Brent Guy retired last year after more than three decades as a college football coach. At age 59, he retired because he had had enough. It wasn’t that he had had his fill of the long hours and short sleeps or that he didn’t enjoy competing or that he no longer enjoyed working with young people.
No, Brent Guy retired as FIU defensive coordinator a year ago because he had had enough of keeping a 30-year secret.
“This was a very lonely disease,” Guy said. “Until now, I have never had a friend that I knew of that had what I had, had some type of mental illness, especially bipolar disorder.”
Guy has lived with bipolar disorder through 11 coaching jobs, through raising two children, through his long marriage to his wife, Shawn. Guy has lived with bipolar disorder as he developed a reputation as a dependable coach: a solid, foundational thinker as a defensive coordinator; a cool, analytical presence in the meeting room; an even keel in the choppy emotional waters of 100-hour weeks fueled by Red Bull and adrenalin.
And no one outside of his home and his medical professionals knew.
“You could have given me a thousand guesses, and this would have been the last thing I would have guessed,” said FIU assistant coach Jeff Copp, who played for Guy at Boise State in the late ’90s and coached with him at three schools.
“A voice of reason,” Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said of Guy, whom he employed for seven seasons at Boise State and Arizona State.
“He never lost his composure,” said Butch Davis, who coached Guy at Oklahoma State 40 years ago and hired him at FIU in 2017.
He never lost his composure. Well, he did just once.
In April 1990, Guy was a 29-year-old linebacker coach at his alma mater, Oklahoma State. He had walked on a decade earlier and earned a scholarship and a starting job as a Cowboys linebacker. He was young and doing what he loved, working for head coach Pat Jones, who had been his position coach.
But all Guy knew was that he had stopped sleeping. He would lie next to Shawn, his mind racing, and at 5 a.m., he would get up, shower and go to the football office. He didn’t sleep for several days. Shawn recalled them driving from Stillwater to Tulsa, with Guy tapping on the dashboard for pretty much the entire 90 minutes.
On one particular April morning, Guy went into the staff room for a regularly scheduled meeting. That’s what college football coaches do — they meet, morning after morning, day after day, week in and week out.
This meeting was different.
The typical period for onset of bipolar disorder is the mid-to-late 20s. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2.8% of Americans (roughly nine million people) live with the disorder, which “causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”
There are four basic types of the disorder; some people exist more on the depressive end of the spectrum, while others are on the manic, high-energy side. Guy was the latter. Thoughts raced through his mind. The faster they came, the faster he tried to talk, the faster he tried to act upon them. The problem was his mind raced so fast that he couldn’t slow it down enough to fall asleep.
“It started peaking on me,” Guy said. “When I say ‘peaking,’ I was starting to have hallucinations.”
During the meeting, Guy saw a battle breaking out, a fight of good versus evil enveloping his fellow coaches.
“In my mind,” he said, “I could look in your eyes, and I could tell: Are you on this side or that side? I looked around the room, and I was making notes of who was in, who was out. I started trying to pull in the people that I thought were on the good side. I started trying to give a lecture. I was just making no sense at all.”
Jones told everyone but Guy and the strength coach, Rob Glass, to leave the meeting room.
“I knew it was bizarre,” Jones said. “I knew there was something going on that was not normal. It wasn’t any kind of wild fit. He was just babbling nonsense.”
Jones called a doctor, a friend, who saw Guy and determined that he needed more help than the doctor could provide. He arranged for Glass to take Guy to a psychiatric hospital in Tulsa. The doctor called Shawn.
“He said, ‘Brent’s having some issues,'” Shawn said. “I said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’
“He said, ‘Well, I’ll try to describe it like this: If I’m standing here in this office looking at the football field, Brent might look out there and see flying elephants.'”
Three decades later, Guy described his hallucinations as if they were a nightmare — you wake up and try to piece together the vivid images you saw and events you experienced. “That’s what it’s like,” he said, “only you’re awake, and you’re walking through it. I mean, it’s that real.”
Guy can remember the ride to the psychiatric hospital during a rainstorm. The rain would periodically stop, send him a message and then restart. In reality, all that happened was the car traveled beneath overpasses. He remembers deciphering messages sent to him through Michael Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror” on the radio. He remembers being in a bed in a hospital room with a doctor trying to convince him that he needed a shot that would knock him out. He remembers thinking that if that needle went into him, he surely would die.
“This doctor gave me a certain look, and I’m thinking, ‘OK. He’s on the wrong side,'” Guy said. “And I come up out of the bed at him screaming as loud a shriek as you’ve ever heard. And he runs out of the room, and I run to the door, slam the door behind him, and I am just beating on the door to say, ‘No! No! No!'”
