Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey got help for depression after his mentor’s death

dgantt@heraldonline.comApril 8, 2012 

These are good days for Pat Kelsey.

These days, there’s a new sense of purpose, and a new sense of family.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, when Kelsey wasn’t sure about either. Or anything else for that matter, which led him to an admission that’s difficult for anyone who’s lived in a competitive environment.

He needed help.

He needed help from something he finds hard to say, even if he doesn’t hide from it anymore. Because help, when you grow up Pat Kelsey, wasn’t anything he ever appeared to need.

Before you circle back to the bad days, glance back on Thursday, when Pat Kelsey was perfectly in his element. Thursday was a really good day. Standing in a gym, surrounded by family, firing up a crowd about his new job as men’s basketball coach at Winthrop. Then his beautiful young princesses began to tug at him, ready to get Daddy back from all the people who talked so much, so they could get in the hotel pool.

“You know what I’m going to do when I leave here?” Kelsey asked. When a guy who describes himself as someone who “makes coffee nervous” asks a question like that, you know a long and serious answer is coming.

“I’m going to go jump in the pool with these girls, and we’re going to be the biggest bunch of mermaids Rock Hill has ever seen.”

He began picking up cadence as he went. “And we’re going to play. And we’re going to have fun. And then we’re going to go get something to eat, and probably watch a movie.

“And then when the girls go to sleep, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get on the phone and recruit as hard as I possibly can for this school for the next couple of hours, until I go to bed.”

For Pat Kelsey, that’s just about a perfect day.

What makes it stand in such relief, on such a perfect day, is how imperfect his days used to be.

A complete picture

By now, Winthrop fans probably know how much the death of Kelsey’s mentor, former Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, moved him. He’s mentioned many times that taking a year off from his job as a fast-track assistant coach was related to Prosser’s death. But until Thursday, the picture wasn’t complete.

As he stood at the podium, the first question of the news conference was obviously about the leaving, and the coming back. There was a Prosser story, some family talk, and an almost-passing reference to one word.

“Help.”

When it was over, when all the donor hands were shaken, when all the students were reached, when all the pictures were taken, when all the chairs were broken down and packed away, there was a moment to reflect.

What kind of help?

“Professional help,” Kelsey said, never flinching, never breaking stare.

Were you diagnosed with depression?

“Oh yeah,” he replies, same face.

Was that hard to admit?

“No doubt,” he said. “If somebody had said depression to me before, I’d have said, ‘How real was that?’ I’m a guy who grew up on the west side of Cincinnati, all blue collar and tough and handle-your-own-problems.

“I was going to grit my teeth and get through it.”

To understand why Pat Kelsey thinks that way, you have to know just a little about his roots. He’s practically out of central casting, growing up playing ball on the working-class west side of Cincinnati idolizing the Reds and the Major League Baseball team’s working-class, west-side hero.

When he was 6, he gave his mother a birthday card that read: “Mom, you’re the greatest thing since Pete Rose.”

The second of Mike and Linda Kelsey’s five kids, Pat was the head-first slider who never took no for an answer. Not when he had to change high schools to find better competition to push him (all the way to a state championship), not when the nearby colleges didn’t want him, not when he had to walk on at Xavier, not when he met his wife, Lisa, who he calls “my best recruit ever.”

You also have to know the depth of his love for Prosser, who took him as a walk-on after a homesick year at Wyoming.

At Xavier

Kelsey was a decent player, but there wasn’t a scholarship. So Prosser invited him to a practice.

Kelsey remembers sitting in the highest reaches of ancient Schmidt Fieldhouse at Xavier and being fascinated. Bodies flying, high energy. This was where he longed to be. Even when Prosser sent a manager up the bleachers to get him, to drag him from the worst seat in the house to the sidelines, there was still a separation.

But when that two hours of adrenaline stopped, before the players drooped together in a huddle for a final “1-2-3 Xavier,” Prosser stopped them.

“He literally moved guys aside, motioned for me, and brought me into the huddle,” Kelsey recalled. “Then he looked at the rest of them and said, ‘Fellas, our team’s complete now.’

“That dude had me, from that moment on.”

That’s why Kelsey’s eyes moisten nearly every time he talks about Prosser.

