In 2011, Brandon Marshall was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Shortly after the diagnosis, the football player found his purpose.
"There was one moment when we had a breakthrough and figured out who we were in the community," Marshall said this week. "And that's when I sat down with 10 kids in an elementary school and that was the first time I was able to see mental health conditions and illnesses present itself that early. There was one kid who wrote a song called 'Suicidal Tendency', there was one kid dealing with bullying, there was one kid who has harming himself…
"That's when I walked out of there and looked at my wife and said, 'This is where we have to do our work.' So we want to be preventative and intervene early."
And so Project 375, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness and to put onsite behavioral health care services in schools, was born. Almost five years later, Marshall was honored by the National Football Foundation at the New York Athletic Club last week with the Ernie Accorsi Humanitarian Award.
"To be honest, I don't really care about accolades and the awards. But I would say affirmation is vital for all of us and it gives me fuel to continue to move forward because the work that we do is hard," he said. "Not everyone makes it. And it also lets us know that we are on the right track, so that's why these things are special."
Marshall lamented the lack of urgency regarding the country's problems with mental illness. A visit to Project375.org's homepage reveals that 1 in 17 live with a serious mental illness and one in four adults experience mental illness each year.
"It's disgusting, to be honest," Marshall said of the lack of support. "We feel like a physical ailment should be approached the same as a mental ailment, so we're working hard every day to do two things. And that's one — break down the stigma because where we are today is where the cancer and HIV communities were 20-25 years ago. And the second thing is we want to do real work. We want to put things that are tangible in our schools, programs and we're working hard to do that."
Marshall knows firsthand how mental illness can potentially derail not just careers, but lives. Following a number of highly publicized off-the-field incidents in which he admittedly saw his life spiraling out of control, Marshall spent three months at Boston's McLean Hospital undergoing psychological and neurological exams in the summer of 2011. After his BPD diagnosis, Marshall made himself the face of the disorder.
"It takes courage to go into this type of area because a lot of people shy away," Accorsi said. "There are some horrible diseases in this country that are organic and it's common unfortunately for people to be afflicted by it. But a lot of people don't want to admit that they have mental problems or nervous problems."
Marshall continues to stress early intervention as Project 375 has partnered with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago Foundation. While they have assisted 17 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to date, the goal is to reach more than 200 schools and impact more than 300,000 children over the next five years.
"That's rare when somebody's diagnosed with something and then they fix themselves and then they make an effort to help others," said Jets head coach Todd Bowles of Marshall. "There are a lot of people out there who have what he has and for him to go out on a limb and spend his own dollars doing that and to do something to help other people – that's outstanding."
Marshall frequently dons Project 375 gear, proudly walking around in "crazy stigma green" items that are sold on the foundation's website. He has hosted a ping pong tournament in Chicago and there will be a tournament in New York City this May as 100% of ticket fees will go toward onsite and mental health support for children.
"The more exposure his efforts contribute to this, the more likely it is that you'll come forward and get treatment and get help," Accorsi said. "I just think it's a terrific charity and it's wonderful that he does this."
Marshall, acquired by New York's AFC representative last March, was sensational in his first season with the Jets. He became the 1st NFL player to record 100 catches in a sixth season while setting a career high with 14 TD receptions and was bestowed with the Curtis Martin Team MVP award by his teammates. But the driven Marshall, who continues to use football as a platform, has also found peace with his purpose. Honored with a humanitarian award, Marshall continues to be a face of a cause that has started its journey together.
"Brandon has been an outstanding human being. To help people off the field the way Brandon's doing and for them to honor him tonight, I'm sure he didn't do it for that," Bowles said. "But he's just a heck of a guy all-around. If you know him off the field, you know how much he cares in everything he does."