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NFL, teams offer support for players in crisis

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NFL, teams offer support for players in crisis

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Brady Quinn can't help but wonder whether he missed something in the final days of Jovan Belcher's life.

Could the Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback have listened better to his teammate? Could he have noticed a change in the linebacker's temperament? Did Belcher utter something under his breath that may have let on that he was capable of killing his girlfriend and himself?

``When you ask someone how they're doing, do you really mean it?'' Quinn wondered. ``When you answer back, are you really telling the truth?''

The murder-suicide last Saturday raised similar questions among players and coaches across the NFL. In an era in which physical safety is of paramount importance, it's become clear that ensuring the emotional well-being of the men who play the game is just as essential.

``The relationships you have with people face-to-face, on a daily basis, kind of get brushed aside for everything else that's out there,'' Quinn said. ``A lot of times people hide their issues, their problems. They don't talk to anyone until it's too late.''

This past July, the NFL established an emergency hotline that operates 24 hours a day and connects players, staff and family members in crisis with mental-health professionals who are not affiliated with the league or its teams. The group, which provides a similar service to the Veteran's Administration, is required to keep its conversations confidential unless the individual calling indicates they may harm themselves or others.

Robert Gulliver, the NFL's chief human resources officer, said ``absolutely, players and staff are taking advantage of the opportunity'' provided by the hotline.

Gulliver couldn't say whether Belcher had called, citing its confidentiality policy, and could not provide any data that indicates how much it is being used. But Gulliver did say that what happened to Belcher may cause the NFL to consider more offerings in the future.

``Mental health continues to be, in general society, an area that often has a stigma attached to it,'' Gulliver said. ``We're trying to change that culture and break down that stigma and show people that mental is part of total health.''

That stigma is pervasive in the NFL, where a macho culture has been long ingrained.

In numerous interviews with current and former players, The Associated Press found many who said they would refuse to seek support for various reasons. Maybe their issues would get back to their coaches and affect their playing time or their contracts. Maybe their teammates would view them differently.

Several players indicated that the same attitude that carried them to the NFL - that in some ways they are indestructible - makes it difficult for them to reconcile needing outside help.

``In all my years playing football, I've never really seen a guy come out and say he needed help with this or he was having issues with this,'' said Rams offensive tackle Wayne Hunter, who's in his ninth year in the league. ``Guys, including myself, generally keep our personal issues to ourselves.''

Hunter said that when he was with the Jets, he took advantage of a team psychologist who provided support. Otherwise, he leaned on teammates.

``It was nice to have another set of ears other than the team psychologist,'' Hunter said. ``The psychologist analyzes and sometimes over analyzes - I'm talking generally speaking - and they give you what they think is a right answer. But going to a friend gives you another perspective, gives you his side and a more personal side.''

Then there's the tight-rope between offering help and prying into personal lives.

``A football locker room is a microcosm of the rest of society,'' said Rams defensive lineman Chris Long. ``When do you come up and help somebody out and when do you feel like you're intruding?''

Browns coach Pat Shurmur and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett both reminded players this week to seek help, whether their problems are with drugs and alcohol, their professional life or things happening at home.

``You have to make clear that there is no judgment involved,'' Garrett said. ``We're not judging you. We're helping you. We're here to help.''

The NFL has numerous programs to help players and personnel deal with everything from personal and family relationships to the proper use of firearms. They begin even before athletes play a single down in the NFL with symposiums at most college all-star games, and continue with the NFL scouting combine and a three-day rookie boot camp that is required of any player selected in the draft.

The NFL's security team often works with local and state law enforcement to address issues and questions that players have with guns. The league also has a mandatory life skills program for all players and coaches, along with a 12-week Rookie Success Program that first-year players must complete.

``The resources the league and the teams offer are always good,'' Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan Lilja said, ``it's just up to guys to take advantage of it.''

Too often, that doesn't happen.

``Literally, I said I'll get down on my hands and knees and beg you to do this because it's the most important thing there is,'' Garrett said. ``There's no issue that you have in your life that we can't somehow solve in some way and in some way make it better. I just say that from the bottom of my heart, because you never know what guys are going through and you just want to let them know they have a place to turn.''

Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who was close to Belcher, found himself asking in the days after the shootings whether there was something he could have done. Like Quinn, Johnson wondered whether his teammate was giving off signs that something was amiss in his personal life.

Ultimately, Johnson said, the shootings may serve as a wake-up call to people everywhere to put down their cell phones and start having real conversations.

``We need to talk to each other more as men, not as football players,'' he said. ``Generally men don't talk about their feelings. They don't cry. They don't show their emotion. As a teammate, we have to do more.''

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AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich and Schuyler Dixon, and freelance writer Jason Young contributed to this report.

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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How one half of assertive basketball may turn around the Wizards' season

How one half of assertive basketball may turn around the Wizards' season

The fat lady wasn’t warming up to sing an operatic number, not with 66 games left in the regular season. Then the flailing Washington Wizards, coming off consecutive double-digit losses, came out flat yet again. They trailed the Los Angeles Clippers by 19 points at halftime some 36 hours after the general public heard about their private quarrels and following weeks of basketball nightmares. 

