D.J. Chark sees the light at the end of your tunnel
The Jaguars receiver knows 2020 has taken a toll on millions of Americans. So many are feeling depressed, down, out. But Chark also knows this: Better days are always ahead. He is proof.
That is the best way he can describe the feeling. When his depression was at its worst — and it most certainly was his sophomore year of college — DJ Chark could not escape this raw, suffocating sense of dread. He was a budding star wide receiver at LSU. He was a college kid in his prime. He’d seem to have every reason to be excited about the future.
Only, he wasn’t. Because nothing else mattered.
Not one joyous thought was even possible when that sensation gripped its hooks into his psyche.
That… that… fear.
“Fear of the unknown. Fear of capabilities,” Chark says. “Also, the feeling of being alone. All of that works together. And when you’re at a point like that, it’s hard to see the good things that are surrounding you because there’s so many things that are downers that you see. That’s what I was going through.”
The fear is typically vague. It’s not like he had one specific phobia. One trigger. Rather, it’s all-encompassing. His glass was not merely half-empty — it was completely empty.
He was completely empty inside.
“School wasn’t fulfilling it,” Chark says, “football wasn’t fulfilling it. Family tried to help. But nothing was fulfilling it or helping me with that loneliness, that fear of capabilities. Just a lot of things mixed up into a depressing outcome.
“The things that you can control, you wonder, ‘Am I going to be able to do these things the right way?’ I can’t think of anything specific. But whatever you can control in life, you wonder, ‘Am I going to be able to do it right? Am I going to go to class and pass? Am I going to be a good brother or sister?’ So, you also have the fear of not succeeding. You have fears of the things you can’t control which may be a job or a family member getting sick or whatever that may be. All these things you want to control but can’t control.”
He wanted to help a sick family member. And he couldn’t.
He wanted to control what was out of his hands — “be the almighty,” as he puts — and he couldn’t.
Finally, Chark got help and his depression gradually faded. Day by day. Week by week. It’s still a long process, still an ongoing fight, but Chark is “light years” ahead of where he was then.
Sadly, so many Americans cannot say the same. So many are trending the other direction through this Covid-19 pandemic. The death toll is now 335,000 in this country and 1.77 million worldwide with the concurrent shutdown of life as we know it having a catastrophic effect on our mental health — an effect we cannot even fully comprehend yet. The collateral damage of this virus is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The CDC’s survey in August was haunting. One in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24, per the survey, said they contemplated suicide the previous month. Anxiety and depression symptoms are three to four times higher than they were in 2019. And approximately 13 percent of those surveyed said they turned to substance abuse.
People are dying.
Businesses are going under. Livelihoods are being ruined.
Depression is skyrocketing.
2021 cannot come soon enough.
So, as we finally leave 2020 in the dust and pray for better days, Go Long spoke at length with one player who may relate to those struggling with depression better than anyone else in the league. Chark’s been there before and Chark easily could be depressed right now with how this football season has unraveled in Jacksonville — he’s an impeccable talent buried on a 1-14 team. Yet, he’s doing just fine. He’s now filling that emptiness with positivity.
“There’s never a finish line that you’re running to,” Chark says, “but you’re constantly and gradually getting better every day, finding new ways to defeat old habits.”
Chark knows millions out there are feeling the same knifing fear he once did. He knows millions are losing loved ones, losing their jobs, losing their minds.
This coronavirus is the ultimate force we cannot control.
He wants to help, too.
“This year has shown us that you have to expect the unexpected,” Chark says. “I think the biggest thing is to continue to have fight — never lay down. No matter what obstacle you’re going through in life, it can be overcome. That’s the biggest thing I would want to explain to people. We’re all going through a tough year together. It’s like we’re all on the tree and we all have different branches. But we’re all connected to the same tree. I think we all can continue to lean on each other and get better, then the world would be a better place.”
He can trace his darkness back to the source. Not many can. Not many can identify a cause.
Chark was just a kid when both of his parents suffered debilitating injuries that changed their lives forever. Both Darrell and Shirley went on disability after disastrous events four years apart.
