BEREA, Ohio — The breaking point for Anthony Schwartz came in August, after the Browns’ final preseason game against the Chicago Bears.
Schwartz, a second-year receiver looking to carve out a consistent role in the Browns’ offense, just dropped two passes, bringing his total to five dropped balls in just three preseason games. While the Browns have always emphasized that they still believe in the speedy receiver from Auburn, he knew what was being said about him on social media and the vitriol being thrown his way.
Worse, he could feel the immense pressure he was putting on himself.
“I was just in the locker room freaking out, almost having a panic attack,” Schwartz told cleveland.com on Friday. “That way it just went where I was, I need help.” Because if not, this is not going to be fun for me and it could really affect my life.”
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And so began Schwartz’s journey over the past three months to improve his mental health and deal with the anxiety that plagued him on the field. It’s a journey he now wants to share for the first time, starting with the NFL’s annual My Cause My Cleats charity campaign this week. Schwartz will wear custom cleats representing the United Way of Greater Cleveland as the Browns take on Texas.
It cannot be denied that it has not been an easy start to the season for Schwartz. In the first week of training camp, he sprained his knee and missed just over a week of action. It was the second straight year his preseason was hit by injury. The third-round pick missed most of the offseason and training camp ahead of the 2021 season with a hamstring injury and also missed three games last year with a concussion.
Struggling to come back from a camp knee injury and find his groove was undoubtedly a major source of stress in his sophomore year, but there was also the matter of heightened expectations.
Since arriving in the NFL, Schwartz has been known for his speed and football IQ — but he also needs some development when it comes to actually catching the ball. It’s understandable, then, why those preseason drops weighed so heavily on him.
“Being a sophomore, I know a lot was expected of me,” he said. “So I feel like I was overdoing it in my head, and at that point it kind of spiraled downward. It felt like the whole world was crashing down in one moment.”
When Schwartz was at his lowest after that postgame breakdown, he knew it was time to get help.
His first stop was to speak with Browns sports psychologist Dr. Mayur Pandya.
“I went through some struggles, came back from injury and didn’t perform the way I thought I could from that point on,” Schwartz said. “I was kind of in a funk. “He helped me get out of it.”
Talking about his struggles on the field and his anxiety helped, as did other common anxiety-reducing tactics.
Schwartz, like many of his Browns teammates, began meditating. He meditates alone the night before every Browns game, and with Pandya the day of every game. His goal is to try daily meditation as well.
“That kind of just helps me calm down, calm down the anxiety, calm everything down so I can go out there and perform,” Schwartz said.
He’s also really focused on mindfulness, a common technique used in talk therapy that focuses on bringing your attention to the present moment rather than worrying about the past or what lies ahead.
Schwartz was so focused on getting better for the future and not dropping passes that the pressure was having the opposite effect — like a batter who wants to hit a home run so bad it ends up being a strikeout.
“You’re just going to take a step back to be like, just enjoy what’s happening right now,” Schwartz said. “Don’t worry about what the next play is or what happened last play. Just take care of you. Whether you’re on the bench, just don’t worry about what’s going on right now. Just take the moment and just enjoy the moment, because when it’s gone, you’ll regret not enjoying it.”
In addition to these therapy techniques, there’s one big habit change: learning how to block what’s being said about him on social media.
Schwartz admits that at the beginning of the season, he receives criticism on social media for those who fell for him. But as he worked to manage his anxiety, he realized that his performance should be his top priority, not what people say about it.
“It’s gotten to the point where I’m kind of, we’re going to focus on me, like all the outside noise, we just have to block it out,” he said. “And it’s kind of whether it’s on social media or in the game, let it be. Let them be and I will control what I can control.”
It helped that Schwartz got nothing but support from the Browns as an organization, from his teammates up.
Swing tackle Chris Hubbard himself has been open about his mental health struggles. As an ambassador for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, he created the Overcoming Together Foundation, which this week will be featured in his own cleats. Schwartz said Hubbard was instrumental in helping him get to the point of realizing it was OK to ask for help.
“Chris Hubbard, he’s a big advocate for mental health, and that kind of just brought me to that point,” Schwartz said. “That this is something that I need to take seriously and something that can really help me improve and help me get that confidence back.”
“I appreciate all my teammates. They were all there for me just helping me keep my confidence. It builds me up whether it’s in the game, in practice or just watching me around. Just putting his arm around me and saying, “We believe in you. We got you. We need you.’ I really appreciate it from everyone.”
The Browns coaching staff also never expressed any doubt in Schwartz, with both head coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt adamant in the preseason that Schwartz would turn it around and rebound from those early slumps.
Wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Chad O’Shea also had a big impact on how Schwartz views his anxiety, noting that the receivers’ room has weekly mental health discussions, including book recommendations.
Those conversations especially helped Schwartz learn how to block out outside noise.
“I’ve been very supportive of Anthony,” O’Shea said. “The best thing about it all is that everyone is on board with it. Everyone feels very strongly about it. The receivers did a great job being very active in this area. “That’s something we talk about in our room every day is the importance of the mind as it relates to your performance on the field.”
And about that performance on the court: Schwartz may be finding a step forward now that his mental health has become a priority.
He has really embraced the role on special teams, playing most of those snaps on kick and punt returns, but also appearing on punt and punt coverage units.
And looking at the offense, he showed last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that he can still make big plays. It was Schwartz who got the Browns on the board with a big 31-yard tailback, his first touchdown of the year. He then earned high praise from Stefanski.
“I’m really proud of him,” Stefanski said. “Anthony played at a very high level, we have a lot of confidence in him and I think he will continue to help this team win.”
It wasn’t a perfect trip. He was a healthy scratch against the Ravens on Oct. 23 for the first time in his career. He also had two touchdowns this regular season, both against the New England Patriots. But the biggest development is that he was able to move on and stay in the present, accepting small, incremental steps of improvement.
“Special teams, offense, I don’t have to think about 30 million things going through my mind, because that can add to the anxiety,” he said. “It’s just simplified everything in my mind to be able to go out there and perform. I don’t have to worry about this or that, just my role.”
Schwartz has come a long way since that near-panic attack in the Browns locker room in August. He not only recognized he had a problem, but took significant steps to fix it, the same way he would adjust the track he runs or have extra reps on the JUGS machine.
While his mental health journey may not have been easy to begin with, Schwartz is happy to be here now.
And by choosing to speak out, he hopes to show others that the journey is not as scary or impossible as it may seem at first.
“Just to show people that your mental health is a real thing,” Schwartz said. “Like it’s not just a made-up story that people are trying to call it.” It’s a real thing. Because if you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, it can really affect you, not just on the court but in life. And that’s just one thing I want to show that we athletes go through that too. And that if you’re an athlete, you’re not alone in this, everyone goes through something and don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t be afraid to find a solution. Because if you don’t, you’re just going to be in that funk.”
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