MISSOULA — Colton Keintz remembers the first time his mental health needed urgent addressing.
It was 2019, and the Montana Grizzlies had just played at Oregon and were gearing up for a home game with Monmouth. A redshirt sophomore at the time for UM, Keintz required help.
"I knew that I needed some help and I needed it soon so I stepped aside, I stepped back and I admitted myself to the Providence Health Center (in Missoula) to get some help," Keintz recalled. "I was in there for a week. Everybody was super supportive during that time. My teammates were there, a few of them even visited me, but that was part of the reason why I went to Providence because I couldn't get out of my own head and it was doing a number on me. It was taking a huge toll."
It was a big step Keintz needed to take action for his anxiety, something he says he's dealt with for all his life.
But that anxiety again came to a head this season, and Keintz realized he needed to step away from football to focus on himself, so he recently retired from college football and left the Grizzlies.
"I was starting to get worried that I couldn't be helped because I had been dealing with this for so long and I'm still dealing with it and sometimes there's that nagging feeling that I'm beyond help," Keintz said. "I'm just a lost cause in terms of getting help with my anxiety and depression and just finding a way to combat it and that's a scary feeling.
"I had to do what was best for me in that time and this decision kind of goes in that same vein where I needed to do what was best for me. I needed to take care of myself because I felt like I was putting so much of myself into other things that I wasn't taking care of me and it was taking a toll on me."
Keintz, now a redshirt junior, has been a multi-year starter for the Grizzlies on the offensive line, and recently earned the starting right guard spot this year for UM and appeared in the first three games. He left the team a few days before their game against Eastern Washington.
His journey through football has been an unorthodox one, as the 6-foot-8 Keintz didn't begin playing football until his sophomore year of high school, though he didn't truly play much until he was a senior with the Eagles. He walked on at UM in 2017, and in 2018 played in all 11 games as a redshirt freshman. Keintz was thrown into the fire for UM that year due to lack of depth on the offensive line, but he ran with the opportunity and earned the right tackle starting spot.
He started five games at right tackle in 2019 and in the spring began rotating in as a top option at right guard before earning the starting spot there as well.
"I love the kid, I think he's an awesome, awesome guy," Griz coach Bobby Hauck said on his coaches show on Oct. 6 about Keintz. "He wants to work in the sports information world so I think we're going to try to get him hooked up with an internship and he'll be valuable because he understands football. We're going to miss him but he's been battling some of this stuff for a long time. It's totally his decision, I wish he was playing but he's got to do what he needs to do.
"He should be credited. He's a guy who didn't really play much in high school and walked on and we get in that situation where we've got no offensive linemen and it's like, 'Hey, you're playing.' And he's like, 'What? Me?' From the day we walked in the door to (when he left) he came a million miles and I think he'll be better for it, certainly."
But it was after UM's game against Cal Poly where the Missoula native knew he needed to start seriously considering stepping away from the game he loved to prioritize himself to help his mental health. So with support from his teammates and coaches, Keintz hung up his cleats.
"When I started suiting up for gamedays and my head was just completely somewhere else mentally, that was what really pushed me over the edge and I was like, 'OK, I need to think about this,'" Keintz said. "I didn't feel like I was myself for a lot of the time that I was playing. I felt like I was putting on a mask, I was pretending I was OK when I really could've used help and that just took so much of a toll on me, putting that mask on.
"The only thing harder than not being OK is pretending you are."
Mental health is an ever-growing topic among athletes.
NBA All-Stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozen were early voices about the issue, while lately, some of the most recognizable names in sports have begun to step forward from all-time gymnast great Simone Biles this past summer at the Olympics, to tennis star Naomi Osaka and swimming legend Michael Phelps.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, 30% of female and 25% of male college student-athletes suffer from anxiety with only about 10% seeking help.
In the professional sports world, that number is up to 35% of athletes who deal with a range of mental health issues, from anxiety, depression, and more.
Keintz said the biggest step to take is talking about it and continuing the conversation.
"I think the most important thing that we can do to spread awareness for mental health in athletes is to spread awareness for it," Keintz said. "Being open about it, talking about it and not hiding behind these masks and not pretending everything is OK, I think that is the biggest thing we can do for it. Too many people are suffering in silence. They're hidden behind this stigma that athletes are tough, they put up with everything, they don't seem fazed by anything.
"This is real life. This is part of my life, it's not just something that comes and goes. It's something that sticks around. It's a long battle and it's one that for the longest time I was fighting it alone. I was fighting this battle by myself and I didn't realize the help that was available to me and honestly reaching out and getting that help is one of the hardest things you can do but it's the best thing you can do for yourself and it's the best thing I did for myself."
Keintz, who will graduate with a degree in media arts in December, knows anxiety and mental health is something he'll deal with to some degree for the rest of his life, but he also knows he's not alone in his battle.
"No matter how good you are at your sport, these things are temporary, whether you play for a year, a month, or 10-20-30 years, at some point you won't be playing sports anymore, but you will be around," Keintz said. "The most important thing anyone can do is be here and that takes precedent over any sport that they play, any day, whether it's high school football or the Olympics, it's not as important as you being here."