A BURGER WITH A CAUSE
WITH INSPIRATION FROM KEVIN LOVE AND TED LASSO, JAKE BURGER IS BUILDING A MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS “COMMUNITY”
By Jerry Crasnick
Jake Burger, a former Chicago White Sox first-round draft pick and budding major-league prospect, exudes positive energy on and off the field. But two literal missteps rattled his world view and ultimately tested his resolve. When Burger tore his left Achilles tendon twice in a 10-week span in 2018 and didn’t play an inning of affiliated ball for three years, he wondered if his professional career might be ending just when it appeared to be getting started.
With hard work, introspection and support from loved ones, Burger overcame depression, anxiety and the 2020 pandemic-related shutdown to make his big-league debut in July. He hit .263 in 38 at-bats for the White Sox and earned praise for his perseverance and fortitude. He even remade his body, losing 40 pounds during the COVID shutdown in 2020.
Now Burger is using his visibility as an athlete to push for mental health awareness. He’s launching a website (www.jakeburger30.com) and plans to spread his message across a range of platforms. His initiative, “BURGER B.O.M.B.S,” is rooted in five behavioral pillars that he’s incorporated into his daily life:
B – Be Open
O – Open A Book
M – Meditate
B – Break A Sweat
S – Set A Routine
“It’s about finding a community -- whether it's friends, family members, teammates, whatever it may be -- to talk and share what you're feeling.’’ Burger says. “Because more times than not, you're going to find a lot of other people out there that are struggling with similar things. And you figure out you're not alone in this battle.’’
Burger reflected on the dark days and his improbable comeback with the MLBPA. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What brought you to this place as such a strong advocate for mental health?
I tore my Achilles in 2018 on February 26. I have it tattooed (in Roman numerals) on my forearm so I'll never forget that day. Two months later I re-tore it at home stepping out of a sandal – just a normal activity. That one really messed me up mentally, because I never knew if I was going to be able to run around in the backyard with my dog or in the future with my kids, or whatever it may be.
I battled a great deal of anxiety and depression and got diagnosed with PTSD following that second tear. That’s no joke. Three years later, I had gotten through my injury and I posted on Twitter that I had been dealing with depression and anxiety, and I'm here if anybody needs to reach out. I told people, ‘My DMs are open and I’ll be a listening ear for anybody.’ And the response was crazy. It was overwhelming. A lot of people said, ‘Yeah, I dealt with something or a family member has and we're finally through it.’ Other people were like, ‘Hey, I'm dealing with something. What did you do?’ That got me thinking I could use my platform for something greater than just baseball.
For so many years, athletes were told to “suck it up’’ and work through emotional hurdles. Now so many prominent athletes are sharing their stories. Has the message started to resonate?
I think it's always been a part of sports. There's so much stress going on. When you're competing at the highest level, you have so many fans and critics out there as well. Back in the day, there wasn't as much social media and it wasn't so present in terms of criticism. Now if you have a bad game, you're going to get a DM saying, ‘You're terrible at baseball’ and all this stuff. I think now is a good time to use your platform on social media to talk about something that affects so many people out there.
Like everyone in society, athletes are attached to their phones and rarely have a chance to take a breath. How big a problem can that be if you let it?
I know a lot of my teammates don't have Twitter throughout the season. I do it because I think I have a good platform and a good community following me. But when I was hurt, it affected me a lot. I would get like DMs and tweets saying things like, ‘This guy is a bust,’ or, ‘He’s never going to amount to anything.’ And I took it personally.
Then my perspective changed and I was like, ‘People are entitled to their opinion, and that's OK. I'm not going let it affect me in any way.’ Fans are starting to realize that these people are saying negative things and they’ll reply, ‘Hey, we don't do this to our own players.’ So that's been a really cool response, at least through my community. If anybody says anything negative, people are like, ‘We don't do that around here.’ It's been really cool to see.
You said you were diagnosed with PTSD after your second Achilles injury.
Can you elaborate on that?
That’s always a term we use with our veterans and our soldiers, which is very, very real. My case obviously wasn’t to that extent, but there's still trauma that happens in everyday life that people can keep reliving. For me personally, I would feel like my Achilles was tearing again. It didn't matter what I was doing. I could be lying down or sitting on the couch, and my mind would trick my whole body into feeling like I was tearing it again. My body would freeze up, tense up, and I would feel this pain in my Achilles.
