STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The plan had been to swallow 50 sleeping pills and end it. That's what Joey Julius kept telling himself in March, when he walked into Penn State's football facility on a Monday morning and stepped on a scale for the first time in weeks. The number mortified him.
He no longer cared that he was the Nittany Lions’ kicker affectionately nicknamed “Big Toe.” He no longer cared whether he lived. He told a team trainer that if he was left to return to his apartment alone, to his stash of pills, he would attempt suicide for the second time in three years.
Less than eight months later — after turning over the pills and checking into a rehabilitation clinic in St. Louis, leaving behind State College and a college football program in the midst of its return to national prominence — Julius returned to campus and stepped on an auditorium stage on a Monday night in November. He nervously held a microphone and began reading a speech to hundreds of his peers, tracing the arc of his descent into a binge-eating disorder. His voice was hurried at first. He wore a burgundy sweater and khakis, telling the crowd that it takes him an hour to pick out clothes every day until he finds something that makes him look skinny enough to appear in public.
“My body image has never been good,” Julius said.
But maybe the most startling confession Julius made was that, for the first time in his 22 years, he is starting to learn how to love himself. Public speaking has been therapeutic. So has his retreat to Harrisburg, about a 90-minute drive away, where he attends a Penn State satellite school and roots for the Nittany Lions every weekend.
Julius finds peace in the fact that he played a role in the program’s rebuild into one of the best in the country. But he is more concerned with rebuilding himself, a process that has turned Julius into a powerful voice in the fight to bring awareness to eating disorders among males and athletes.
“I know that’s what he wants to do, because he has this platform now,” said his mother, Patty .
‘I saw videos everywhere’
Joey Julius joked on stage that he was afraid of his mother, that he would hide food from her starting at an early age. She would move the large wooden bed in his room to clean and find countless empty food wrappers. She could see signs that her son was obsessed with food: He would memorize restaurant signs and blurt them out in the car, and he would often eat secret meals with his father, Larry, after soccer practice before Joey returned home to eat what his mother had cooked for dinner.
Joey said his relationship with his father was complicated by his struggle with binge eating — and that Larry, a former professional soccer player, had helped hook him on diuretics and diet pills.
“As a child, I looked for approval from everyone. I even went to my own father and found no approval and actually found conditions set by him, where I had to lose weight in order to earn his love,” Joey Julius said.
The feeling wasn’t limited to his own household. His pediatrician made jokes about his weight. A youth soccer coach made him keep a weight journal. As a teenager, when he starred in soccer and football at Lower Dauphin High in Hummelstown, Pa., some colleges offered him scholarships but attached weight stipulations. Julius was binge eating so often that he had gained 40 pounds in the few months before he arrived at Penn State to walk on as a kicker.
It only got worse once he started college with an unlimited meal plan and freedom from his parents for the first time. His weight fluctuated between 240 and 280 pounds for much of the next three years, which seemed to bring one harrowing experience after another. In the fall of 2015, he attempted suicide for the first time by overdose. After Penn State was upset by Temple in the season opener, his first game as the team’s kicker, he returned to the locker room and heard people snickering. He checked his phone. It was nearly dead. He had thousands of Twitter notifications.
“I became a viral sensation because of the way I looked. . . . I saw videos everywhere. Basically people . . . talking only about my weight and not about my play,” Julius said.
‘It can be very isolating’
By 2016, Julius was listed at 5-foot-10 and 258 pounds, his national profile revolved around his weight, and his binge eating was spiraling out of control. He attended McCallum Place, a treatment facility in St. Louis with programs tailored to men and athletes, for the first time. Julius was focused on returning to football throughout his treatment, and he returned after a couple of months.
He went public with his struggle for the first time in a Facebook post in October 2016. He also made national headlines by delivering crushing hits on kick returns and bearing the brunt of several late hits by players at Minnesota and Maryland. For the first time in his career, it finally appeared he was garnering attention for his play, not his weight.
But Julius continued to struggle with binge eating, which brought on depression and anxiety, and it wasn’t until he brought up his suicidal thoughts to Tim Bream, Penn State’s head athletic trainer, in March that he realized football would not fill the void in his life.
He returned to McCallum Place with a new mind-set. He started group therapy and returned to a regimented eating plan. There were only two other male adults, he said, but the key was that Julius befriended two younger boys who had checked into the facility. He never tried to tell them how to get better. He just tried to be a friend. They played countless games of Phase 10. They put together puzzles. They colored in coloring books.
“Sometimes there is a stigma and some shame with the struggles that oftentimes individuals with eating disorders experience prior to treatment. It can be very isolating,” said Riley Nickols, a psychologist who oversees the Victory Program, the sports-specific wing at McCallum Place where Julius was admitted. “Shared experiences can be a powerful agent to change and healing.”
Unlike the first time Julius was released from McCallum Place, he wasn’t driven to return to football the second time. He just wanted to get better. He moved to Harrisburg to begin new classes and to be closer to his family. He might return to State College in the spring, but he won’t kick for the football team again.
Julius still sometimes struggles with buying food in public — “I could be buying salads, and I’ll still have anxiety about it,” he said — but Julius is beginning to accept his body for the first time. It remains an everyday struggle. It was a struggle even as he took the stage and spoke in State College earlier this month, when he earned a standing ovation after giving the crowd a parting piece of advice.
“Compare and despair,” he said. “I am not like you; you are not like me. And If I keep trying to be like somebody that I’m not, then I will not be anything.”
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