For Patriots rookies, loneliness is part of the game
FOXBOROUGH — A few months ago, one of Chase Winovich’s family members sent him an article about male loneliness.
Winovich, a rookie defensive end who has played in all 14 of New England’s games this season, found the piece fascinating. As he navigates his first year in the NFL, he can relate to the crux of the argument: Men are sometimes hesitant to admit they’re lonely.
“There’s a lot of things in terms of mental health that are very taboo in society,’’ Winovich said after practice Thursday afternoon. “There’s such a large stigma that’s still around it. It’s just one of those things — ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ’’
But Winovich has experienced those feelings of isolation that are often suppressed. He’s not alone. So has running back Damien Harris. So did veteran Matthew Slater when he was a rookie more than a decade ago.
Harkening back to his early days in the league, Slater remembers feeling homesick. A California native who attended UCLA, he had never lived outside of his home state for an extended period of time. Nor had he lived on his own. The transition was challenging, remembers Slater, now married with three children.
“I’m single, I don’t have a family, and I don’t know anyone here,’’ Slater recalled. “As far as my community outside of the building, I didn’t have one. It’s non-existent. That was a tough time to navigate. You’re trying to find out where you fit in, you’re trying to meet new people, you miss home, and you’re young.’’
One of the most difficult adjustments was going home to an empty apartment, especially after a bad practice or game. The solitude only exacerbated the frustration and discontent.
“I feel like I never left work,’’ Slater said. “Not only did I live only five minutes away, but mentally, I never left here. Emotionally, I never left here. I think that became even more draining for me.’’
Harris voiced a similar sentiment.
“You just go home and you’re just sitting there, looking around, and sometimes it’s kind of overwhelming,’’ said Harris, who usually has been one of the team’s seven inactives. “You’re just sitting there wondering, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right things?’ Sitting around by yourself, that can kind of wear on your mental state a little bit.’’
A phone conversation with his mom is usually enough to boost his mood, but Harris noted: “Being on the phone isn’t always fun either.’’
Slater spent a lot of time calling his family and friends as well. His dad Jackie, who had a 20-year NFL career, was a particularly valuable resource. Slater also credited older teammates Benjamin Watson and Sammy Morris for showing him the ropes.
Winovich, too, has relied on familial support. His parents have attended nearly every Patriots game this season. Even so, he suggested there can be a disconnect.
“There’s a separation between yourself and even other people in your family, between what you do for a living, the money, the fame,’’ Winovich said. “I’m not saying ‘I’m Tom [Brady]’ or some mega-superstar. I don’t mean it in that way. There’s just a separation, and no one really prepares you for that.’’
In his 12th season, and ninth as one of the team’s captains, Slater, among other Patriots, looks to be a resource for the rookies while they figure out this new stage of life.
“You’re in the grown-up world,’’ said rookie cornerback Joejuan Williams, who was drafted 45th overall in April. “It’s different. It’s something you got to get used to. All these cats — they’ve got wives and kids and stuff — they go home and they got to take care of their families. They can’t hang out with you. You can’t ask them to hop on Madden with you.’’
“I had three roommates in college,’’ said added wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina State. “We had our own house. Every day, we were together. It was like my brothers. Now, I just got to call somebody. I’m on my own.’’
In between learning how to be a pro and studying the playbook, the rookies will occasionally go bowling or watch a movie as a group. Some hang out together more frequently than others. Harris and N’Keal Harry, for example, live in the same building.
They’ve also found hobbies. Harris binge-watches “One Tree Hill.’’ Winovich recently purchased five books for his Kindle, having just finished “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’’ by Yuval Noah Harari. Among those on the docket in the future is J.D. Salinger’s classic “Catcher in the Rye.’’
Slater hopes the rookies can effectively utilize their newfound abundance of free time and establish a routine that works for them. Fellow captain Devin McCourty stressed a similar notion.
“I always tell the young guys, these are times where you perfect what you want to do, your profession, anything else you like to do off the field,’’ said McCourty. “I know people think when you’re playing football, you don’t have free time, but when you’re a rookie, you have time because you don’t have a lot of responsibilities. I try and tell these guys to take advantage of it and build a routine with something you can do your whole career.’’
Through that process, tough days are inevitably going to happen — even if players are hesitant to openly discuss them.
“Everyone is dealing with these types of things in their own way, but a lot of people don’t really talk about that,’’ said Winovich.
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