AMES — There seems to be no air.
Your brain tells you that you’re suffocating.
The nearest window appears to be miles away.
That’s how Iowa State offensive lineman Jacob Gannon felt during a Wednesday, Sept. 3 practice.
It’s called a panic attack.
And when it struck the 6-7, 306-pound senior tackle, he desperately sought an escape valve.
“You’ll do anything you can to break through that window to get to the air,” said Dr. Marc Shulman, the ISU team physician. “There’s no other thought going through you except, ‘I need fresh air right now.’”
A day later, Gannon officially quit the team.
Now, since receiving counseling, medical treatment and practicing biofeedback, he’s back on it.
“I’m feeling a lot better,” said Gannon, who’s started nine games in the past two seasons. “I’m very excited and happy to be back on the team.”
Gannon suffers from an anxiety disorder.
He learned that in the wake of that Wednesday incident.
He’s working to overcome it — and fully welcomed back.
“There’s heavy pressure on these kids to perform,” said Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads, who called Gannon’s father after that Wednesday practice out of concern. “It comes from themselves. It comes from coaches. It comes from people outside our program. And so somebody suffering from what he is, to be suffocating like he was, I’ve got a real sentimental feeling for him. Nobody cares more about these kids and what they give our program than the people inside it. I promise you that.”
Gannon swiftly sought help after the incident.
He reached out to offensive line coach Brandon Blaney, who helped set up a counseling session with ISU sports psychologist Marty Martinez.
He reached out to Rhoads, who had already reached out to his family.
By the weekend of the Kansas State game, meetings took place.
By Sunday night, all agreed that Gannon should rejoin the team, but that more time under treatment was necessary to fully ascertain his progress.
“Every case is different and there’s always a lot more parts to the story than people realize or sometimes people want to investigate and learn about,” said Rhoads, who noted he’s helped players deal with similar issues throughout his coaching career. “And part of my responsibility is to do that. I’ve worked for some great bosses and learned a lot from some great bosses in (terms of) compassion. I’m one of the first to tell you my job description goes well beyond wins and losses. I’ll be rated and I’ll be ultimately fired or kept based on wins and losses, but my responsibilities are so much deeper and stronger than that and I work to fulfill them.”
Gannon said it was tough watching the team play two games without him, but his teammates and coaches were very supportive once they knew what caused him to leave the team.
“I had multiple people come up to me and say they’ve dealt with similar issues so I can talk to them whenever I need help and all that stuff,” Gannon said. “So I think they’ve been very good about it.”
Gannon chose to quit because he didn’t understand the root causes of his disorder.
Once he began getting help, he realized football wasn’t the problem.
It’s anxiety — and a life-long journey of learning to manage, cope with and ultimately thrive in spite of it lay ahead.
“Initially, because of the panic attack I thought that I hated playing football because I thought that’s what caused the panic attack,” Gannon said. “And then after going to counseling and talking it out I realized that football wasn’t the problem. The problem was the anxiety. And I love playing football. I missed my teammates. I missed the game. And I think I came to that realization pretty early on.”
The big takeaway here is don’t fight alone.
Help can be merely a phone call, discussion, or consultation away.
“It’s a long-term process,” Shulman said. “This is not a one day something happened and boom. This is something Jacob’s been dealing with on his own for a long time. And it’s not something you can tough out. It’s not something you can go into the weight room and get through it. At some point it’s going to catch up with people.”
Gannon — a perfectionist, Rhoads said — reiterated that he’s a lot happier now.
He’s back where he belongs.
Armed with information, assistance and a plan of attack.
“Today at practice I felt a lot better,” Gannon said. “It was one of the first times in a while I think I really enjoyed playing the game because I felt that weight lifted off my shoulders. I kind of remembered why I like playing football in the first place.”
So the healing has started.
There’s more to come.
And that goes for reaching out, too.
“I think one of the great byproducts of this is what Jacob Gannon might do to help somebody else,” Rhoads said. “It might be that young man in Colfax, Iowa or Remsen, Iowa or wherever that’s dealing with issues like this that will now have the courage to stand up and ask his coach, or talk to his principal or his teacher or his parents. Jacob Gannon having the maturity to come out and ask for help and then come out publicly and talk to you guys and talk to his teammates like he did today is a huge step. A positive step.”