized communities, according to recent data from Mental Health America of Illinois. White says getting mental health help from someone who looks like you and who shares your experience can make all the difference, and that’s a need that Something I Can Feel fills.

“One thing that has been special about the collective of creatives that I’ve been able to work with is a lot of us, including myself, are open to talking about our mental health journeys because it’s so prominent in our daily practice as artists, entrepreneurs, as Black people,” White said. “We’ve been there and we all have that mindset of struggle. My struggle in athletics eventually led to my struggle in corporate America, which eventually transitioned to my struggle as a full-time artist and that’s the story I want to share.”

Former Chicago Bears defensive back Ryan Mundy shared his mental health story at a collaborative event May 24 between the NFL team and SocialWorks, Chance the Rapper’s youth empowerment nonprofit. The nonprofit conducted a week of programming on how wellness can be incorporated into daily lives. Mundy is founder of the mental health mobile app Alkeme Health, which offers courses, meditations and even live experiences on the platform.

Like White, Mundy experienced a period of transition. When he retired after 24 years as an athlete, he had to figure out life without sports.

“I definitely couldn’t picture anything beyond football. A little over 30 and still a lot of life to live but I don’t know how to live it or how to navigate it,” he said. “Also going inside my family, there were a lot of things on the chronic health side of things. I was in networks and relationships to understand business, entrepreneurship. And then I started to put two and two together about what I was going through, what my family was going through and having a desire to fill a massive void in the marketplace, I started Alkeme.”

Mundy took the reins of his mental health — “smiling on the outside, but struggling on the inside” he once said on the “Today” show — and created an avenue of help for the Black community. His app launched in 2022. The core demographic is Black millennials, but Mundy said the goal is to serve kids and adults.

“Maintaining our focus on Black mental health, a lot of people identify with that and find themselves in some of the products and content that we put onto the world,” he said. “We take licensed clinical professionals and build video courses with them to break down complex topics such as generational trauma, being Black in the workplace, etc. Starting in 2024, we will start to deliver and connect people with one-on-one therapy on our platform.”

Knowing money, fame and fortune don’t translate to peace, joy and fulfillment, Mundy and White are paying mental health forward.

“It felt part of my responsibility to show us what it looks like to celebrate Blackness through art and creativity and to be showing ourselves love,” White said. “I was reborn here (in Chicago). I know and recognize what it did for me, so I try and return that which was poured into me.”

Dwight White works on a drawing at his studio in Chicago on May 31, 2023. White went from starring as a college athlete to becoming a creative mental health advocate and activist. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Dwight White works on a drawing at his studio in Chicago on May 31, 2023. White went from starring as a college athlete to becoming a creative mental health advocate and activist. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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