Guillermo brings brightness to Tigers' spirits

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Jay Guillermo loves his team, which given his role as the starting center on Clemson's powerful offensive line and the Tigers' place in the College Football Playoff should probably go without saying. It's just that Guillermo still says it -- again, and again, and again.

During practice, when the coaches are yelling and the sun is baking and the players are struggling, Guillermo pats a teammate on the back and says "I love you."

"It can get a little weird," tight end Jordan Leggett said.

After a bad play, line coach Robbie Caldwell will rip into his players, a whirlwind of fury whipping up and down the sideline. And after a brief cooling-off period, Guillermo will sidle up next to Caldwell, grin, and in a familiar Southern drawl offer an olive branch. "I still love you, Coach."

"It ruins the whole mood," Caldwell said.

Or when Deshaun Watson hurls a bad pass to undermine a potential scoring drive, Guillermo is there, too. It hasn't happened often, but Watson usually trudges to the sideline to consider his mistake. Guillermo is in tow, blurting "I love you" whether Watson wants to hear it or not.

"I just tell him, 'I'm going to stand here until you tell me you love me, too,'" Guillermo said.

Watson invariably cracks, because Guillermo is always sincere. In turn, Guillermo has become the heart of his team.

It was just a year ago, however, that he was ready to walk away from it all.

This is how depression works.

Guillermo wanted to play for Clemson since he was in the second grade. His grandfather was a lifelong football coach, and the sport was in Guillermo's blood. In high school, he had played through injuries, outworked his competition, stayed after practice to flip tires just for fun. He loved flipping tires.

By the end of the 2014 season, he hated football.

Up and down Guillermo's arms are tattoos. One -- a recent addition -- commemorates his teammates on the Tigers' offensive line. Most of the others are Scripture, testaments to the other tradition he and his family share. They are devout.

By the end of the 2014 season, Guillermo was questioning his faith.

As a recruit, Guillermo was a star -- ranked in the top 100 prospects by ESPN. Big-time programs drooled over his potential. He was strong and smart and, as Caldwell noted, loves to play physical.

By the end of the 2014 season at Clemson, Guillermo was convinced he couldn't make it. He languished in his failures.

"He was questioning everything," his mother, Christie Clary, said.

Guillermo didn't fully understand it at the time, but he knew was sick.

The jubilant kid who loved his family and football had receded into the darkness. His health was suffering. His skin was gray and his eyes sunken. He gained weight. He lost weight. He needed help, but he didn't know where to turn, so he drank excessively as a form of self-medication.

"I wasn't going to tell the coaches," Guillermo said. "I'm supposed to be this big, tough football player. They can't know I have any weakness."

By January, it had become too much. Guillermo woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and decided he needed a change. That was the last time he thought about football for months.

The extent of Guillermo's sickness was hard to fathom. His blood pressure was sky high. He had thyroid issues. He was seeing an endocrinologist and a family practitioner, talking to alcohol counselors and therapists.

"It was insane how out of whack my body was," Guillermo said.

Fixing the physical problems was the easy part. Plugging back into the world was tougher.

After he returned home to North Carolina, Guillermo's parents forced him to keep busy -- cleaning the house, doing laundry, shuttling his brother to and from school. He worked out at the gym. Teammates called and texted, offering support. Therapists offered myriad suggestions, but for a long time, it all seemed like a burden.

"Now that I look back, every suggestion they gave, I was like, 'I can't do it,'" Guillermo said. "Everything was negative. You see nothing positive. That sounds really dark, but it's true. But when you get into the light, it's something you can be proud of."

There was no specific moment when that light came for Guillermo. It was a gradual process, but he remembers thumbing through social media and seeing video and pictures from spring practice that lit a spark. Those grueling days on the practice field he'd dreaded just a few months earlier now seemed like paradise.

It took a while for Guillermo to decide he was ready to go back to Clemson, but Dabo Swinney had promised his spot would be waiting. He returned in June, and while Clary was worried campus life might result in a relapse for her still-fragile son, it turned out to be a blessing.

After Guillermo's first game back with the team, Clary remembers hugging Guillermo on the field -- a tighter hug than they'd shared in a long time.

"I could see that light in his eyes again," she said.

Guillermo is a master of impersonations. He does a wicked Dabo Swinney, a spot-on Brent Venables.

"If I have to go to the bathroom during a meeting, he can fill in because he can sound just like me," Caldwell said.

As this season has progressed and the stakes for Clemson have grown, Guillermo's impersonations and jokes have been a calming influence. The guys love them. On Fridays, before the team movie, he has a regular stand-up routine that's must-see entertainment.

The jokes, the laughter -- this is the real Jay Guillermo. It had just been a long time since he'd felt like that person. That's the thing about depression. It's a fun-house mirror, but it feels like reality. It's easy to lose track of what's real and what's not.

The other thing about depression is, it's never entirely cured. It's always there, lurking in those dark places that Guillermo hopes to avoid. And the way he has done it is by talking. This doesn't always come naturally, even if his down-home swagger and impish humor would indicate otherwise. But he understands the path he has walked, and he wants to share his story.

"Depression is a thing you have to talk about, because if you don't, it will consume you," he said. "And there are a few guys around here that have dealt with the same thing and have asked me about it, what did I do to change it."

Two games into the season, starting center Ryan Norton went down with an injury. Guillermo stepped in and eventually seized the starting job. He finished the year as an All-ACC performer, and yet that might not be his biggest contribution to the Tigers this season.

"He came back, and everyone put their arms around him," Swinney said, "and man, what a difference he's made for us."

Guillermo is happy to talk about his fight publicly, too. After the first stories came out earlier this fall, Clary got a call from one of the counselors who'd worked with Guillermo during the depths of his depression. Seven other men had phoned him in the span of 24 hours to talk about their own problems, inspired by Guillermo's openness.

It's a funny thing, Guillermo said. For so long, he was doing an impersonation of the person he thought he was supposed to be -- self-possessed, tough, withdrawn. He was good at it, but it nearly destroyed him.

Now, he's free to be himself, the goofy lineman who tells his QB how much he loves him after every bad throw.

"It's family here," Watson said, "and he feels like it's a big part of what changed his life. So when he says it, he means it."