Shawn stood at the nurse’s station a few yards away. She heard the screaming, and her first instinct was to get Brent out of there, to remove him from a ward where someone might be that seriously disturbed. Then she realized that someone was her husband. Guy remembered Shawn coming to the other side of the door with orderlies. He remembered hearing the radios clipped on their uniforms and deciding they were Secret Service and President George H.W. Bush had come to see him.
Shawn went into the room and tried to convince Brent that he had to take the shot. He eventually agreed — but not before he wrote down all his notes about good and evil, folded the notes and stuck them in his underwear.
“‘You thought you were Jesus Christ,'” Shawn recalled to Guy.
“Fast-forward probably 16, 18 hours,” Brent said. “I wake up. I’m in a different robe. I’m on a different side of the hospital. My piece of paper is out of my underwear, and I don’t know where I am.”
He had regained his lucidity but figured out soon enough that he had been put in lockdown with patients who were in much more dire shape.
“The next day, the next afternoon, there’s a room where you can have visitors,” Brent said. “I go into the room, and my mom and Shawn are sitting there, and I’m just crying uncontrollably, crying because I don’t know what’s happened to me. And they start explaining to me because they’ve gone and bought books.
“‘You are a manic-depressive.’
“I’m like, ‘What?’ I had never heard of it.”
Guy responded well to medication, remained in the hospital only a few days and then resumed his coaching life. But it was not the same life. He had to figure out how to carry on as if nothing had changed when everything had changed. He had to figure out how to live in the macho world of coaching, in which — especially three decades ago — few men admitted weakness.
As Guy compiled a file of research several inches thick, as he read groundbreaking books by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison and actress Patty Duke on their experiences with bipolar disorder, he never read any of it where anyone could see. There were no articles in his briefcase, no books in his living room.
“I got into this attitude of ‘I’m going to protect it,'” Guy said. “There were no lengths that I wouldn’t go to do that. I was just paranoid about it.”
The nature of his workplace helped.
“Football is a lot like the disease,” Guy said. “It goes up and down. When you’re winning, everybody’s kind of giddy. If you have a loss, everybody goes down. Being a college football coach kind of helped mask it a little bit because there are so many ups and downs, which is true for people with bipolar disorder like I have.”
With medication and lifestyle changes, Guy has led a productive life but one lived in perpetual fear of the stigma that can come with any mental illness. He didn’t even tell his extended family, even though bipolar disorder has a genetic component. Guy believes that might explain why alcoholism has been part of his family for four generations. Alcohol has a long association with bipolar disorder; a 2002 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that nearly half the bipolar population will abuse alcohol.
“I grew up in a small town. Never was exposed to anything with mental illness,” said Guy, a native of Perryton, Texas. “Had I known enough to piece together that [bipolar disorder] is a form of mental illness, and that is something that’s in [my] DNA, we wouldn’t have been shocked.”
Still, he said nothing. After his diagnosis, even his psychiatrist told him not to tell anyone. Thirty years ago, the stigma was too great. And if he had doubts about whether he should keep his head down, the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs” convinced him otherwise.
“We were in the movie, and we’re watching, and of course it’s scary,” Guy said. “They’re trying to figure out who the bad person is, and the description is given. He was 29 years old. He was a classic manic-depressive. That is exactly what I was told in that hospital. I was 29 years old, and I was a classic manic-depressive. I’m sitting there and thinking, ‘Holy cow! I’m in the boat with this guy.’
“You know, it was just a story, obviously. They’re describing my disease about this guy that’s a serial killer. That was my first time in public of it getting slammed back in my face and thinking, ‘Holy cow, this is what people think of this,’ and that even enforced more, ‘Don’t talk about this because this is the way this is being portrayed.'”
Guy never took his medication outside of his home. If a medication such as lithium, a common tool for treating bipolar disorder, was so strong that the daily dosage had to be divided into three pills taken over the course of the day, Guy didn’t care. He took the pills all at once at home. Nine years of ingesting that high a concentration of lithium did such a number on his kidneys that, two decades ago, he had to decide between finding a new drug or eventually finding new kidneys. He found a new drug.
Going to the drugstore or to the doctor — to most of us a mundane necessity of modern life — presented Guy with a dilemma, at least in his mind. What if someone saw him enter a psychiatrist’s office? What if someone found out what kind of medication he took? He planned his medical appointments with the same care and detail he used to script game plans. Guy wore a cap on his bald head. He wore sunglasses. He got to his appointments a half-hour early and sat in his car, watching who else walked into the doctor’s office.
Shortly after he became an assistant coach at Boise State in the late 1990s, Guy made his first visit to a local pharmacy to fill his prescription. The pharmacist recognized his name and chatted him up about the Broncos. Guy took his prescription, walked out and changed pharmacies.
