Life After the Game Former Ute and NFL player Lauvale Sape opens up about mental health.

Photo by Malia Akinaka

Leaving the NFL was difficult for Lauvale Sape BS’02. After being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2002 and playing with other pro teams, including the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans, the former Utah defensive tackle was released from the NFL in 2012 with multiple injuries.

He tried to stay busy and maintain the “high” he had experienced when he was playing, but he didn’t know how to go about everyday life without the game he loved. All he knew was football. Sape began spiraling into depression.

And there was more: He had been keeping a secret. From the time he was 6 until he was 13, Sape had been abused. He had never told anyone, but had found an escape in football. “I could go out on that eld and focus all my energy on football,” he says. Sape explains that his family and his Polynesian culture had taught him to rely only on close family and friends to work through troubles, and to first deal with things himself. So his support network was small, and he kept much hidden away.

Then in 2013, new heartbreak struck. When he and his wife, Sarah, were expecting their first child—after trying unsuccessfully to conceive for 11 years— their son was stillborn. “The emotions I felt that day, when I saw my wife’s pain and held my lifeless son in my arms, haunt me,” says Sape. “It’s a deeply seated wailing that I don’t want to forget, because it changed who I am.” This pivotal moment is when he fell farther down the hole to depths where he felt there was no hope. “I hid my depression and pain so well. Those who knew me would probably say you were lying if you told them I was severely depressed.”

In early 2016, without telling anyone but wanting to help himself, Sape started looking for a therapist. At about that same time, Sarah contacted The Trust—an organization that helps eligible former NFL players successfully transition into life after football—to find out if their resources and services could help.

Resistant at first, Sape finally realized that Sarah’s idea was right, and he contacted The Trust himself. From there, he learned about a partner program called After the Impact, an intensive and transitional residential wellness program developed by e Eisenhower Center in Michigan to educate and care for individuals with health or behavioral issues. He began to learn about mental illness for the first time and received tremendous support. “I owe my life to them,” he says of The Trust’s staff , and to Sarah for urging him to get help. Through group counseling, Sape learned he was suffering from PTSD.

“It’s not that it’s ‘bad,’ it’s just that we have to understand... where we stand with our illness. PTSD, depression, and other illnesses do not discriminate. You could be anyone,” he says. “Recognizing the signs and being honest about your thoughts and feelings with someone who cares for you is a great starting place to seeking help.” One member of Sape’s support network is his former coach at Utah, Ron McBride, who told him, “Don’t do this alone. Talk to us, and let us know what can help.”

Sape hopes his story will help others who have left a college or professional sport: those who “are hurting and hiding behind a closed door. I want them to know that if they trust the process, it will all work out. I’m happier now. I can be that ‘happy- go-lucky’ guy without having to feel like I’m not being myself. I am focused on being me, staying in my lane, and loving my family.”

Our thanks to The Trust for collaboration on this article. Read more about Sape’s experience here.

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