Before he became a leader for Maryland soccer, Paul Bin had to confront his depression
Forward Paul Bin changes direction against a defender in Maryland’s scoreless draw against Virginia at Audi Field on Sept. 3, 2018. (Evan Kramer/The Diamondback)
In the middle of the 2015 season, Paul Bin received a rare phone call from Maryland men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski, summoning him to his office.
Bin was nervous, unsure whether the meeting would address his academics or recent performances — both of which had tailed off just months into his first semester of college. His dread grew when he arrived to see not only the head coach, but the entire staff huddled into the room.
“Paul, do you have something you want to tell me?” Cirovski asked.
Bin instantly realized what the peculiar meeting was about, and his entire right leg began shaking involuntarily. Even though he’d only told his secret to then-athletic trainer Matt McKelvey, it was clear the other coaches had been let in on it.
“I knew that I’d been found out,” Bin said. “In that moment it was very tough for me, and I started crying right there. I just bawled.”
Bin told the room what they already knew: he was in an increasingly unbearable battle with symptoms of depression, and he needed help.
“He explained that he was in a deep and lonely place, a very sad place,” Cirovski said. “I remember giving him a big hug and telling him that we’re going to help him through this.”
The spring after that meeting with Cirovski, Bin decided he needed to step away from the program — and the country — to reverse his yearslong slide into depression. His coach didn’t think he’d be back.
Now, three years later, both Bin and Cirovski still vividly remember that meeting. And though his teammates didn’t have a full grasp of what Bin was going through at the time, they see the difference between the withdrawn freshman who came off the bench three years ago and the jovial junior leading a postseason charge in 2018.
‘No green on the other side’
The gradual freefall started in high school. Bin didn’t have a history of mental illness growing up, but his frequent time away from his family in Seoul, South Korea, was catching up to him.
Bin lived in England for his adolescent years, which gave him the British accent he still has today, and moved to the United States to play for Real Salt Lake’s youth academy.
“I’ve always been away from home and never really been with my family,” Bin said. “I’ve always been away here and there for soccer. It started there and just kept building up in college, built up to the point where I couldn’t take it.”
Bin didn’t show any warning signs when he first came to College Park, but his coaches and teammates started to notice a personality change. Midfielder Amar Sejdic — who, like Bin, went from Real Salt Lake to Maryland and knew his vibrant and talkative personality — recognized the red flags.
“When you see a guy who comes into the locker room pretty quiet and is the first one to leave after training and stays quiet in the dorm room,” Sejdic said, “that obviously sends some signals.”
Bin was receiving playing time off the bench regularly on a highly successful team in 2015. The Terps won the Big Ten tournament and lost one game shy of the College Cup that season.
But none of that prevented him from sliding deeper into his depression. He isolated himself and wouldn’t socialize, wanting to be left alone in his own bubble. He stayed up late at night and cried for hours, and he hid it all from his coaches and teammates.
“That was the first time I truly felt darkness … when I literally saw no way of going up,” Bin said. “There was no green on the other side of the field. Everything seemed dark and so grim.”
At first, Bin refused to come to grips with his mental health condition, but he eventually figured out that he desperately needed help. He confided in McKelvey, who recognized the severity and passed the information to the head coach.
“I knew it was getting too bad to the point where I needed to tell someone,” Bin said. “So I told [McKelvey], talked to him about it. He was so supportive. … He facilitated me moving forward in terms of getting my mental health in a better position.”
‘An answer for everything’
Even before Cirovski was informed about Bin’s depression, he had noticed his personality change. He was no longer the energetic attacker that arrived for the team’s preseason in the summer.
Cirovski — who’s run a competitive, demanding program at Maryland for the last 25 years — wanted Bin to see the compassionate side of a team that genuinely wanted to help him. But every time Cirovski asked if he was okay, Bin lied and said he was fine.
While Cirovski knew something wasn’t right, he didn’t recognize how dire the situation was.
“He just looked really sad. You see little white lies. You see grades start to fall. The performance starts to decrease,” Cirovski said. “All the signs were there … but he always had an answer for everything.”