First, there was Dad. Darrell was a construction worker. And as DJ recalls, in 2000, Dad was up on a ladder working on a bridge. Loose concrete above him fell and pinned him against the ladder 20 feet high in the sky. Darrell was able to shake free to save his life but fell to the ground and destroyed his back. It took him years to walk normally again.
Then, there was Mom. Shirley was a teacher who worked with students who had special needs. And one day, at lunchtime, one of her students was standing on a table. When those near asked the student to come down, the student instead jumped and Shirley tried to catch him — both the student and desk crashed on top of her, rupturing three vertebrae in her back.
“She’s not built to catch a teenager jumping off a table,” Chark says. “The student didn’t fully comprehend the severity of jumping off of a table. So she tried to jump in, and that happened.”
Both parents, suddenly, were in excruciating amounts of pain and out of work which all took a financial toll and an emotional toll on the entire family. Chark’s older sister, Shirdetra, started working more to help pay the bills — Chark says she become a “second Mom” to him.
He tried to press in sports. He didn’t have the opportunities his peers had.
Anxiety built up and that fear only got worse when Chark headed to LSU because, then, his sister’s health took a turn for the worst. In all, Shirdetra needed seven throat procedures in seven months because doctors had previously (accidentally) punctured a hole in her trachea and esophagus so big that she couldn’t eat for two months. Shirdetra fell into a nine-day coma — as this Nola.com story explains in detail — and lost 20 percent of her body weight.
Doctors compared her health to that of an 80-year-old cancer patient.
All of it was out of Chark’s control.
All of it devastated his mental health.
During summer workouts before that sophomore season at LSU, Chark regularly drove 80 miles southeast to visit his hospitalized sister in New Orleans — they had become best friends by then. He tumbled down the team’s depth chart. Hardly used that fall, the stress and frustration of everything made him want to quit the sport but he stuck with it. One month before LSU’s 2015 bowl game, doctors performed that seventh surgery by inserting a stent into Shirdetra’s trachea just so she could breathe and eat.
His family’s pain became his pain, too. Chark had no clue what “depression” or “anxiety” even were, nor did he communicate his feelings to anyone at all. It wasn’t until that sophomore year that Chark finally got help and was able to put a name to the darkness. He started opening up more and more to his girlfriend, Chantelle Baker. No stone was unturned, no childhood story was off the table. Chark started seeing a therapist, too, and one conversation at a time helped weaken that fear. It was still there, no doubt, but Chark learned to look at the bright side of life while, simultaneously, pouring himself into what he loved most: Football.
He no longer had thoughts of quitting something he loved.
In that 2015 bowl game, he scored a 79-yard touchdown. In 2016, his role grew. In 2017, Chark broke out at LSU with 40 receptions for 874 yards and three scores.
In 2018, he was drafted 61st overall by the Jaguars.
And through 2018, 2019 and 2020, Chark has had every reason to slip back into that depressed state. He’s won 12 games and lost 35. This season, his Jaguars are the worst team in the NFL. Chark may be an elite receiver and, yet, we’d never be able to tell. On Sunday, he had one of the best catches of the season… and his team was still obliterated by the Bears, 41-17. The quarterback play around him is objectively nauseating. Somehow, Chark has amassed 126 receptions for 1,714 yards with eight touchdowns in his last 28 games with Nick Foles, Gardner Minshew, Jake Luton and Mike Glennon throwing him the ball.
It’d be very easy for Chark to look around the NFL and wonder why he can’t play in an offense half as good.
Meanwhile, his parents still live in pain today but you’d never be able to tell. They’ve “adapted,” Chark says, and everyone is unbelievably supportive in going to every one of his games possible. He even calls his upbringing a blessing in disguise now because Mom and Dad were able to be there for him in ways he couldn’t quite appreciate as a middle-schooler.
Says Chark: “You can’t go back and erase things. I feel like this path is what motivated me to get to where I’m at now.”
He plays a position that sends so many professionals into a dark place. Take Sammy Watkins, who drank and partied and drank some more in Buffalo as his body broke down and his brother was embroiled in major RICO case. Or Brandon Marshall, who’s always been unbelievably transparent about his mental health. Or Steve Smith Sr., who admitted he never was able to truly enjoy his accomplishments because of depression.