The itinerant life of an assistant added difficulties for Guy. Every new job meant a new town, which meant a new doctor. Treating bipolar disorder is as much art as science. Figuring out what medication will work best can involve trial and error.
“Doctors are just like anybody else, just like I am with the zone blitz or the zero blitz,” Guy said. “They have certain meds that they like, that they use with their patients, where other ones don’t. That’s a really fine line everybody has to walk. You got to find the right doctor and the right meds to get you through this.”
Eventually, after about a decade, Guy found a psychiatrist in Chicago who agreed to treat him long-distance. That eased his burden, though he still had Shawn pick up his prescriptions more often than not.
The larger burden, the one with which he sat in silence, immobilized by fear of discovery, sat right on his shoulders.
“He never wanted me or any of his peers to know there was a problem,” said Houston Nutt, a longtime coach and college teammate of Guy’s at Oklahoma State who now serves as a college football analyst for CBS Sports. “To me, he’s been fighting things so much larger than I ever even dreamed of.”
At every stage, Shawn stood close by, monitoring her husband’s moods, reminding him that he simply had to sleep. When other coaches’ wives organized an in-season trip, Shawn would beg off, saying Brent didn’t sleep well without her. Recently, Guy said, when the wife of one of his fellow coaches learned what he had kept secret for so many years, she thought of all those trips Shawn didn’t take.
“I had no idea,” the woman told Brent. “I just thought you were soft.”
As Guy’s career extended, he realized that he had a knack for communicating with players other coaches saw as troubled or merely different: the “undependable,” the ones “who can’t cope with pressure.”
“I could always deal with the kids that had some type of dyslexia or ADHD,” Guy said. “If they were having to take any kind of med, I could communicate. I knew exactly how they felt. ‘Hey, you were born this way. If you’re getting special help because you have a learning disability, you know you’re protected. You should get help. It’s just you learn differently.'”
When Guy reached out to the players with dyslexia or ADHD, he did so quietly. He didn’t go out searching for them.
“If I asked the wrong question or I implied something, the spotlight would come back on me,” he said. “‘Why do you know so much about this? Why are you asking these questions?’ I had such a barrier around me, a protective barrier, that I did nothing [so] that spotlight could come on me.”
Guy escaped the stigma by never making his disorder public knowledge, but his silence did nothing to combat the stigma itself. That came with its own high cost.
Brent and Shawn didn’t tell their children — daughter Madison, now 28, and son Riley, 22 — of their father’s bipolar disorder until the kids were leaving the nest for college.
Madison asked, “Dad, are you going to be all right? Is there something I can do?”
Six years later, Riley said pretty much the same thing. But after Brent left for work, Riley turned to Shawn and asked, “Mom, are you scared Dad’s going to hurt you?”
“He doesn’t even yell at me,” Shawn said of her husband, “much less raise a hand at me.”
“That was a real blow,” Guy said. “[The stigma] had grown in my house underneath my watch. My son was stigmatized. That’s when I knew. I said that day, ‘I’m going to do something about this when I’m done coaching. If it can grow in my house, it can happen to anybody in anybody’s family.'”
It took five years for Guy to act on his determination to do something. By the end of the 2018 season, a whole slew of reasons pushed Guy to come out of his self-imposed isolation, to stop coaching, to do something constructive to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
For one thing, he knew he needed to rework his medication again. When an old friend, Butch Davis, called and asked Guy to come to FIU in 2017, Guy said yes. When Davis scheduled the Panthers’ practices in the morning, to avoid the humidity and the mid-afternoon thunderstorms that are a fixture of life in South Florida, Guy didn’t think twice. But those morning practices extracted a toll.
Some people who live on the manic end of the bipolar disorder spectrum take powerful tranquilizers. Guy was one of them. In every previous coaching job, Guy had a morning of watching videos, the way coaches do in their meetings, that allowed him to slowly warm up his motor. At FIU, he had to be at full energy for 7:15 a.m. position meetings and 7:45 a.m. practices.
Guy began to drink two pots of coffee every morning to yank himself out of his overnight haze. By the end of his tenure, he suffered a severe ringing in his ears that he suspects was brought on by caffeine. The strength of the drugs — and perhaps the strength of all that coffee — left him in a constant state of nausea. During the season, he put his body through that 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Guy knew that once he began to rework his medication, transitioning off of one drug and onto another would take several weeks.
