Brandon Brooks doesn’t want your pity, and he damn sure doesn’t want anyone to think of him as a victim. He spent 21 minutes Tuesday in front of his locker at the NovaCare Complex, with cameras pointed toward him and reporters staring up at him, as he described how the anxiety disorder that he thought he’d buried climbed out of the dirt, grabbed hold of a 6-foot-5, 350-pound All-Pro offensive lineman Sunday morning, and dragged him down to his knees again.
He was glad the Fox telecast didn’t catch it, because there he was on the Eagles’ sideline between their first and second offensive possessions against the Seahawks, vomiting until he felt woozy and detached. It was a continuation of the same sickness that had caused him to sit out two games in 2016 and to confess to the world something that the strongest and toughest and most famous among us are often so reluctant to admit: that the stress and pressure they feel can overwhelm them, too. That they’re human.
Brooks had beaten back his mental and emotional struggles before. After missing those games in 2016, he told the world why he hadn’t played, and his openness had liberated him. He helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl in 2017. He became arguably the best guard in the NFL. He tore his right Achilles tendon during a playoff game in January and rehabilitated himself so vigorously that not only did he not miss a game this season, but he was playing even better. He was playing so well, in fact, that two weeks ago the Eagles signed him to a four-year contract extension that could be worth up to $54.2 million.
And it was just then, just when Brooks had reached the pinnacle of individual and team accomplishment in his professional life, that his illness arose again. He tried to remind himself not to allow others’ expectations of him, that external pressure to justify his new contract and wealth, to weigh on him. Hey, man. You’ve been here before. Don’t worry about it. Just play. But by his standards, he did not play especially well in the Eagles’ 17-10 loss to the Patriots on Nov. 17, and his internal dialogue at first changed – Hey, man, now you gotta pick this s--t up – then snowballed into something much more destructive.
“Whatever the bar is, the outlier is, I will try to exceed it,” Brooks said. “When I got the new contract, I tried to talk myself down about it. But by talking about it, it got in my head consciously, ‘Hey, you’ve got to show everybody you’re worth the money.’ … That’s what kind of brought it on. That’s just the person I am, though. That’s my double-edged sword. That’s something that’s always driven me to try to be greater in whatever I do.”
It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it doesn’t make Brooks any different from the college kid who has to carry the perfect grade-point average and excel in every extracurricular activity, from the wedding planner who can’t bear to hear that a bride was disappointed and dissatisfied with her special day, from the contractor who thinks he can squeeze in one more job before hustling a half-hour away to coach his son’s Little League game. None of this makes him weak. All of it makes him human.
But Brooks also understands that there are plenty of people out there who will give him no quarter for his troubles, who believe that his money and status should immunize him from that pressure and strain, and who resent him for suggesting otherwise. After all, they buy tickets and build their weeks around their RedZone package, and they’ve rooted for the Eagles their whole lives and care more than even those entitled players do, and they don’t want to hear how Brooks spent four hours Sunday morning FaceTiming with his teammate and friend Lane Johnson, trying to calm himself down, then throwing up, asking the Eagles’ doctors for an IV, seeking counsel from the team’s psychologist, so desperate to get back in the game. No, they don’t want to hear that, and hell yes: For $54.2 million, Brooks ought to get the hell out on that field and protect Carson Wentz … because Wentz is on their fantasy team.
They’re wrong, but they sure are loud.
“We’re supposed to be modern-day gladiators, man,” Brooks said. “We’re getting paid more than the rest of the public. We’re not supposed to have any emotions. We’re supposed to play and do what we’re told. At the end of the day, we’re people. We go through the same things that everybody else goes through, everyday issues that 40 million Americans go through. We’re no different, and when we have issues, the only difference is, it’s front-page news.”
More often, it’s a topic that athletes themselves discuss only in whispers and text messages among themselves. You wouldn’t believe, Brooks said Tuesday, how many NFL players have reached out to him since he issued a statement Monday confirming that the illness that sidelined him Sunday was related to his anxiety. They wished him the best, but they also said, Thanks for speaking up. I’m dealing with this, too.
Brooks’ stall is at the far end of the NovaCare locker room, and in 2016, after that previous attack, those cameras and questioners were waiting for him, and his stomach felt full of frozen stones. “I don’t want to say to say it was like walking down death row,” he said, “but it was tough.” They were waiting for him again Tuesday, but it wasn’t as difficult to make that walk. He knew he had to. He knew he could. That is the silver lining, and that is why he spoke up – because someone else might.