UTAH UTES

Former Ute David Kozlowski: Kryptonite To Depression Is Connection

May 25, 2023, 8:14 AM

SALT LAKE CITY – Former Ute wide receiver David Kozlowski is one of those rare humans who has taken his near downfall and has turned it into his superpower.

Kozlowski played for Utah from 1992-1995 and very candidly will tell anyone who will listen that he hated football and would have rather been riding the waves in San Diego instead. Add in the inner turmoil of growing up in a complicated family dynamic, and the self-loathing that comes from it while still wanting to please the people around him and you have a recipe for disaster. That’s exactly what Kozlowski’s time with the Utes was.

On the other hand, though, Kozlowski will also admit everything he went through as a reluctant Utah football player prepared him to take on his life’s calling: helping teenagers and young adults not feel as alone as he did. In fact, one of Kozlowski’s greatest weapons in his effort to promote better social health has been going back to that very thing that nearly killed him years ago; drawing upon his connections with Utah and former Utes Robert Johnson and Kenneth Scott in an effort to better connect him with his target audience.

A Troubled Ute

Kozlowski was raised by his grandmother and grandfather, literally knowing them as his parents. He knew his aunts and uncles as his siblings growing up. Once Kozlowski understood his family dynamic, it was not information he willingly shared with anyone, and ultimately was the start of some of the issues he began to have as a young adult.

“The big secret was I was raised by my grandmother,” Kozlowski said. “My grandmother had a baby out of wedlock in the Hawaiian Islands back in the day- it wasn’t really cool to have a baby out of wedlock. She started dating someone right after she had the baby and they got married. One thing led to another and he adopted my biological mom and raised her as his own. Then, unfortunately, my biological mom had a lot of issues with mental health problems and addiction. It wasn’t going to work out for her to raise a baby and so my grandmother came in and raised me, but no one really knew that growing up. It was a secret that I didn’t want to share with anyone. I was embarrassed and ashamed.”

Part of that shame and embarrassment came from knowing he didn’t quite fit in with the competitive and athletic prowess his family possessed. All six of his older “siblings” earned Division I athletic scholarships. Two of his older “brothers” played in the NFL for years. The same expectations were in place for Kozlowski, but it wasn’t really what he wanted for himself.

“You want to live up to that and make your family proud,” Kozlowski said. “Yeah, I’m going to be a pro football player too…I didn’t even really like football. I was a surfer and a skateboarder. I quite football for two or three years because I just wanted to surf. One day my brother who was playing for the Miami Dolphins and my other brother who was playing in college for BYU called me up and very unpolitely let me know that I was an idiot and wasn’t going to college for an academic scholarship. There are no surfing scholarships.”

That conversation got Kozlowski back on the gridiron and earning the attention of college football teams. Kozlowski said despite his family being more for BYU, it just wasn’t going to work for him, so he opted to go to Utah without knowing very much if anything about them outside of liking head coach Ron McBride.

Kozlowski started as a freshman which only added to the turmoil going on inside of him. As he puts it, when you start as a freshman, it usually isn’t because you are that good, but because you’re the only option. Still, Kozlowski says the attention fed his ego and then hurt his ego when the injuries piled up and he found out he really did need to go to class.

“I didn’t even know where any of my classes were,” Kozlowski said. “I didn’t go to school. I didn’t take it seriously, got on all the restrictions. My freshman year, I was arrested three times. I met with the president who told me one more altercation and I was going to be kicked out of school. I was on probation. I had to go to hours of anger management which I thought was funny because it was really rage management I needed. It was just a nightmare for me after my freshman season, one injury led to another.”

 

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Eventually the injuries Kozlowski was facing were life threatening- being knocked out cold from a concussion, lacerating his liver and nearly bleeding out on the field, and finally a suicide attempt after he was told he could no longer play a sport he never really loved to begin with.

