Sam Rutigliano remembers the day during his 6½-year tenure as Browns coach when a player poked his head in the door of his office and asked if he could talk, then surprisingly closed the door.
It was the offseason, and what the player had to say was shocking. He told his coach that for the past three weeks, he’d been so depressed in his battle with drug addiction that he’d gone to the roof of his six-story apartment in Berea wanting to commit suicide.
Rutigliano acted fast, sending the player to the Cleveland Clinic to see Dr. Gregory Collins, who with Rutigliano helped found the Browns Inner Circle program. Rutigliano said the player entered a six-week treatment program in Minnesota within a day or two.
When they started the Inner Circle in 1981 to assist players with drug and alcohol problems, the Browns were virtual NFL pioneers. The league believes it has since made strides in the area of substance abuse and player support systems. With peer-to-peer counseling as part of its Total Wellness Program, each team has a “Transition Coach,” a well-respected former player who serves as a liaison between players, the team’s director of player engagement and the club’s specialists.
But even those like the Browns who have led the way in providing off-the-field assistance for players have some who stumble, as Friday’s arrest of receiver Davone Bess sadly illustrates.
After an early morning incident at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida, Bess, 28, was charged with assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to a police report obtained by the Beacon Journal. He was booked into the Broward County Jail and released about four hours later after posting a $100 bond.
In recent weeks, Bess’s behavior on social media had become increasingly troubling, especially when a photo posted on his official Twitter account Thursday included what looked like marijuana. Traded to the Browns from the Miami Dolphins on April 26, Bess missed the final two games after being placed on the reserve/non-football illness list. Then-coach Rob Chudzinski said Bess was dealing with “a family, a personal issue.”
On Friday, a source familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so, said Bess’s “family issues have turned into medical issues for him.”
Medical professionals might have interpreted Bess’s tweets as cries for help. Rutigliano certainly sees a player who needs assistance and wonders why the Browns didn’t involve Collins, now head of the psychology and psychiatry department at the Cleveland Clinic and a consultant on the NFL’s drug program since 2000.
“I don’t know if Miami knew anything about it and I don’t really care. Maybe we could have helped him and we could have avoided what’s going on,” Rutigliano said by phone Friday from his Waite Hill home. “Obviously what’s going on right now he must have a problem because nobody would throw away what he threw away. He’s still a young guy. He probably could have played another five, six, seven years.”
Observers expect the Browns to release Bess on Feb. 3, when roster moves are again permitted after the Super Bowl. They will not want him near two-year veteran Josh Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards. Gordon is one strike away from a one-year suspension in the NFL’s substance-abuse program.
The Browns did not have to wait around for Bess to fail a drug test to get him help. According to the league, a player can also be evaluated for entrance into the substance-abuse program for behavior, which includes but is not limited to an arrest. Bess’s problem could be rooted in a medical or psychiatric issue that needs evaluation.
The Miami Herald reported Friday that an uncontrollable Bess had to be hospitalized against his will a month before he was traded to the Browns. That’s a situation well beyond the capability of a transition coach, who must complete 56 hours of in-person and 32 hours of online training and be certified in mental health first aid and applied suicide intervention skills. Even with the league’s good intentions, it may not be doing enough, especially on issues unrelated to drugs and alcohol.
Need for medical help
As someone tries to intervene with Bess, Rutigliano said they will have to be forceful. He recalled one player who saw Collins, then came back and refused to go to treatment.
“I said, ‘OK, that’s fine. I’ll yell, I’ll tell and you’re finished. You deal with that.’ He went,” Rutigliano said. “He had to have somebody in my position as a head coach to tell him it wasn’t his decision. He didn’t have the ability to make the decision and we weren’t going to invest any kind of money on people that we couldn’t trust.”
Rutigliano suspects the Collective Bargaining Agreement would not allow the Browns to do now what they did then, especially with how frequently Inner Circle members submitted urine tests. But even with the league’s advances, Rutigliano still worries about players falling through the cracks. He insists medical professionals need to be relied on more often.
“Owners, presidents, general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches can’t handle this,” Rutigliano said.
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