We touched on this dynamic in our piece on Chicago’s Allen Robinson. So much of the game is out of a wide receiver’s hands.
Which can be maddening. Which can push you to the edge.
And Chark gets it.
“A lot of receivers are considered ‘divas’ but I think it’s a very emotional sport and an emotional position,” he says. “Big plays either happen or don’t happen because of the receivers most of the time. So you’re really putting your body on the line, your reputation on the line every time you step out there. It can get to the point where you’re frustrated because things aren’t going the way you want. But then you have to take a step back and realize that this life isn’t about playing football all the time. It’s a blessing to be in the league at all. So you go back to controlling what you can control and whenever you do get that opportunity to make a play then it’s all on you. It’s up to you to make that play.
“You can’t mope around and be upset because when you get your opportunity, if you don’t make it, it’s on you.”
So even in 2020, fear does not consume him. He only thinks positively, only moves forward.
Chark always sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m on top of it. I feel good,” Chark says. “I think the biggest thing for me was to realize who I was and realize there are things you can control and things you can’t. But you need to be confident in the person that you are. I finally reached a point where I’m confident to be myself. I don’t have to fit in and do things for other peoples’ approval. Once you get to that point and you know who you are and you’re proud of who you are, it helps with the depression and anxiety.
“If you’re not feeling right, you’re not feeling good, why? Are you going to go find the resources to find out why?”
Everyone reaches their peace, their bliss their own way. Watkins? He opened his mind to completely new ideas one book, one YouTube rabbit hole, one wild theory at a time. Maybe hearing someone speak so openly about playing an NFL game in their dreams Saturday night sounds troubling to you. Maybe the idea of good and bad entities floating in and out of our bodies seems a tad too psychedelic and you think the Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver needs help ASAP. You couldn’t be more wrong. Watkins, who basically predicted this pandemic in our conversation last February, has never felt so good before.
This is how he overcame his depression. He’s almost always smiling these days.
The key for everyone, Chark details, is having a gameplan.
Anyone out there who’s struggling through 2020, he details, needs one.
This is his and maybe it works for you:
Find outside help. Opening up to family is a big first step but Chark insists that an outside voice is often needed, too. A therapist — an objective perspective on your life — can go a very long way. Chark still speaks to his therapist regularly because he values the fact that she doesn’t know him personally.
He wants everyone to know such a voice can be an exceptional “tool” in your “toolbox” that opens up a whole new world to you.
Find a passion. What could be a source of pain right now — playing football — is always a source of joy. The Jaguars stink, yes, but football is what Chark loves so Chark pours every ounce of energy he has into constantly perfecting his craft. He dissects every single play in his playbook down to a science.
“Which takes a lot of your energy, a lot of your day and, for me, a lot of your life during a season,” Chark says. “So that gives me something to continue to work at. Having something to work at really helped me out a lot.
“I try to get as close to perfection as I can and that’s a task in itself so that keeps me pretty busy.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean someone dealing with depression needs to play in the NFL. Chark’s point? Get lost in your passion. Stay busy. Let your mind twist ‘n turn through the details of something you love. The Jaguars keep losing but Chark’s reputation is strong around the league. More and more opponents are coming up to him after games to say just how impressed they are with his game.
“So that’s one thing I play for,” Chark says. “My respect.”
Give Back. He feels like the same person he’s always been, back to those darker days, but Chark says he now has a more “enlightened mind.” And that’s the result of immersing himself into the community. Chark is constantly giving back — he speaks to kids with autism, donates to the Special Olympics, has helped introduce the sport to kids in London and has even taught kids how to swim at the local YMCA.
When Chark learned how to swim, in 2018, he paid it forward just a few months later.
Seeing the next generation happy makes him happy — “a feeling you can’t buy,” he says. Because Chark remembers the state he was in himself at seven, eight years old. He was lost. Confused. Scared. So he knows just how much weight his words can carry today for another kid who might be suffering from depression without even knowing it.
Chark does not take that power lightly.
