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Atonio Mafi draft diary: Mental health should be a priority, even in football culture

As an offensive lineman Antonio Mafi transitions from UCLA to the NFL, he shares his journey with Times staff writer Ben Bolch via a weekly journal leading up to the April 27 draft. This week, Mafi discusses the importance of mental health.

It was a huge wake-up call when two teammates ended their UCLA football careers due to mental health issues.

What it told me was that this could happen to anyone.

In both cases I didn’t see it coming. Martell Irby was always loud, always smiling, the center of attention who always seemed to be having a great time. Thomas Cole had many friends and was especially close with the other freshman offensive linemen.

Both carried a secret burden that became too heavy to bear. It reminds us that we all need to take care of ourselves and constantly check in with those we care about to make sure they are really okay, no matter what they look like on the outside.

Atonio Mafi NFL draft diary

It’s not always easy to be vulnerable and share feelings. Football culture is all about overcoming difficulties, staying strong and strong despite any obstacle. At UCLA, we had to go through a lot of things to succeed. As much as we knew they were helping us, workouts, exercises and late night study sessions could be exhausting and you had to find a way to replenish both your mind and body.

Over the years, both in college and as I prepare for the NFL draft, I’ve found that balance is key. You need to know when to take a break and when to acknowledge that something is bothering you. It probably helps that I wear my emotions on my sleeve. When I’m feeling good, you see me dancing like I did in college warm-up. When I’m down, I share those feelings with my friends on the team.

Talking about problems always makes me feel better. There is the liberation of saying out loud what is wrong, as well as the encouragement and suggestions that come from those who listen.

Since I left UCLA, my No. 1 cousin has been my cousin, Devin Asiasi, the former Bruins tight end who is now with the Cincinnati Bengals. We grew up together in the Bay Area and our families are close, so Devin might as well be another brother. He also knows the ins and outs of making the NFL so his advice and support always really resonate with me.

Another big thing for me is visualization. Before I get out of bed each morning, I keep thinking about each part of my schedule throughout the day, whether it’s a specific workout or drills with the other offensive linemen, and make a mental checklist of things to get done .

Over the years, both in college and as I prepare for the NFL draft, I’ve found that balance is key. You need to know when to take a break and when to acknowledge that something is bothering you.

—Atonio Mafi

There is always a trip to church on Sunday. It’s been a constant in my life because my dad is music director at St. Timothy’s, our home church in the Bay Area. During my draft training, I went to Our Lady of the Assumption with Zack Kuntz, an Old Dominion tight end who trains with me here in Florida. Church always makes me feel centered and closer to home.

Prayer is also huge. I start and end each day by thanking God for making everything possible and I pray for so many people – family, friends, teammates, deceased relatives and relatives in prison. I also pray that I meet a woman who is right for me and I for her. I always end it by praying that I can get drafted into the NFL and that at the end of the day I focus on glorifying God and always be humble and stay away from overconfidence.

For me, staying humble also means being grateful. That’s why I type something I’m thankful for on my iPhone at the end of each day. I have a long list because it’s something I love to do. Some days it’s something simple like a good workout and other days it’s something like a nice dinner with the boys.

Recently I had two new things to celebrate. Martell is back in football with Arizona and plans to play for the Wildcats next season. Thomas has gone home to play for Cal Poly. I am so grateful that they are doing better and that they found the support they needed to continue playing the game they love.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek help from a professional and call 988. The United States’ first nationwide three-digit mental health hotline, 988, connects callers to trained mental health counselors. Text “HOME” to 741741 in the US and Canada to get the Crisis text line.