“My football career was over because of concussions,” Kozlowski said. “I mean, I had a speech impediment. It was bad. My speech would lock up for 10 minutes at a time. I’d have to write notes to people. It was a very serious brain disorder, and I had this speech impediment for 15 years. The top three neurologists in the state of Utah all banned me from playing football. That led to my suicide attempt and thankfully I wasn’t successful.

Ron McBride Changed My Life

Back when Kozlowski was playing football, it was rather rare to have an understanding head coach. You were supposed to “be a man, rub some dirt on it”, but Utah head coach Ron McBride was way ahead of his time as any of his former players will vouch for. Kozlowski is one of those many former players who benefitted from McBride’s unorthodox approach to coaching after his suicide attempt.

“When I came out of that, Ron McBride was there,” Kozlowski recalls. “He said something to me that was life changing at the time. ‘I know this isn’t who you are, it’s what you’re going through, and I love you, man.’ As a young man at 23 years old, not knowing who you are- it’s not pretty when athletes are done with their careers. It can get pretty dark for some guys. That’s your identity, that’s who you are. For me, I had this secret that I was adopted, and nobody knew those weren’t my biological brothers. I kept all of these secrets in, and it caused me to have issues with addictions, all of those concussions, and then my suicide attempt, but after McBride said that I broke down crying. Then he goes, ‘Will you promise me you’ll go to get help?'”

In A Shocking Move, David Kozlowski Comes Back To Utah

Kozlowski did get help and did eventually finish school, becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist. He moved back to San Diego- at the time calling his best time in Utah the day that he left, but life can be hilarious and ironic at times, and that certainly was the case for Kozlowski. While still in California living his best surfer dude life, Kozlowski was set up on a blind date with a girl from Riverton, Utah. They eventually got married, and on a fateful trip to visit her family, Kozlowski got the strong impression that they needed to move back to Utah.

“We visited here one time to see her family and when we came back, without sounding cheesy, something was in my chest, burning, saying, ‘you need to move to Utah,'” Kozlowski said. “I’m not joking when I say I was anti-Utah. Like I was a Utah hater for a while. Like, not on the school or the football team, but just my experience.”

Kozlowski said he let it go for a while, but the feeling wouldn’t go away and so he and his wife eventually made their way back to Utah. Once settled, Kozlowski recalls having a dreaded feeling that he may have committed career suicide based off of his preconceived and jaded notions about Utah from his time playing football for the Utes. As he quickly found out, those notions were exactly why his career would take off in ways he never imagined.

“Families don’t have issues here, I’m a family therapist that specializes in teens,” Kozlowski said. “I literally thought I was going to come to Utah, and I was going to be out of business because there wasn’t enough people with issues to help. I need for people to struggle in order to be relevant. My job requires teens and families not to get along and I thought it was perfect here. Oh, was I wrong.”

David Kozlowski Turns His Downfall Into His Calling

Kozlowski’s career really took off when he was introduced to the daughter of one of his other clients who was struggling after being sexually assaulted by her best friend’s dad. The girl had been a cheerleader and straight-A student before her assault, but clearly was struggling with what had happened to her after the fact and Kozlowski had to figure out how to help her get back on track.

“She came in to see me and over her clothes, she had a blanket,” Kozlowski recalled. “I’d meet with her every week and she’d barely talk. She was really traumatized- like the type of trauma I’d worked with in psych hospitals. I had to be very careful and gentle, also, with me being a male and her being traumatized by a male, I had to make sure that was a good fit at first. She and I hit it off immediately.”

Like most people who go through extremely traumatic experiences though, the girl had her good days and her bad days as Kozlowski set out to help her get her life back. One of her bad days was a serious suicide attempt that she survived and approached Kozlowski with an idea that would change everything.

 

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“She explained to me this experience she had while she was in the psychiatric ward,” Kozlowski said. “She called it the ‘Noah’s Ark’ of teenagers. You’ve got two emo kids, two skater kids, two stoner kids, two jock kids, two kids who look like they are going on a mission, and she found out pretty quickly they could all relate to each other despite having different backgrounds.”

