Back in March, K.J. Hamler talked about his struggles working back from a season-ending injury early in the 2021 campaign.
And he noted then that the best medicine for overcoming the depression he suffered from being injured and isolated from his team would be getting on the field and playing.
“Now that I’m around all the guys and I’m able to do a little bit of what I was able to do before—it’s been uplifting my spirits,” he said earlier this spring.
Five months later Hamler has been activated from the PUP list and is a go for training camp - something the third-year wideout desperately needed to dig himself out of the depression hole he was in.
“Mentally, I’m a lot better, I’m a lot happier,” he said Monday after training camp, noting that he hit a low point last year and has been “fighting his way out of” ever since.
Playing football and being around his teammates has been his most effective prescription.
“It means a lot. Just being around the guys,” he said, explaining that not being able to travel, to be on the sideline, to share the season, good or bad, really took a toll on his mental health. “Just being away from the guys, you feel like you’re not a part of the team anymore.”
Fortunately, Hamler’s fellow wide receivers called on him regularly to check in on his status.
“The guys checked on me and called me all the time to check up on me,” he said. “I appreciate them.”
"Football brought me back to life, and I'm grateful."@Kj_hamler — thank you for sharing your story, thank you for being so vulnerable, thank you for being an inspiration to so many. pic.twitter.com/TXWOn8grxh— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) August 1, 2022
But then Hamler got real.
He opened up about just how tough it can be on athletes who get injured and lose a lot of their identity and purpose by not being able to play.
That loneliness was exacerbated for Hamler when his grandmother died during the time he was fighting back.
“It’s been a tough journey, to be honest,” he said, adding that he tried to deal with it all internally and that almost cost him his life.
“I’m going to just be honest with you all because I’m more vulnerable and more confident in myself by just saying it. At one point, I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be in this world,” he said. “There was one point where I didn’t want to be heard from anymore because I lost my granny and that really hurt me. God gave me the strength to just get out of that hole because he knew I was strong enough to get through [it].”
When Tim Patrick was carted off the field during Wednesday’s practice, Hamler went to the locker room with him - no doubt an empathetic gesture from one who knows the tough road ahead (Patrick learned later it was a season-ending ACL tear).
KJ Hamler said it was "unexplainable" to see Tim Patrick suffer his injury today & said it gave him a "flashback" to his injury last year.— Aric DiLalla (@AricDiLalla) August 2, 2022
After the play, Hamler walked off the field, followed Patrick into the building and prayed with him.
The lowest point for Hamler was the night he learned his grandmother - the woman who had raised him - had lost her battle with Parkinson’s.
“That was my mother. My grandmother was my mother. I took her to get her hair done, took her to get food all of the time. Every time I came home, I saw her first. I called her every Monday. When I missed that call on that Monday and then we got the call on Saturday. There is a lot of regret in my heart from that. It was three months after surgery. I was holding a lot of regret on myself about that. It still kind of haunts me to this day, even though I am better. When you lose the woman that raised you, it’s just a different feeling.”
But he gives that woman a lot of credit for the reason he’s still here. Knowing he’d let her down if he didn’t keep digging was enough to keep him in the fight.
“Hands down the lowest point of my life,” he said. “To see me dig out of it and then start becoming vulnerable with people I trust and start opening up more.”
Blessed to still be here. I know the people who care about me need me. #dontgiveup— KJ HAMLER (@Kj_hamler) August 2, 2022
Hamler also got real about the importance of counseling for mental health. He didn’t seek it out at first, but eventually he felt like he had no choice.
“At first, I didn’t talk to anybody. I was just in a cocoon, wrapped up. I just kept everything to myself,” he said. “I feel like, as a man, we always say to be tough or just block everything out. ... Sometimes, you have to let it out. Sometimes you need help, and I’m just starting to learn that now.”
Hamler says he talks to his family more, his teammates more, his “guys” more.
“We’re so used to bottling stuff up and just taking it to the chin a lot. I’m just learning each day, day in and day out,” he said. “I’m glad I’m still here and still with the team. I got my family around. Just being on the field has been a big help.”
But Hamler is no longer afraid to tell everyone it’s been hard.
“It’s been a tough year, but you see me where I’m at right now. You see that I’m still here and I’m still working to be the best version of myself,” he said. “I know everyone around here is proud of me. I’m proud of myself from where I came from—Step 1 to right now. I’ll just keep pushing from there.”