Beating the Blues: A team sport

Enlisting others to help take on depression.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Some moments are so etched in irony that they almost seem surreal. One occurred in Houston, where I had gone to meet with Philip J. Burguieres (burg-yair'), a top-level executive who was willing to talk about his own experience with depression and his experience with other CEOs with depression.

A key player on the Houston business scene, many times CEO of the Year, Burguieres is now Vice Chairman of the Houston Texans, the newest franchise in the National Football League. We were to meet in his offices -- in Reliant Stadium, a state of the art arena that dwarfs the famed Astrodome now sitting like an abandoned child beside it.

I entered through the corporate offices, and absent the team photos on the wall you'd be hard pressed to know you weren't heading to a meeting in a downtown office complex.

But how could I get the conversational ball rolling? I'm your basic sissy-girl New Yorker. Spectator sports? I head to the ballet.

My hairdresser saved me. Once a soccer player, now a fan of all sports, he took it upon himself to brief me. “Look,” he said while cutting my hair shortly before I left, “there's only one thing you need to know. This was Houston's first season and they beat Dallas. Got it? They beat Dallas.”

His briefing proved perfect. That's the great thing about being a journalist. You never know when you're going to pick up useful info.

I spent half a morning talking to Burguieres. Then he brought in one of his closest friends, John Sage, whom, he says, saved his life.

A big, handsome guy with a remarkably gentle presence, Sage runs Bridges To Life, a pioneering prison-based organization he started in order to put a human face on crime. But Sage was right at home in the football stadium -- he had, after all, once been a star linebacker for Louisiana State University

At noon, the three of us headed for the cafeteria where the players normally eat. But in mid-January there are no players around; it is off-season. Still, this is marked turf and as we enter the muscle part of the stadium, the testosterone in the air is overpowering.

Did I know that players these days spend 80% of their training time in the classroom? And so Burguieres shows me facilities that would be the envy of the classiest executive conference center. Then I get to see the weight-training room, the world's largest.

Bounding down the stairs in this temple of brawn, Burguieres and Sage are bantering as I am scribbling. They are recalling the darkest time of their lives. Now they can laugh. Back then, Burguieres had spent three months at a prime mental health facility and was still feeling grim. Sagehit bottom after financial reversals and the brutal murder of his closest sibling. Then by chance they ran into each other. Neither could believe the other was suffering from depression.

“But John,” Burguieres said to Sage, “you can't be depressed. You were an All American football player. You're tough.” Sage, equally dumbfounded, replied, “But Philip, how can you be depressed. You've got all that money and that gorgeous house.”

That moment alone was worth the trip. Two powerful guys doing significant things in the world telling this story on themselves, laughing about how they were both painfully, almost fatally, trapped in the mythology of success and masculinity -- as we are racing through the corridors of this palace of power.

Neither one reached that level of self-awareness overnight. It took a couple of years. And only because they did it together -- shoulder to shoulder, says Sage.

The bond they forged with each other was their passport out of depression. And that's another irony. Everything in a CEO's life -- motivation, success, the job itself -- is designed to set him apart. And yet, that is an almost sure path to depression. It takes a strong guy to realize that the cure is in connecting.