As the Clippers scored 40 points in the first quarter and led 73-54 at halftime. she might have at least begun some mental prep for an upcoming performance. Then came the comeback within the comeback. The Wizards rallied for a 125-118 win when all the world was ready to say sayonara. 

Did Washington indeed save its season by outscoring Los Angeles 71-45 in the second half? Answering 'yes' presumes all is right with the gang that has struggled to defend throughout the season and possibly has chemistry issues even a family therapist couldn’t fix with thrice-weekly sessions. 

The day began with coach Scott Brooks and the team’s stars addressing leaks of intense arguments among players and a scolding by All-Star John Wall directed to the head coach. There was no spark initially even with a different starting lineup. 

The first half served as a season-long microcosm. It’s why rumors of breaking up the team seem plausible. 

Over the remaining 24 minutes, the Wizards finally woke up. They flew around the court defensively and passed to the open man. The stars led. The team played like a group wanting to play for each other, willing to do whatever necessary for a win.

John Wall finished with 30 points. Bradley Beal scored 27. Otto Porter grabbed 14 rebounds to go with 11 points. Six players scored in double figures. Everybody ate. 

“That’s how we need to play,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington. “Not going to say everything is fixed because we were still down [24 points], still have a lot of work to do. Got a lot of to change and get better. Our effort was there in the second half. That’s the type of intensity we have to have for the full 48.”

Numerous moments and performances stood out in the second half beyond the main players. Tomas Satoransky’s hustle helped begin the turnaround. Thomas Bryant, who started with Dwight Howard sidelined, provided interior energy. Jeff Green dropped 20 points. Markieff Morris, coming off the bench for the first time since Feb. 29, 2016, showed more than in recent games.

One play deep in the fourth quarter showed the difference between 16 games of defensive slumber and Tuesday’s resolve. 

The clock ticked under five minutes with Los Angeles leading 109-107. Clippers forward Tobias Harris crushed the Wizards early and finished with 29 points. He had the ball near the left corner when Wall and Beal sprung an aggressive trap as the shot clock wound down. Morris over hustled for support. The late arrival helped. Shot clock violation, Wizards ball. Washington then took the lead with a Morris 3-pointer. They soon pulled away with an 11-2 run. Their main players showed the way.

“We have to,” Beal said to NBC Sports Washington. “When it’s coming from the main guys. John and I have to give more, more and more. That’s something we realize and tell each other that. That’s that only way we’re going to get out of it. We just have to give more.”

The Thanksgiving holiday provides a natural break. Washington resumes game action Friday at Toronto. At 6-11, the Wizards have work to do, but at least they can catch their breath after a surreal span. 

“It’s a whirlwind. It’s a whirlwind,” said Beal, who remained in the game after suffering a cut over his eye following a head-butt collision with Clippers guard Tyrone Wallace. “We embrace it. Everything is a challenge. It’s adversity. We’ve been in this situation before. We’ve been in this situation where everybody thinks we have an issue. I think we did a great job of ignoring it as best we could. Doing what we could to get a win. A  much-needed win at that.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers monitors the Wizards because his son, Austin, serves Beal’s primary backup. More film work came leading into the second meeting between the teams. Los Angeles hammered Washington 136-104 on Oct. 28. Things were only getting worse for the Wizards. Then came the second half.

“They just forgot about the stuff they’re going through and got back to playing basketball,” Doc Rivers said of the Wizards.

“I’ve always thought that’s what you have to do. Every guy out there on both teams, they played basketball all their lives. Then you get all the, what I call ‘stuff.’ The clutter starts affecting your game. Tonight you could see the clutter was killing them early. Then when they saw they had a chance to win, they started playing basketball again.”

Assume nothing but sunshine and swishes going forward if you must. Ideally, the Wizards do not. They have work remaining. In the second half against the Clippers, Wall, Beal, and crew rose up. In doing so, the fat lady took a seat.

We’ll see for how long.

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Markieff Morris unhappy with leaks coming out of Wizards' locker room

Markieff Morris unhappy with leaks coming out of Wizards' locker room

The Wizards had just completed a 24-point comeback against the L.A. Clippers, but something wasn't sitting right with power forward Markieff Morris.

When asked by a reporter if it was nice to get the win given their recent losing and the media controversy surrounding the team, Morris couldn't help but wonder who it was who leaked comments made by players behind closed doors at a practice last week.

There were very specific quotes cited by several media outlets and Morris wants to know where they came from. 

"It's f***ed up what's going on," he said.

"The comments that's coming from the locker room, that's f***ed up."

Morris went on to say that anonymous sources leaking information shouldn't "happen in sports." Many professional athletes see the locker room and team-only events like practice as sacred. Anyone who breaks that code is, in their eyes, a traitor.

If Morris knew who the information came from, it sounds like he would do something about it.

"I don't know who it is, so it's hard to address. But it's messed up," he said.

Which player or member of the organization spilled the beans could be a question for this team all season. It doesn't sound like Morris will forget that it happened.

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