Bin was reluctant to open up about his feelings. He felt the societal norms of being a male athlete meant he should bottle his emotions and hide from them.
When Cirovski found out the magnitude of Bin’s struggles, he immediately wanted to help.
“We all have issues that we need help to resolve. The first part is to understand that if you have some needs, that we’re here to help,” Cirovski said. “Young men are sometimes afraid to admit that they have any problems, and that’s the hardest part.”
After Bin and the coaches officially addressed his hardships in that mid-season meeting, Bin didn’t appear in a game for the last month of the season. Instead, he began seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist and was clinically diagnosed with depression.
When the Terps’ season ended with a penalty-shootout loss to Clemson in the NCAA quarterfinals, Bin still tried to stay at Maryland during the offseason. He thought perhaps the stress that came with being an athlete in a high-caliber program — and a first-semester college student — was to blame for his mental health.
But it didn’t get better, and Bin concluded that College Park, across the globe from his family and support system, was not where he was going to improve.
He needed to get out, so he did.
“I decided after a long conversation with my family, friends, coaches, that I needed to take a year off and focus on my mental health and my depression,” Bin said. “That was definitely tough, but it was definitely worthwhile.”
The night before the end of the spring semester, the team learned Bin wasn’t returning for his sophomore season. He gave no explanation, but after months of picking up on social cues and body language, his teammates knew something serious was going on, Sejdic said.
Bin withdrew from school, unsure if he would ever return to Maryland. While Cirovski said he never expected him back, he made sure Bin knew he would be welcomed.
“He always had a spot,” Cirovski said. “There was never any question. We wanted him back.”
And eventually, Bin was ready to accept that offer.
‘Still has faith in me’
By the time Bin returned to College Park in 2017, he hadn’t played soccer in a year.
As he recuperated with his family back in South Korea, his focus was solely on his mental health, and his depression began to improve.
Bin’s aunt introduced him to a psychiatrist, whom he met with three times a week. They talked through his mental struggles and discussed how to re-establish a positive outlook on life. Being surrounded by family helped; he was no longer alone in his fight, as he had been for so long.
Meanwhile, Cirovski and other Maryland players stayed in touch with him. The Terps coach called Bin once or twice a month to check up, wanting to make sure he felt the program’s support.
Bin eventually told Sejdic the real reason for his departure, and the duo FaceTimed regularly, despite the 14-hour time difference. Sejdic always urged him to stay in shape so he’d be ready for a comeback, if there was one.
“The beauty of human nature is that you lean on people for emotional support,” Sejdic said. “I wanted to make sure that he knew that I wanted him here, and I believe in his talents.”
That support made a huge difference in whether Bin would come back to college soccer, and if he did, if it would be at Maryland. It meant a lot that his coach made the effort to reach out from across the globe.
“I knew then and there I really wanted to play for Sash,” Bin said. “It was one of those things where I was like, ‘This man still has faith in me, so I’m going to give that right back to him.’”
But while soccer was what took him away from his family throughout his life, it was also what got Bin’s life back on track.
‘Need to be back’
Bin didn’t play any soccer during his time in his home country, but a trip to the Under-20 World Cup helped convince him to come back to College Park.
The tournament was coincidentally in South Korea that year. Maryland midfielder Eryk Williamson was representing the United States, and some former Real Salt Lake players were also taking part.
They contacted Bin and invited him out. When he attended games, Bin knew it was time to return.
As he watched Williamson play, Bin remembered thinking, “I need to be back. … I need to be pursuing what I need to be pursuing.”
He was mentally healthy enough to return, and he decided to re-enroll at Maryland in time for the 2017 season.
“There were other options I could’ve come back to,” Bin said. “I could’ve gone to a different school, maybe a smaller school, but I knew that because Sash supported me so much throughout this whole journey, that I wanted to repay him with a national championship or in whatever way that I could.”
When Bin returned for preseason training, Cirovski was surprised with his progress. He instantly saw someone who looked happy on the field, and his performance was backing it up.