Prosser’s the reason he’s a coach at all. He’s also the reason Kelsey was a former coach for more than 10 months.

That’s because when Prosser’s life ended in July 2007, it took nearly five years for Kelsey to rebuild his.

That summer, Lisa was home, pregnant with their first daughter, Ruthie. Prosser kept pestering his bright young assistant to get home to her, didn’t want him to be on the road at all that month and risk of missing something so special.

But their Wake Forest staff was closing in on the best recruiting class in the nation. This was no time to let up. So Kelsey kept going, kept flying, kept talking, kept showing up at 100 mph, every day.

He remembers dropping his boss, his second father, his idol off at the Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, promising him he’d fly home to be by Lisa’s side for their due date, July 26.

“To the hunt,” Prosser said on that curb, on the way to Orlando to recruit some more.

Those were the last words Kelsey would ever hear him say.

Kelsey knew there was a problem when he walked into Wake Forest’s basketball offices in the Manchester Athletic Center on July 26.

Prosser had gone for his normal, slow amble that he called a jog, but he wasn’t himself. No jokes for the secretaries he passed in the hall. Something was wrong.

Kelsey walked in, and could sense it, so he went straight for Prosser’s office.

The man he loved, the man who taught him so much about basketball, art, Irish history and life, was lying there on his couch, dead. Face blue, newspaper stretched across his chest.

The panic began instantly. None of them knew at the moment that the panic wouldn’t let go for years.

Kelsey was shuffled into fellow assistant Jeff Battle’s office while paramedics tried to revive Prosser. Kelsey vaguely recalls seeing the paddles being used, trying to shock the 56-year-old back to life. Minutes later, he couldn’t understand why the stretcher was being rolled out slowly.

“Why aren’t they hurrying?” he asked, not wanting to know the answer.

When the Forsyth County EMS pulled up, they parked at the side door to get to Prosser more quickly. But on the way out, they were going out the front door.

Kelsey bolted, ran to the side where the ambulance was parked and tried to hijack it to meet them around front, so he could get Prosser to Baptist Hospital more quickly.

“I wasn’t going to let them waste a minute,” he said. “They had to save him.”

They couldn’t.

That began the long, slow descent into a world Kelsey didn’t know existed.

It wasn’t right

The first instinct, when you lose someone or something you love, is to pretend it never happened. That makes it easier to keep going as if everything was as it was before.

So he kept recruiting. He kept coaching. He kept spending long days on the road, the short nights at home with the newborn.

But it wasn’t right.

He knew Lisa Kelsey could see it, the emptiness in his eyes.

“She wanted her husband back,” Pat Kelsey said. “She wanted the guy she met, the guy who did everything to his fullest, whether it was work or family or whatever. But that guy wasn’t there any more.

“When I was on the road, I felt guilty for not being home. When I was at home, I felt guilty for not doing a better job at work. I wasn’t doing either one very well. And it just kept spiraling.”

He faked it as long as he could.

“My good enough was better than most people’s,” Pat Kelsey said, a line so well-worn you can tell how many times he used it. Enough, maybe, to convince himself of its truth.

Eventually, he realized that maybe it wasn’t.

The people who loved him saw it much earlier.

His father, Mike Kelsey, the guy who dropped everything at McCluskey Chevrolet last week to be by his son’s side for such a proud moment, was always there.

He watched and listened to his son’s anguish. Even when he left Wake Forest behind, and took a job back home at Xavier, the hurt didn’t go away.

“You could see the loss of Skip was still so troubling to him,” Mike Kelsey said. “The rigors of the job are enough to deal with. Then he had two little ones at home, and he was always afraid he wasn’t there enough. The combination of all those things, after all those years, just got to be too much.

“It’s not that Pat wasn’t tough; he just was never able to admit to himself that somebody who was so close to him was gone.”

Every Sunday, the Kelseys would gather at Mike and Linda’s home, 17 deep in grandkids, for what Pat charitably described as “chaos.”

They had no idea.

Finally, the father took the son aside.

“You’ve got to remember, my dad was the ultimate motivator. He’s been making things right for me forever,” Pat Kelsey said. “But what he said to me last year, I’ll never forget it. It changed my life.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, I can’t help you anymore. But I know a guy who can.”