Thus the idea for Quit Trip’n, Kozlowski’s first non-profit was born.

“She said we needed something like this for our community,” Kozlowski said. “It’s got to be free, it can’t be a depression group, a suicide group, a sexual assault survivor group- it can’t be any of those things, but it has to help you with depression, anxiety, sexual assault. It’s got to help you with those things, but it can’t be labeled those things or teenagers won’t come.”

It’s Not Mental Health, It’s Social Health

Quit Trip’n took off. It gained sponsors, it became a radio show and podcast spinoff, but most importantly it was helping kids the way that kids said they needed to be helped. The group, in an effort to de-stigmatize the conversations about what they were going through even coined a new phrase for “mental” health, opting instead for “social” health.

“The kids, in a genius way had this great idea,” Kozlowski said. “I didn’t want to call it mental health. They didn’t want to call it mental health. So what should we call it? When we’re hanging out with each other, we help each other. When you have strong social connections, all of your problems become more manageable. Life is all about relationships. It didn’t matter what they did, it mattered what they were going through. They had compassion and learned about each other’s life experiences and became friends. They all said we should call it social health.”

 

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David Kozlowski Unwittingly Creates OG Therapy

As time went on, Quit Trip’n continued to evolve and morph into a school curriculum that can be taught in junior highs and high schools as well as Kozlowski’s newest project, OG Therapy. In order to kick things up a notch, Kozlowski has enlisted the help of two other former Utes, safety Robert Johnson, and receiver Kenneth Scott to help spread wisdom and advice through both podcasts and school assemblies.

“I didn’t try to make this happen,” Kozlowski said. “It’s the definition of organic. When I was doing those Quit Trip’n groups, many people in the sports world would come into the groups cuz I’d have them come sit in. They thought they were coming to give a speech and talk to them. This was the biggest trick, they’d show up, see 40 chairs in a big circle and I’d tell them they were actually there to sit, observe, and participate like you’re one of the teenagers. Two of those people who stood out were Robert Johnson and Kenneth Scott. They came back. They were repeat offenders.”

 

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Part of what makes OG Therapy so special is that Kozlowski didn’t enlist the help of other, strict mental health professionals, but instead two guys who have lived a lot of life in a short period of time and have a way of connecting to the people they come in contact with.

“Kenneth Scott and RoJo have such a unique talent,” Kozlowski said. “What’s special about them is that they did this for free with me because they are like me. They aren’t money motivated; they aren’t doing things for what they get in return. They always volunteered to help out youth and still work with youth, so I hit them up about this and we started doing high schools just to get our feet wet. We started to do the podcast, and now it’s turned into, we do high schools, middle schools, and I just met with a large company here, we’ve talked to two very big companies here in the state of Utah that are now hiring us to come do similar presentations for their company.”

The Kryptonite To Depression Is Connection

While one-size-fits all mental and social health is impossible to come by, the one thing Kozlowski hopes people take away from him is the importance of connecting with other people and building meaningful relationships. Healthier relationships won’t solve all of your problems, but they are a great start to improving all aspects of your life.

“It’s hard to give one general thing,” Kozlowski said. “The kryptonite to depression, addiction, pretty much anything that ails you is connection. I believe the kryptonite to all of those negative things is connection. Human beings are hardwired to connect. We’ve evolved to be the most dominant species on this planet, not because we are bigger, stronger, faster with sharper teeth and bigger claws. We started being able to take on the thoughts and feelings of other people and work together. Unfortunately, what creates the best connections is a shared struggle. When you feel like you’re isolated, when you feel like you’re alone, when you feel like nobody can relate to you- you are now on a trajectory to isolation and loneliness. If you are going through a struggle, you don’t have to go through it alone.”

If you or someone you know is struggling the National Suicide Lifeline is available 24/7 online or at 988.

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports

 

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