The air felt tight and the frustration built until it couldn’t any longer. Everything else had been shut out as Jacob Gannon’s pulse ticked.
On that Wednesday evening, two days before Iowa State was set to open Big 12 play against Kansas State, Gannon, the team’s starting right tackle, abruptly left practice. In a meeting the next morning with coach Paul Rhoads he confirmed his desire to leave the team.
Rhoads had already called Gannon’s father, Mike, on Wednesday night after his son had left practice. When Jacob hadn’t reconsidered Thursday morning, he called him again. This had nothing to do with football.
“A fifth-year senior who’s starting and has done so well from January until August 30 just doesn’t up and walk away,” Rhoads said. “So there was concern for Jacob and we were able to get him set up quite quickly with a counselor and I’m very glad we were able to do that.”
Gannon rejoined his teammates at practice Monday, two games and nearly two weeks after he first left the team. The redshirt senior, shortly after leaving the team, was diagnosed with anxiety.
His family came down that Saturday after he left practice to talk and they met with Rhoads on the Sunday leading into the rivalry game with Iowa. Together they agreed to wait until after the big week for Gannon to return.
“Initially, because of the panic attack, I thought I hated playing football because I thought that’s what caused the panic attack,” Gannon said Monday. “After going to counseling and talking it out I realized that football wasn’t the problem. The problem was anxiety and I loved playing football. I missed my teammates, I missed the game and I think I came to that realization pretty early.”
After Gannon’s departure, he had little communication with teammates. Some were upset, and Gannon struggled to explain.
“I was still trying to figure out what was going on,” Gannon said. “They were a little upset, they didn’t really understand what was going on, so it was hard for me to try to communicate that to them.”
Upon his return Monday, Gannon laid everything out on the table. He has found acceptance with his situation from both teammates and coaches, and a number of fellow teammates have told him they’ve dealt with similar situations.
Gannon has dealt with those breathless moments for far longer than that one day — it was just that he never let it out. With medication, counseling and breathing exercises in recent weeks, football became enjoyable again Monday evening.
“It was one of the first times in awhile I think I really enjoyed playing the game, because I feel that weight lifted off my shoulders,” Gannon said after practice. “I kind of remember why I like playing football in the first place.”
When Gannon left the team and confirmed his desire to quit one day later, Rhoads had the option to end things there. Instead, he picked up the phone and made sure Gannon would be OK.
“I’m one of the first to tell you my job description goes well beyond wins and losses,” Rhoads said. “I’ll be rated and 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.”
Fulfilling those doesn’t necessarily rest with Gannon returning to the team, but rather Gannon getting help. He may or may not make his 14th career start in two weeks against Baylor, and the tight chest and beating pulse may return. Now, though, Jacob Gannon knows what to do and has the support to help him.
“To say that nothing is going to happen again, none of us can say that,” Dr. Marc Shulman said. “But to say that we’re at a point where we can control, we feel comfortable.”