In football, Terrell Davis always could look forward.
As a Pop Warner player, he looked ahead to middle school, then high school. He eagerly anticipated college ball, and from there hungered for the NFL.
But when a seven-year NFL career with the Denver Broncos came to a close in 2001, there were no football fields left to conquer. And without the aspiration to ascend, Denver’s all-time leading rusher admits, he sometimes sank into dark places.
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Five years ago he hit a low, 30 pounds heavier than he wanted to be and dealing with pain and inflammation that can plague ex-athletes, he settled into a funk that he said impacted relationships with his family and friends.
“For me, I found that my inactivity and dealing with pain contributed a lot to my mental health (difficulties),” Davis said Friday at the Galt House. “I think part of it is, as an athlete we have a hard time coming to grips with reality, whether you’re getting old, your body’s transforming and you’re not the same person that you once were. I know I struggled with that.”
Davis on Friday was in Louisville to serve as the guest speaker at the They’re Off! Luncheon, the annual starting gate for the Kentucky Derby Festival. He spoke about the importance of mental and physical health and about his company, Defy, which produces CBD-based recovery drinks.
And that was just scratching the surface of topics.
In a 30-minute speech, Davis touched on horse racing, visiting Louisville and on jackets. He sported the gold one given to Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees — he entered in 2017 — and poked some fun at the pink ones worn by Derby Festival staffers and other guests.
Still, Davis joked that he hoped to leave Louisville with one of the gaudy sport coats.
He didn’t get one during his speech, but Davis didn’t walk away empty-handed. Churchill Downs president Mike Anderson gave him a bag of Derby swag. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer handed him a custom, personalized Louisville Slugger bat.
And during a 13-minute speech, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear presented Davis with a box of Muth’s Candies to take home to his children and named Davis a Kentucky Colonel.
“I know this isn’t his first visit to Kentucky,” Beshear said. “He was a Georgia Bulldog, and when he visited Lexington twice while he was in college (to play Kentucky), those visits were a little more fun for him than it was for some of us.”
It also wasn’t Davis’ first trip to Louisville.
He came for the Derby in the early 2000s — 2003, he thinks, but he joked that he’d partied too much to remember the exact year — for a good time and a fact-finding mission. At the time Davis was considering buying a horse, and he wanted to get the lay of the land. He saw breeding and rehab facilities and was fascinated by the operation.
Earlier in the day, he declared the Derby a must-see event: “If it’s not on your bucket list, it better be on there, and then you need to scratch it off as soon as you can.”
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And as someone who’d visited for the end of the festival, he relished the opportunity to open it, starting his speech with a joke from one of his sons, who he said had begged his father to share it with his horse-admiring audience.
“I’ll be able to go home and say, ‘Hey, I told your joke to the people; they hated it,” Davis said, before sharing his son’s handiwork: “What does a horse say when he’s fallen down? ‘I can’t giddy-up.’”
Before Davis hit the dais, he talked about fun topics, too, but also strayed toward the serious. He stressed his goal of health advocacy and said while he spent his playing career inspiring kids to play football, he’s now focused on convincing adults to work out, visit their doctors and lead healthy lives.
And more than 20 years removed from his playing career, Davis is encouraged by a growing openness — not just among athletes but society in general — to discuss mental health challenges, including those that can come with a career in sports, particularly when it ends.
“It’s tough, because you play a sport that, you better be mentally strong,” Davis said. “We always talk about ‘How mentally strong are you? Be tough. Suck it up. You can’t cry, can’t do this.’ Then you go into life and you try to hold everything in to process it, and that’s difficult. Especially when you have a family. You take things out on your wife, your kids. I think the more you come out and admit that you’re having challenges and seek help, that’s really the answer.”
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Former NFL star Terrell Davis kicks off Kentucky Derby Festival