A Pro Bowl Offensive Lineman Deals With Anxiety Before Every Game
"One time I got so sick I was laid up in the hospital for 24 hours."
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Everything about Brandon Brooks, the Super Bowl LII-winning guard for the Philadelphia Eagles, seems to exude happiness. This is a guy who once attended the wedding of a fan, somebody he had never met, just to be a nice guy. (“He shook everyone's hand that came up, talked to anyone and took pictures,” the fan later recounted.) He’s a guy who, after coming off the best year of his NFL career, restructured his contract to give Eagles quarterback Nick Foles a pay bump, just because, as he recently tweeted, "the FUCKIN SB MVP DESERVED MORE MONEY.” If there’s an unhappy bone in his 6-foot-5, 346-pound body, we've rarely seen it.
But appearances can be deceiving. When Brooks signed with the Houston Texans as a third-round draft pick in 2012, he felt a gnawing anxiety. During his three years with Houston, pregame vomiting was a semi-regular occurrence for him, but never bad enough to become an issue. In 2016 he signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, and his anxiety finally became debilitating. According to Pro Football Focus, Brooks hasn’t allowed a sack since his first game with the Eagles. But the pressure to perform at that level has sometimes made him so sick that he had to be hospitalized, or surrounded by worried teammates in a prayer vigil, like some kind of pregame exorcism. “To me, it was a little bit scary, to tell you the truth,” remembers Eagles center Jason Kelce. “I’d never seen anything like it before.”
After a rocky season last year, filled with a torrent of vomit and his first Super Bowl ring, Brooks claims he’s on the mend, or at least tackling his demons with open eyes. We called him to find out how the nicest guy in the NFL has managed to, if not overcome his anxiety, at least reach a truce.
How long have you had anxiety?
For as long as I can remember. I was an only child, so I had a lot of time on my hands growing up. I tended to overthink stuff, and I always assumed that the worst was gonna happen. I was a pessimist.
At such a young age? Why?
I don’t know. I think I just wanted to live up to my parents expectations. If every little thing wasn’t done flawlessly the first time, it just wasn’t good enough.
So you were a perfectionist?
Yeah. I still am. It only got worse when I got older and went into pro football. When I got my contract with Philly, it heightened everything for me. I didn’t want to let my teammates down, I didn’t want to let the fans down. If I wasn’t perfect every play, every snap, I felt like I was letting the team down, and I wasn’t living up to the high expectations that I and everybody was putting on myself.
When did you start vomiting before games?
It’s happened all my life, not just with football. When I’d be uncomfortable with something, I vomited. But I didn’t think anything of it till I was getting physically ill before games two years ago. That’s when it got really bad. One time I got so sick I was laid up in the hospital for 24 hours. So they checked me out, and every time I got a clean bill of health and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. They ran all the tests you could think about, and I was all good.
How’d you finally figure out what was causing it?
Somebody asked me, “You think it could be something mental?” That never crossed my mind before. I just never thought the human brain was that strong, that it could make you physically ill. But the brain is a powerful thing. [Laughs.] I learned that the hard way. Once we got to the bottom of it, I realized that I couldn’t defeat it on my own. Everything I tried didn't work. They wanted to put me on medication.
Did you try that?
I did, and it worked for a little bit, but I wasn’t into it. I just never felt like myself.
So you stopped?
Yeah. I liked feeling better, but not that way.
That’s kind of fantastic. We live in such a medicated culture.
We really do. You see it all the time with kids. They have ADHD and automatically their parents or teachers want them medicated instead of working out different plans to get the kid the help he or she needs. I wanted to do it without medication because I wanted to be myself while going through it. Medication just masks the problem, it doesn’t fix anything. I needed to get down to the nitty gritty of what was going on inside my head, and you can’t do that if your thoughts are muddy. I figured, once I figured out how this happens and why it happens, then I can find different avenues of how to cope with it and I’ll be fine.
How’d you do it?
I’ve got a guy, his name is Dr. Mark Moore, he’s based in Philly. He’s actually from across the Atlantic, man. He’s from Europe. He doesn’t know a ton about sports, which really makes it better for me.
Why? Because he’s not a football fan? He could care less about what you do for a living?
Exactly, yeah. I don’t think the core of my problem is about football. It’s not about football, it’s about anxiety. I could be doing anything with my life and I’d have anxiety. Seeing a therapist has done so much for me. A lot of times you think your problems are something on the surface, but you come to find out it’s actually much deeper than that. I’ve always been a person that needs to understand why before I do anything. Once I understood why and how it’s coming on, then I can manage it. Then I know how to take care of it, and what to do when I feel those signs coming on.