It provided him with one motivation to quit, but he had others. There was the toll of staying quiet through the years as his fellow assistant coaches flippantly referred to a troubled player as someone who “didn’t take his magic pills,” who might “get on a building and start shooting people,” who “could be at the end of a rope someday.” Guy thought that if he admonished the coaches who indulged in that verbal shorthand, they would want to know why he cared so much. Then he saw the NCAA begin to focus on combating the rise of anxiety and depression among student-athletes, and he thought maybe he could participate and help the ones struggling in some way.
Most of all, Guy had grown tired of hiding in plain sight. So, one day in January 2019, he and Davis left a recruit’s home and started driving to their next home visit. Guy pulled off the road and into a parking lot. The two had known each other for 40 years, since Guy walked on at Oklahoma State, where Davis was a young assistant for Jimmy Johnson. Guy started crying. He could barely look at Davis.
“I’ve got to step down,” Guy said. “I’ve got something that I’ve got to take care of on the personal side.”
Davis, a cancer survivor, offered to open his address book: doctors, hospitals, you name it.
“I didn’t know if it was cancer,” he said. “I was kind of speculating as to what it might have been. Brent didn’t want to get into it. He said, ‘I’ll let you know sometime later.'”
Even at that moment, with all the trust and friendship that build over four decades, even when he no longer had to live a lie to protect his career, even as he was leaving coaching to begin combating the stigma that had intimidated him for nearly his entire adult life, Guy couldn’t say the words.
He packed up his office and went into seclusion. He endured withdrawal from the tranquilizers he took for many years and transitioned to another medication. After a few months, when Guy started to feel good again, he began to tell his coaching friends why he quit. He began to tell them who he really was, who he had been for all those years.
“When Brent stepped away, no one could reach him,” Koetter said. “I was concerned. I didn’t know what it was. I figured something was wrong. I thought maybe something was wrong with one of his kids or Shawn was sick. I called and texted Brent multiple times over the next several months, and he wouldn’t respond to anybody.”
One day in July 2019, Koetter, an Idaho native, was reading the Idaho Statesman, the Boise daily paper.
“They were talking about these big Garth Brooks concerts they were having in Boise, and it just made me think of Brent,” Koetter said. Brooks threw the javelin at Oklahoma State when Guy played football. “So I said I’m going to give it one more shot, and I randomly called him. I was going to leave him a message like I had done before, and he picked up the phone. That’s when he told me, and I was shocked but happy for him.”
Guy has been gratified by the way his coaching friends have rallied to support him. He said he doesn’t think about what might have happened if he had made his condition public earlier. He believes his coaching career has been a combination of luck and discipline. Had he not worked for a man such as Jones, he might never have been welcomed back to the coaching staff so readily.
“He wasn’t a throwaway guy by any stretch of the imagination,” Jones said. “Whatever was going on inside of him, he’s a good person.”
That was the luck. The discipline lived in Guy’s determination to maintain his drug regimen. Guy said it is common for someone with bipolar disorder to feel so good that they abandon their medication, feeling with absolute conviction that they don’t need it, that they feel good despite the medication — not because of it.
He tried ditching his medication once, and as soon as he and Shawn noticed his mind racing and his speech trying to keep up, he resumed his regimen. He made sure he got his sleep, and if he didn’t — if Shawn noticed his speech beginning to rev up — she made sure he got his sleep. He never strayed afterward.
Guy, like many football coaches, is a disciplined worker, but there’s more to it than that. There is the memory of his living nightmare, his self-described psychotic episode that led him to that psychiatric ward in Tulsa.
“I can still see that doctor’s terrified face running out of the room,” Guy said. “I think, man, what if I had gotten hold of him? Or if I had gotten hold of an object? Because I was in a state of mind that I thought he was trying to harm me. I’m just thankful that I didn’t get hold of him. He was faster getting out of the room than I was getting out [of] the bed.”
Guy doesn’t live in the land of what-if, but the question helped him stay on his medication, helped him maintain his long coaching career. His answer scared him the first time he asked it and still scares him today, as he looks back on a healthy, productive life as a husband, father and coach.
Last year, he and Shawn moved from Florida back to the Tulsa area to be near their family. They babysit Madison’s 21-month-old son, Beau.
Guy, volunteering through the Tulsa office of the National Association of Mental Health, has given some two dozen talks to first responders and detention officers, telling his story so that they will more quickly recognize the symptoms of mental illness.
He hopes to find a role as a mental health advocate in intercollegiate athletics. He wants to remove the stigma from bipolar disorder. He wants to help. He wants to stop living his life while, as he put it, “hiding in the tall grass.”
He surrendered his coaching career to do it. “I think,” he said, “that when you stepped over the line for sanity, and you’ve come back, you understand it better.”
Brent Guy always will have this disorder. Now it’s a little less lonely.
If you or someone you know has questions for Brent Guy about bipolar disorder, you may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.