“My goodness, he came in preseason and it was like, ‘Wow,’” Cirovski said. “He looked strong and he looked confident. He was in better physical and mental condition than I expected him to be at the very beginning.”
Cirovski anticipated Bin to be rusty and take an entire year back to get in shape. Instead, he played in eight games off the bench in 2017. They were mostly garbage time appearances, but considering what Bin had been through, they were already an accomplishment.
Still, Bin wanted a bigger role on the team, and his teammates wanted the same for him. They made sure to keep his spirits high so he could make the impact they knew he was capable of.
“I knew he was going to come back so I wanted to make sure that he would come back and actually make an impact on the team rather than just being a body,” Sejdic said. “I wanted his confidence to be high.”
‘Happiest he’s been in his life’
After nearly two years, Bin wanted to tell the entire team the real story behind the year he spent home in South Korea.
Bin always felt like there were rumors circulating that linked his departure to mental illness, but he had never addressed the team as a group. That changed during the team’s trip to England over spring break.
“It was nerve-wracking, but I knew that in my heart that I wanted to do it. I wanted to tell all my brothers and all the people that have cared so much for me,” Bin said. “It was one of those moments that I’ll remember forever, and I’m so happy I did open up.”
With the Terps looking to build chemistry on the trip after losing three of their top four goalscorers from the 2017 season, they had a meeting to discuss objectives for the upcoming season.
Maryland had gone 3-0 during the trip and Bin scored a team-high four goals; an emotional Bin chose that moment to share his story, showing his teammates what he had overcome to get there, and how they had helped.
“He really thanked his teammates and coaches for welcoming him back and that it was the happiest he’s been in his life,” Cirovski said. “He said a lot of really nice things that gave you satisfaction of the kind of program that you’re a part of whether you’re a player or coach.”
Bin’s teammates were overwhelmingly supportive, and he felt that opening up to them allowed him to move his Maryland career forward. He never thought he’d open up to his teammates, and he never thought he’d accomplish the feats he’s reached in 2018.
“A lot of them had an idea of what was going on. They were so supportive,” Bin said. “They were like, ‘Yeah, you’re so brave. I could never have done that.’”
‘Ever so grateful’
Three years after being diagnosed with depression, Bin leads the team with 10 points alongside Sejdic, his longtime friend. Bin has helped turn around a season that started slower than the team had hoped.
At Coastal Carolina on Sept. 30, Bin provided two assists to help the Terps pick up their first ranked victory of the year. He notched the only goal of the game in a statement win over No. 7 Denver on Oct. 16, keeping the team’s NCAA tournament aspirations alive.
Bin’s biggest performance of the year came against Penn State on Oct. 23. He began the game on the bench, still not fully healed from an ankle injury. But after Maryland blew a 2-0 lead, Cirovski brought him into the game in the 84th minute.
Bin won the game with a golden goal 24 minutes later. His teammates knocked him to the ground in a flurry of hugs, the same ones he’s received after every goal this season.
The program had helped Bin get through his struggles, and this time, Bin helped the Terps escape theirs.
“I’m taking it in one day at a time,” Bin said. “Scoring that overtime winner against Penn State, I still can’t fathom it in my head. It’s surreal.”
Bin is energetic again, the happy-go-lucky kid from South Korea that speaks like he’s from London.
“He’s a clown. He’s a little jokester,” Sejdic said. “Anything that he does, we definitely go over the top [celebrating]. It’s a good feeling whenever he does something positive for the team. We all feel that because we all love the kid so much.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Bin avoided those friendships, shutting his teammates out as he tried to cope with an illness he didn’t yet understand. He hit a breaking point in Cirovski’s office during the darkest time of his life.
Eventually, he made it back to Cirovski’s program and turned into a leader of the team’s attack, repaying the coaches and players that were there for him when he was oceans away from his immediate family.
“My first time opening up and accepting what I had was here,” he said. “I wouldn’t have opened up, accepted what I had or even tried to get help if I wasn’t here at Maryland. I’m ever so grateful.”
Photo credits: Alexander Jonesi, Richard Moglen, Alex Chen, Andi Wenck