What have you learned? What do you need to do when the anxiety starts creeping in?
Probably the biggest thing I had to realize was the law of averages.
If you’re an eight out of ten player, some days you’re going to be ten out of ten, and some days you’re going to be six out of ten. That’s just the way life goes. And in football, especially pro football, as much as you want to be perfect all the time and do everything the right way, you just can’t control the game like that. It doesn’t work that way.
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So, wait, you remind yourself that statistically, given your past performances, you’re probably not going to fail?
Exactly. Although you want to be perfect every play and not let your teammates down, every play … well, not every play, but most plays, somebody’s not going to be perfect. That’s just what it is. Once I realized that, if I’m kicking ass 75 out of 80 plays, damn, that’s pretty good in itself. What is somebody going to say to you, man? Not that I or anybody should be complacent, but that’s just how the game is.
Was that going through your head at the Super Bowl this year? Is that what got you through it?
Before the Super Bowl, I kept telling myself that it’s just another game. Which, obviously, isn’t true at all. [ Laughs.]
It’s the biggest game.
It’s the most watched sporting event of the year.
103 million people watched it this year. Or about a third of the country.
I felt anxiety coming on, but I told myself a couple of things: Is this something you can control? If it is, control it and take care of it. If it’s not, don’t worry about it. Because there’s nothing you can do and you’ll just stress yourself out. And then I reminded myself, you’ve done well up until this point. You’ve proven to yourself and the world that you’re a great player. Why even have that self doubt?
So you used the ol’ law of averages trick?
Yeah. Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.” That’s what it is. You can talk yourself into falling, or you can talk yourself into winning. Confidence can take you a lot further than people think.
Do you think there’s more acute anxiety happening in pro football, or even professional sports in general, than we actually hear about?
I don’t just think it, I know it. A hundred percent.
You know them personally?
I’ve got teammates who take anxiety or depression drugs, and it’s never something that comes out. When you’re a pro athlete, one of the best in the world, people think, ‘Oh, you’ve been paid this amount of money, nothing should affect you.’ Especially in football, where it’s the closest thing to modern day gladiators. People think it’s this super macho sport, so you can’t get really far in that world by being soft or weak. But what happens is, when you try to bottle that up and control it, it will eat you inside and out. I think one of the biggest signs of strength is being able to reach out for help when you need it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, there’s nothing to fear. If you need help, get the help. A lot of people go through the same thing and never get the help and things get worse. If you get help and do what you need to do, there’ll be much brighter days ahead.
When you were first grappling with your anxiety and how to treat it, did you feel supported by your team?
Well, let me tell you first hand, this isn’t a Disney movie. [ Laughs.]
It made people pick a side with me. Either you’re going to support me and understand, or you’re not going to support me and you’ll view it as weakness. Which is fine with me. I realize that you can’t change people’s minds. Within the organization, I had teammates that supported me and teammates that didn’t, and I had coaches that supported me and coaches that didn’t.
How would they not support you? By telling you to knock it off, or saying it’s all in your head?
Yeah, all of that. Guys would say things to me like, “You gotta fight through this, man. This can’t affect you like this. We need you.” I heard them on that. I did need to be out there with my team, don’t get me wrong. But it took a lot of trial and error to get myself out of this place, and it didn’t come easy. I had a great year last year, went to the Super Bowl and all that, and I took note that some of the same people that were patting me on the back and telling me how great I was— players and coaches included—were some of the same people who turned their backs on me in my darkest days. You forgive but you never forget, you know what I mean?
Are you ready for next season? When the anxiety comes, will you be able to talk yourself off that cliff?
Well, the first thing is, I still throw up before games. That’s just how my mind and body works. But when I feel it coming on, I remind myself, “You got into this game to have fun. You started playing with dudes in the neighborhood, and it was all about having fun. Are you having fun? If you’re not, why is that?” Just keep it fun. No matter what happens, the sun rises tomorrow, life goes on.
Wait, back up. You still throw up before games?
It’s going to keep happening?
I’m sure it will.
And that’s okay with you?
It’s different now. I will say some days I don’t but most days I do. It used to get scared by it. “Aw shit, here it comes, it’s going to fuck me up.” But now, when it’s time to vomit, it’s a whole different feeling. It’s like, “Shit, it must be gameday.” You know what I mean?
[Laughs] I really, really don’t.
Throwing up doesn’t terrify me anymore. It’s just business as usual. I throw it up and get it out, and it’s all good. Then it’s time to go out there and brawl.
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