THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- A smile swept across Micah Kiser's face when he described his performance in the Los Angeles Rams' victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. The inside linebacker forced a key turnover to start the game, then finished with a team-high 16 tackles.
His feeling of joy and excitement marked a drastic change compared to how he felt a year ago. Kiser was having a difficult time, pretty much on par with how most athletes feel after suffering a devastating injury.
A fifth-round pick from Virginia in 2018, Kiser was on track to start in his second NFL season but tore his pectoral muscle during a preseason game. Even after suffering the injury, Kiser remained on the field another four plays, not wanting to succumb to the inevitable. It would be a long season watching the Rams play from the sideline.
"The easiest thing was just to feel sorry for myself," said Kiser, who played on special teams as a rookie. "It took a while to get over that, honestly."
It also took help.
Enter Dr. Carrie Hastings, the Rams' clinical and sports psychologist, whose profile within the organization has continued to expand since her hiring three years ago.
"I met with her every week," Kiser said. "She was great."
A former track athlete at Notre Dame before turning to psychology, Hastings serves players, coaches and anyone else within the organization who needs an outlet. She's introduced to the team at the beginning of the season, shortly after rookies and veterans report to camp.
Typically, not long after, players begin to seek her out or sometimes are even encouraged to pay her a visit. No topic is off limits: Hastings will discuss everything from performance-related issues to family matters. Over the last six months, that also includes added stressors caused by the novel coronavirus.
"There is a wealth of material for us to cover right now," Hastings said. "We talk about anything and everything. I leave it up to them and kind of meet them where they are."
Anxiety and stress are common discussions during training camp, as players compete to make the 53-man roster. Injury, performance and playing-time issues arise throughout the season, as do stressors caused by family life.
Coach Sean McVay, who has the Rams off to a 2-0 start as they prepare to play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, calls Hastings' contributions, "Huge."
"That's one of the things that is so important is to be able to have people that you can talk to," McVay said. "It's an important resource."
Conversations with Hastings are confidential and have no bearing on a player's status or playing time with the team.
"They don't have to worry about anything getting back to coaches or their status on the team being impacted," Hastings said. "It really is just a place for them to reflect, to vent, to process things as they're happening."
Hastings says that participation among players and coaches has continually increased as word spreads about the benefits of speaking to a mental health professional, which could include providing a competitive edge or finding an advantage in how they prepare for the game.
"Players at this level, if you tell them that brushing their teeth five times a day will make them better, they'll do it," Hastings said, a smile in her voice. "So, anything that can help enhance their performance or their healing, they want to take advantage of."
Left guard Joe Noteboom spoke openly about meeting with Hastings throughout the last year after suffering a torn ACL that sidelined him six games into the season. So did center Brian Allen, who -- like Noteboom -- tore his ACL with seven games remaining.
"She was awesome," said Allen, who is serving as a backup this season to center Austin Blythe.
Noteboom said the rehabilitation process after undergoing knee surgery was grueling and that a sense of hopelessness sometimes creeps in because the recovery journey can take anywhere between six to nine months, sometimes longer.
"You can kind of get down on yourself and not feel like you're ever going to get back," said Noteboom, who earned the starting job last season as only a second-year pro after the Rams selected him with a third overall pick from TCU in 2018.
Noteboom explained Hastings' technique that leaned into visualization, so that -- despite being on crutches at the time -- he could envision himself returning to the field.
"We would just go in and talk about how to get the right mindset and how to get the right mentality for rehab," said Noteboom, who returned to his starting job this season. "Talking through how not to get down on yourself, and how to bounce back and how to stay motivated."
A year later than he expected, Kiser made his first NFL start in Week 1.
In two games, he leads the team with 23 total tackles and three pass deflections. In Week 2 against the Eagles, his forced fumble helped the Rams take an early lead, and he also made a crucial third-down stop that forced the trailing Eagles to settle for a field goal.
A long rehabilitation process, both physically and mentally, was complete.
"Just happy I made it over that," Kiser said. "And I'm just glad to play football again."