And, in turn, all of those kids are helping him, too.
“To have someone appreciate whatever act you did,” Chark says, “is really amazing.”
Cherish life’s special moments. Chark points to all the good things happening in his life off the field. He graduated from LSU virtually this month — that meant a lot. And all in one year, Chark got engaged in May, married in October and now he and his wife are expecting their first child. They couldn’t wait for the virus to pass to make this official so during the Jaguars’ bye week, DJ and Chantelle got married at a private ceremony in Amelia Island, about 30 miles from Jacksonville. They’ll have a ceremony with family one day but this felt like the right time.
This was needed in 2020.
“To have that moment,” Chark says, “was big for us. … It was perfect.”
Chantelle was there for him when Chark was at his worst. Now, she always will be.
Be it something big or something small, it’s crucial to take a deep breath and soak in these moments.
So, no, we should not be shocked that Chark is extremely optimistic about the football operation down in Jacksonville. Weeks before the Jaguars “won” the Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes, Chark made it clear: He wants no part of tanking.
Not when so many players worked so damn hard all offseason.
Win or lose, he says, your performance every Sunday “goes under your name.”
“As an organization, we have a lot of questions that we have to answer,” Chark says. “But you’re going to do your part and be the best person you can be. And if you get a city full of people trying to be the best they can be, only good things can happen.”
He sees good things happening here, too. Where everyone else views Jacksonville as a football wasteland, Chark cannot stop listing off the players here that convince him brighter days are ahead. There’s Laviska Shenault Jr. He’s never seen a wide receiver “run like a running back” quite like him. (“That’s unique.”) And Keelan Cole who, he points out, plays receiver and onside kicks and blocks field goals and returns punts. And James Robinson. The undrafted rookie out of Illinois State was a revelation this season with 1,414 total yards and 10 touchdowns through 14 games. Chark calls him a “workhorse” who only works… and works… and works some more.
Lawrence just might be one of the best draft prospects ever, too.
Whoever is the Jaguars’ next head coach will inherit one hell of a nucleus on offense.
Chark only has one year left on his contract but sure sounds like a player who wants to help fix this thing long term.
“Things can turn around,” he says. “From a talent level, we’re not far away from a lot of teams. We play hard. We play the best teams and we stick in. We fight with them. I think we need some more pieces. That’s just the way football works. I don’t think we’re that many pieces away from being a team that can really compete in the NFL. I think we’re competing now. We add a few pieces and we can flip a few of those scores for sure.
“The older this team gets — because we are the youngest team in the league — we just have to have the right guidance. And I think we’ll be good for years to come. For sure.”
And optimistic is how D.J. Chark lives his life 24/7 now. He treats mental health the same as his physical health — the training never stops.
He still talks to his therapist. He still sharpens his craft. He still finds new sources of joy. His French Bulldog (“BamBam”) and miniature Australian Shepherd (“Dundie”) have been perfect companions through 2020. (“They’re genuine creatures,” he says. “They’re just happy all the time.”) He’s still watching a ton of TV, too. Chark just finished The Office and rattles off his favorite shows and characters here in rapid-fire succession — Parks and Recreation (Tom), Family Guy (Stewie), American Dad (Steve or Roger), Schitt’s Creek (Roland) and Chark loves him some SpongeBob SquarePants. It’s hard to pick just one character on SpongeBob but, gosh, it’d have to be the dude in the pineapple at the bottom of the sea himself.
“He’s a carefree, loving individual,” Chark says, “and he always ends up winning, even if it’s crazy! He just lives the blissful life.”
Chark knows that everyone has the power to live life with such bliss, too.
Even in a year like 2020. Even when reasons to be depressed are constant, unrelenting.
That fear doesn’t have to control us.
Chark is sure of it.
Hey Tyler, just wanted to say thanks for writing about this subject in a sport and culture that has traditionally shied away from it. As someone who works in mental health and has experienced mental health issues myself - and as a football fan - I'm glad to see the conversation publicly from an up-and-coming star. (And shout out to Sammy and the great work Brandon Marshall has done too!) Appreciate this post a bit more personally than the others. And love what you're doing here.