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LOST IN TRANSITION Jeff Burris battles depression brought on by move from football to the real world

Jeff Burris wants everyone who heard him on 97 Rock on the final pregame show of the Buffalo Bills season to know he's doing fine.

The sideline reporter stunned listeners on the first day of 2006 by revealing he had been battling depression for more than two years.

After telling play-by-play man John Murphy that he had some things he wanted to say, Burris told the radio audience that he understood what Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy's late son, James, had experienced because he was battling depression, had lost his family and had considered suicide.

The revelation surprised Bills officials, who were concerned for Burris' welfare and believed it was a cry for help. They were unaware that he has been treated by a doctor on and off for about two years.

"Am I where I need to be right now? No, not yet," Burris said in a telephone interview from his home in Indianapolis. "But I will eventually get there. I am close to recovery and where I need to be."

He says working on the Bills radio broadcasts was a big help in getting him out of depression.

"It was a huge step forward, four or five steps forward," Burris said. "It gave me a sense of direction again. When you walk away from football, a lot of guys lose a sense of direction. All my life I dealt with a set regimen. This has given me another opportunity to be on that time frame."

The suicide of Dungy's son and the announced retirement of New York Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, who, like Burris, experienced a series of concussions and didn't want to walk away from football, inspired Burris to discuss his difficulties since his 2004 retirement.

"I felt it was time to speak of the trials and tribulations that I've experienced for the last three years," he said.

Ken Ruettgers, who played for the Green Bay Packers for 12 years and is the founder and executive director of GamesOver.org, a nonprofit Web site dedicated to helping players struggling with transition, said Burris' radio address was a good sign for his recovery.

"The fact he is making his challenges public is a big step because he's moving beyond denial," Ruettgers said.

Ruettgers, who experienced depression after he retired in 1996, notes that Burris' post-retirement story is common. He said that many players experience denial, depression and addictive behavior and have relationship problems after retirement.

"It is very familiar," said Ruettgers, who is 43. "Every player experiences at some level the challenges of transition. You've lost your job, your identity and your position. Their identity is so locked in to seeing themselves as a football player. It is common for a player in transition to consider suicide. The suicide rate for a retired NFL player is six times greater than the national average. Half of all the divorces that happen to NFL players happen in the first year of transition."

He plans to let Burris know that he is "facing typical and normal challenges" for a retired player.

"Most people don't realize and appreciate what professional athletes go through," Burris said. "Unfortunately, we don't get the help we deserve. The perception is you get paid all this money and you're able to afford this and that. Yes, it is true to an extent. But there are a lot of things that go outside of that that people don't realize."

Burris retired after banging heads with receiver David Givens in a non-contact drill during a New England minicamp in June 2004. He had had numerous concussions, and decided against risking another.

He said his problems began soon after when he started drinking to pass time. Around the time of training camp, he separated from his wife, Lisa, a lawyer in Indianapolis. They have two young children, and Burris says he is in contact with them daily.

"I married a great woman from Buffalo," Burris said. "I was difficult to live with because of depression. I love and adore my family and my wife. She is an outstanding person. The only reason she and I are not together is because of me."

He credits his estranged wife, his mother, Caroline, and his pastor's wife with helping him deal with his depression and overcome suicidal thoughts.

"Lisa was always there, she was the one person I could depend on," Burris said. "I felt like there was no use for me here, that I needed to be somewhere else and that everybody here would be better off."

He knows that most people probably thought he had the world in his hands when he signed a $20 million free agent contract with Indianapolis after four seasons with the Bills. He played two more years with the Cincinnati Bengals after his stint with the Colts ended.

He remembers his former Bills teammate, Henry Jones, telling him that as a graduate of Notre Dame he had everything in front of him and nothing to worry about.

"When he said that it greatly helped my career because I relaxed," Burris said. "But being too relaxed in the sense of not preparing for every aspect (of life). Unfortunately, I'm a perfectionist and that's a downfall."

A season after his 10-year career ended, Burris took the Bills radio job over a few other broadcasting opportunities. Burris felt he was "awful" and had difficulty adapting to his new profession. "Trust me, I'll have an outstanding second season if I have an opportunity," he said.

Asked how he would compare his rookie performance to that of Bills quarterback J.P. Losman, Burris showed he hasn't lost his sense of humor. "His quarterback rating was like second or third to the last," Burris said. "I'm right behind him and (Baltimore's) Kyle Boller."

He considers Buffalo home and if he had to do it all over again he would have stayed with the Bills rather than take Indy's $20 million contract.

"It would have brought peace to my life and stability to my relationship with my wife," Burris said. "And my family and my kids are the most important things to me right now. I would have given (the money) up for happiness."

The Bills will not address next year's broadcast team for awhile. Burris remains upbeat about his future and plans to seek a coaching job in NFL Europe. The 33-year-old hopes the story he told on 97 Rock will help others.

"I wanted to use any platform I had to let people understand that this is bigger than me and any other person around," Burris said.

"(People should) understand that depression is a sickness. It takes time, it isn't an overnight thing and you wake up and feel fine. But I want to let my friends, family and fans know that I'm OK, I'm fine. But I went through what I had to go through."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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