Ravens' Cody conquers depression

OWINGS MILLS – The roughneck cowboy who grew up wrangling cattle on the family ranch had lost his appetite for practically everything, even a juicy steak. Dan Cody found an escape in his dormitory room at the University of Oklahoma. Prolonged slumbers threatened to interrupt his burgeoning football career.

The hard-hitting defensive end with the reputation for devouring quarterbacks and acing classes simply wasn't happy. His appetite for food had dwindled, and he wore a solemn expression on his face.

One game into Cody's sophomore year in 2001 after recording a career-high five tackles against North Carolina in his first start, the future Baltimore Ravens' prize rookie pass rusher abruptly quit the football team.

The brutal game that Cody dominated with his uncommon speed and aggressive demeanor no longer satisfied him. He thought he would never put on a helmet and shoulder pads again.

Months after his grandmother's death, Cody was diagnosed with what was afflicting him: clinical depression.

Inside the Ravens' locker room before his first NFL practice, Cody said he believes a stigma about depression is a major reason why he dropped from a projected first-round selection and lasted until the 53rd selection of the second round.

Football is a business, and apparently some NFL teams thought Cody was a risky investment.

"There is a stigma," Cody said. "In this business, in life, it's not really well understood. I think society in general may be behind the times. I don't fault any team for that.

"People can do this. It's something that everyone has the ability to do no matter what you've gone through and what type of problems you've had."

Overcoming depression

Clinical depression is a condition marked by feelings of sadness, fatigue, guilt, withdrawal and a loss of interest or withdrawal from activities.

In Cody's case, depression runs in his family and he believes it was probably triggered by his grandmother's death.

Cody is one of millions of Americans living with depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 9.5 percent of the population (roughly 18.8 million American adults), suffer from depression in any particular year.

Symptoms can include negative effects on eating, sleeping, outlook on life and self-perception.

The Institute's literature notes that depression "is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with a depressive illness cannot merely 'pull themselves together' and get better."

Through a combination of counseling, medication, which he hasn't had to take in two years, and a renewed commitment to religion, Cody ultimately conquered depression.

After a medical redshirt, Cody rejoined the football team.

He emerged as an All-Big 12 Conference defensive end and an all-academic selection and was named team captain.

Each toppled quarterback seemed to fuel Cody, who played as if he was discovering the game for the first time.

"As soon as I was away from it for a little while, you immediately understand how important it is to you and how big a void it can leave in your life," Cody said. "I feel like that's something that may not be behind me forever, but it is something that I definitely have a grasp on."

Convincing the NFL

At the annual scouting combine in February, league executives and scouts kept quizzing Cody about his major bout with depression.

Cody did his best in interviews to separate his personality from troubled former NFL athletes such as Barrett Robbins, Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder and unraveled emotionally.

"Dan said the teams asked him about his strengths and weaknesses and I said, ‘I think your strength is that you know who you are,'" said Nancy Cody, Cody's mother. "He said, ‘Mom, they're not interested in that.'

"In retrospect, if you know who you are and where you come from it makes a tremendous difference in your life. Your faith is so important."

Cody also had to answer questions about a fainting spell last season against Texas A&M.

Cody was exhorting his teammates on the sideline, when he fainted. He was revived quickly, notching two tackles and a sack on the following drive.

"I was pretty revved up," Cody said. "When you get to yelling a lot, you kind of hold your breath without thinking about it. I didn't black out. I just kind of got light-headed."

Nagging concerns over his medical condition, a pinched nerve that limited his workouts and indecision over whether he was an outside linebacker or a defensive end combined to push Cody down NFL teams' draft boards.

Cody weighed 257 pounds at his March 9 campus workout. He ran a slower-than-expected 4.68 in the 40-yard dash and only bench pressed 225 pounds 17 times.

"I know my workouts weren't really that impressive," Cody said. "I just tell everybody to turn the film on and you'll see me really working out, and that's when it counts the most anyway."

The precipitous fall in the draft will affect Cody's bank account.

New England Patriots nose guard Vince Wilfork, last year's No. 21 overall pick, received a $3 million signing bonus. Seattle Seahawks safety Michael Boulware, last year's 53rd overall pick, received a $1.3 million signing bonus.

"It's not a disappointment so much as a humbling experience," Cody said. "You learn a lot from it. I was a top-five pick as soon as the Orange Bowl was over with and then I went 53rd."

The Ravens' medical staff cleared Cody after spending a day with him at the team's training complex, and Cody is confident he has a handle on this personal issue.

"I feel like it's something that has been conquered," Cody said. "I just got the proper treatment. The most important thing is to surround yourself with good people, family and friends, people you can trust.

"It's not the medication or seeing a doctor. It's having a good relationship, No.1, with yourself, and No. 2, with God."

The Ravens regard Cody as an absolute steal in the second round, as they rated him among their top 25 players.

Baltimore considered drafting Cody as a fallback first-round option if they had traded back to the Oakland Raiders' 26th pick of the first round instead of drafting Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Clayton with the 22nd overall pick.

"He plays with his hair on fire," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who used to coach at Oklahoma, said of Cody. "He's going to fit in great with us with his flexibility and the kind of athlete that he is."

True ‘tweener

Growing up in rural Ada, Oklahoma (population 15,691) Cody developed into a unique athlete.

At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, he was capable of covering 40 yards in 4.58 seconds, an astounding time for his size.

Cody was versatile enough at Ada High School (500 students) that he played quarterback, halfback, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, defensive end, outside linebacker and free safety. In his spare time, the all-state tight end hog-tied cows.

"If you're raised in the country, it makes you a little different," said Steve Cody, Dan's father.

A sociology major, Cody was an academic standout who chose Oklahoma over Duke.

"Dan is very laid-back and quiet away from football," Nancy Cody said. "He doesn't get intense except on the field."

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops devised a defense for Cody last season similar to the one he employed for Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jevon Kearse at the University of Florida.

The package was appropriately called, ‘Spinner.' Cody alternated between end and linebacker, rushing the passer from three-point and two-point stances.

A classic ‘tweener -- in between end and linebacker -- Cody's quickness was too much for offensive tackles to handle, and his strength was superior to running backs and tight ends.

The results: 17 tackles for losses while tying a career-high with 10 sacks, including one of USC quarterback Matt Leinart in the Orange Bowl.

"I was kind of like that guard that's not tall enough to play forward, but can't shoot good enough to play guard, kind of in between," Cody said.

Named a finalist for the Ted Hendricks award given to the nation's top defensive end, Cody registered 117 career tackles, 25 sacks, 49 tackles for losses and 42 quarterback pressures.

"It's just 100 miles per hour," Cody said. "It's about being aggressive, playing hard and hitting people in the mouth."

Big future

Now, Cody will compete with Adalius Thomas for playing time at strongside linebacker while operating as a situational pass rusher at defensive end, a role once slated for four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware.

The plan is to have Cody and defensive end Terrell Suggs harass quarterbacks from opposite sides.

"He's a pretty relentless guy," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said of Cody. "When I was at Oklahoma, he stood out because this was a guy who went all-out in practice all the time and is a great pursuit guy."

DeCosta compared Cody's intensity to retired former Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary.

"Dan is vicious," Clayton said. "I'm glad he's on our team because he's such a tough guy."

With each sack and tackle along with his trek from the plains of Oklahoma to the Northeast corridor, Cody seems to put distance behind his brush with depression.

"All of us have skeletons in our closet," Steve Cody said. "To hold his head up the way Dan did and come back in a very competitive environment, I think that says a lot for his character and his ability to cope with whatever might be in the future."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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