By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO, mgray@afro.com

Former NFL defensive back and Prince George’s County native Leigh Bodden knows all too well about dealing with pain and putting on a brave face.  Most of Bodden’s contemporaries hid behind the mask on the field and in the locker room, as it was recognized as a sign of weakness if there were moments of vulnerability that exposed mental health issues.

Bodden has also seen how the effects of not dealing with mental health issues can have fatal consequences.  So as he did during his eight-year pro football career, he’s attacking the unspoken killer of so many people in his community head on.

The Leigh Bodden Foundation in partnership with Lauryn’s Law, is collaborating to raise awareness about the causes of suicide and mental illness in Maryland. (Courtesy Photo)

The Leigh Bodden Foundation in partnership with Lauryn’s Law, is collaborating to raise awareness about the causes of suicide and mental illness in Maryland.  It will kickoff during a charity kickball game August 4 at Bowie Baysox Stadium. A group of local celebrities and former professional athletes will compete following the Baltimore Orioles Minor League affiliate’s game.  Their goal is to address these very personal issues that plague so many Americans and raise money to help those who have been affected.

“There are stresses in life that affect people in different ways,” Bodden told the AFRO.  “People need to understand when they need to talk to someone about their problems they shouldn’t be ashamed.  Suicide is not like cancer or HIV, its a silent killer.”

Bodden personally understands the devastation of mental health issues leading to suicide.  When he played for the New England Patriots, two of his former teammates would ultimately take their lives prematurely.  He recalls how Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau was one of the most gregarious and fun loving players in the locker room.  However, after he retired his life spiraled downward to the point where he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest in 2012.

Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez also led a destructive life, which ended his career as he appeared to be on the cusp of greatness.  After signing a massive free agent contract he was convicted of killing Odin Lloyd and sentenced to life in prison in a well publicized case. He also ended his life by committing suicide while in jail.

Those deaths were attributed to chronic traumatic encephalopathy 

known as CTE. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated hits to the head and is common in former NFL players who have taken their lives.  The onset of CTE developed because of brain damage that began while Seau and Hernandez were playing football.

However, the game changer for Bodden was the death of his best friend Barry who committed suicide after struggling with personal issues that he never talked about.  Barry never opened up about the feelings that were beneath the surface after he had been bullied. Bodden still recounts how he could have been an ear to listen for his fallen friend.

 To honor that relationship, “Barry’s Game” is what the charity kickball game will be known as, and it also served as the impetus for his foundation to partner with Lauryn’s Law.  Lauryn’s Law requires that school counselors receive proper training to spot warning signs of mental illness, trauma, violence or substance abuse.

The law was passed in 2013 after Lauryn Santiago took her own life at 15 years-old. In the months leading up to Lauryn’s death, her mother Linda Diaz, was aware that her child was facing difficulty at school. Lauryn’s mother reached out to the school and asked for the counselor to set up a meeting with Lauryn about being bullied but it was too late.