It took a moment to sink in. Pat Kelsey himself didn’t want to believe it.

“I didn’t want to think I was soft,” he admitted.

But nothing else was working. So he went to counseling. Got diagnosed and treated. Talked about the pain of his loss. Worked through a lot of tears, a lot of issues.

Athletes especially reluctant

In that respect, his denial was fairly common.

The Centers for Disease Control, in a 2010 study, said 9.1 percent of Americans met the criteria for current depression. A National Institute of Mental Health study found that 16.7 percent of adults will experience it in their lifetime.

But it takes a much deeper study to find athletes who’ll admit to it.

Former NFL running back Ricky Williams has publicly battled anxiety issues. NBA star Metta World Peace (the former Ron Artest) acknowledged depression, as did retired NBA legend Jerry West.

But there simply aren’t many current players or coaches who’ll say so if they are.

Dwight Hollier, a licensed professional counselor at Southeast Psych in Charlotte who is a former NFL linebacker, said Kelsey’s admission was rare because of the culture of sports he grew up in.

“It’s unfortunate but it’s true. There’s still a stigma associated with depression and mental illness,” said Hollier, a former star at North Carolina who played nine years for the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts. “There’s a macho culture. The impression we’re supposed to give off is that we’re unbreakable, and that’s especially true with coaches, because they’re the ones leading, they’re the ones showing the way.

“The statistics that are out there don’t always show an accurate picture, because more people are suffering than come forward. That macho persona in sports keeps a lot of people from opening up and getting help.”

That culture, which Kelsey grew up in, made what he did last spring one of the bravest things possible, if only for its rarity.

To get well, he quit the job he spent his life trying to get.

His bosses at Xavier saw the hurt too. Prosser was one of their own, and so was Kelsey. You protect your own.

So Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski told him to take a week, take two weeks if he needed. Get right, come back. Kelsey hedged, didn’t want to feel like he was taking advantage of his bosses by not working. But there was a short break in late April. Bobinski admits he hoped Kelsey would return. In his heart, he knew that wasn’t happening.

“You could tell right away he wasn’t OK,” Bobinski said. “In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone more conflicted. Pat was always the ultimate all-in guy, and you could tell he felt unable to be that anymore. It was as simple as the look on his face.

“We talked about a lot of possibilities, and he mentioned getting some help. We were mostly concerned about him, because we respected him so much, and cared about him and his family.”

On May 15, 2011, on his 36th birthday, Pat Kelsey walked back into Bobinski’s office and told him he was done.

He won’t drop the torch

Asked what he did next, and Kelsey’s eye’s brightened.

“Went home,” he said simply. “Watched Disney movies.”

Caroline and Ruthie got in their play dresses. They were Rapunzel that night. He was Mother Gothel.

Last Thursday night, after he got the job he said he wants for the rest of his life, they were Ariel, and he was King Triton.

“We’re gonna have fun,” he said, as his daughters clung to the legs of his pants. “We’re going to play really, really hard.”

That’s what he’s going to ask of a basketball team too, and that’s what brought him back.

Seeing basketball take away a man he called “one of the best dads ever,” made him wonder if he wanted to go down the same road.

But being away from the game made him realize that if he wanted to really honor Skip Prosser, he had to get back in a gym, had to make some kids run, then teach them a little Ralph Waldo Emerson on the way back.

“Our chief want in life, is, somebody who shall make us do what we can.”

Emerson wrote that.

Prosser lived it.

So Pat Kelsey wants to make sure he doesn’t drop that torch.

To show the strength his old boss exhibited, Pat Kelsey had to admit what he thought was a weakness.

Only it wasn’t. It was normal and he didn’t know it, was afraid to admit it.

He’s stronger now, stronger than ever.

And he’s ready to get back to work.

“The last 10 months were a great 10 months,” Pat Kelsey said with an easy smile. “It gave me a chance to get my batteries recharged, to renew my passion for what’s important. I came to realize how powerful my relationship with Coach Prosser was, and my greatest legacy will be to carry on his. I’m a passionate guy. I love my family, and I love these kids here.

“That’s what I’m all about.”

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