In March, Joey Julius’ depression and anxiety finally came to a head. The former Penn State kicker walked into his athletic trainer’s office and told him he planned to take his life.
Julius was tired of being known as the “overweight kicker” instead of simply the Nittany Lions’ kicker. He couldn’t silently suffer through the ugly Twitter comments and the off-the-cuff remarks in the national media. And he couldn’t take what felt like teasing, or bullying, from every angle.
It had to end. And, for a time, suicide seemed like the only way out.
“I became a viral sensation because of the way I looked,” Julius said Monday night. “I saw videos everywhere of, I don’t want to say people harassing me, but talking only about my weight and not my play.”
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Julius, who came out publicly a year ago with the admission he suffers from binge-eating disorder, addressed nearly a full Freeman Auditorium as part of Penn State’s Mental Health and Wellness Week. His candid 10-minute discussion led to a standing ovation. His appearance was part of a two-speaker event that was led off by former Broadway actress Amber Krzys, who’s devoted her life to helping others accept their bodies.
Julius, who now attends Penn State-Harrisburg, described the roots of his disorder, how he hid it from others — and how he finally managed to find help. It was a brief, but raw, look into Julius’ experience over the last two years. It also helped bring more attention to eating disorders among men, which — according to the National Eating Disorders Organization — impacts 10 million men just in the U.S.
“I always worried about the way I looked,” Julius said. “My body image has never been good. It takes me about an hour to get ready for the day because I have to find something that I think will make me look skinner, that will make me look better.”
He traced his disorder back to an innocent ritual with his father, who coached soccer. After practice, 9-year-old Joey and his dad would stop somewhere for a quick bite to eat — but the younger Julius was never supposed to tell his mother. Then, they would eat a home-cooked dinner back at their house.
“So, for the next five years, I basically ate two dinners every night,” he said.
Julius’ father grew obsessed with Joey’s weight in high school. He helped Joey get hooked on diet pills and diuretics — “which do not work,” Julius emphasized — and Joey felt his father’s approval was tied in with what numbers showed up on the scale. Joey would hide food in the garage, or sneak food home from his backpack, so his father wouldn’t find it.
Even as he sought solace elsewhere, Julius couldn’t find it. He was a talented soccer player, even if he was a bit bigger than his teammates. He was even invited to a camp for the U.S. National Team when he was 15. He scored plenty of goals and impressed the coaches. But, afterward, they sat him down and, Julius said, “The head coaches said no matter how well I played, unless I got skinnier, they would not continue to bring me back.
“I was not accepted yet again,” Julius added.
He received scholarship offers to play soccer in college, but the renewal of those scholarships also had clauses about his weight. So Julius opted to walk-on to Penn State as a football kicker. He thought that would make things easier.
He was wrong.
He gained 40 pounds shortly after giving up soccer, and his binge-eating disorder was exacerbated by the setup at Penn State. With unlimited meal points and no watchful father at Mifflin Hall, his weight only increased. The football team’s medical staff and his mother eventually approached him. He sought treatment, including two trips to facilities in St. Louis, after he spent six days at Mt. Nittany Medical Center for his suicidal thoughts.
“When I went to treatment the second time, I learned that acceptance came from within,” Julius said. “For so long, I looked at my peers, my family, my friends, my teammates, to find that acceptance — although I never found it from them. I finally found it within myself.”
Julius said he still hasn’t beaten his eating disorder. Sometimes, he still struggles to get out of bed — but he tries to win the small battles: Maybe getting up to brush his teeth, or taking the initiative to tell his parents he loves them, or doing some homework.
He’s learned he may never have a six-pack, and he may not escape the teasing — not completely. But he knows in his mind that March day eight months ago didn’t have the answers. He left the Penn State audience with one final thought Monday, as some students leaned forward and others solemnly rested their chins on their hands.
“I have started to love myself through hours and hours of therapy and hours and hours of talking with friends, just being around people who are better for me and pick me up and don’t put me down,” he said. “So I want to leave you guys with this: Compare and despair.
“I’ve learned if I try to compare myself to everyone else, I will truly despair. I’m not like you, and you’re not like me. ... And, if I keep trying to be like someone I’m not, I will not be anything.”