I don't even know how to describe the feeling. Sometimes the attacks would last for 10 seconds. Sometimes they would last for five minutes. Then I got diagnosed and I was able to work through it. It's something so many people don’t even recognize because it's not talked about that often, unless it’s a soldier or a veteran dealing with PTSD from the battlefield.
Some athletes recovering from serious injuries say they feel like a non-person around the team. Was that the case with you?
I've been playing baseball since I was three years old. And it feels like everything you’ve ever worked toward is completely taken away from you. That's kind of devastating, but it gave me perspective being in that role. I was like, ‘OK, if baseball doesn't work out, what's next?’ In a way, that thought process is a good thing. But it sucks sitting on the couch watching your boys tearing it up in Double-A and thinking, ‘I wish I was out there having fun with them.’ That's really, really hard to deal with.
I'll never forget what my dad told me. He said, ‘When you're hurt, you need to do something to help other people’ -- whether that's going to a hospital and visiting with children, giving food to the homeless or whatever it may be. It sucks when baseball is taken away from you. But there are a lot of other places you can be right now, and you have to be thankful for where you're at.
Did it make an impression on you when Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and other elite athletes shared their personal mental health struggles?
For sure, because they have a way bigger platform than I do. I'm like, ‘If they're talking about it, I can do my bit and use my platform for that as well.’ Kevin Love was probably the biggest inspiration for me. He posted an article in the Players Tribune and really dove into it when I was still trying to get through my injury, and it was very cool to see him talk about it. Now that I'm through the woods, I feel like maybe I can share my story. If I can help just one person out there, that would be a success for me. But yeah, those athletes are definitely huge for talking about it and sharing their stories.
You went 2-for-4 in your White Sox debut on July 2 last season. After everything you endured, what was it like to reach the majors?
It still doesn't feel real. It was kind of a hectic 365 days. It's a credit to my family, because they were the ones that ultimately got me through it. Obviously I had to do some soul searching myself, but they were with me every step of the way. So when I got called up and called my family and they were so happy and they were getting emotional and crying, it was a surreal feeling. They were there in Detroit to watch me play, and there are no words to describe it. After what I went through the last three years, it’s still hard to comprehend in my head. It was super special.
What do you ultimately want to accomplish with this initiative? Where do you see it leading long-term?
With Burger Bombs, I want to build a community -- kind of a safe space where people can talk about mental health and everybody is focused on positivity and good stories that we all need these days. I think there's a reason why ‘Ted Lasso’ is such a big show. It's because it's a feel-good show. I want to spread positivity and laughs and smiles. There are so many people hurting out there these days. If I can just be a small bright spot in somebody's life, that's what I want to build.
If I help one person with their battle and their journey, that's a win for me. But ultimately, I want to see a growing community where athletes and players can join in and talk about their stories. I don't think fans always recognize that we're human, too. I think it's a good way to create a human connection between fans and athletes.
He served-and-volleyed his way to losing 40 pounds in 2020.
Right when COVID hit, I went back home. There were no gyms open, so I would ride the bike for 30 minutes a day, swim for 30 minutes a day and play tennis for an hour and a half. It worked out because my mom is in the Hall of Fame at the University of Evansville for tennis and my sister played at Missouri State. I had two tennis geeks in the house, and I credit playing tennis with my mom and my sister for getting me through the physical side of my injury.
He’s a St. Louis native who grew up a Chicago sports fan.
I was a contrarian. I liked the Blackhawks and I didn’t like the Blues. I had a hitting coach who would come down from Chicago once a month and give lessons to everybody, and he would put videos side-by-side and compare my swing to Paul Konerko. When I was little I was like, ‘This is my hero.’ That’s how I decided I wanted to be a White Sox fan. Then they won the World Series in 2005 and the Cardinals won in 2006. That was a pretty good two years for my fandom.
Bair’s Sports Grill in Springfield, Mo., has a Jake Burger Mac ‘N Cheese Burger on the menu.
When I was at Missouri State, I would go eat there with my family every Friday night and order the same meal. After I got drafted, they DM’ed me and said, ‘Which one is your favorite?’ So they ultimately named the mac ‘n cheese burger after me. We have the menu laminated in the basement with ‘Jake Burger Mac ‘N Cheese Burger’ circled. I always get a bright smile when I see that menu downstairs.