When Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson returned from a three-game sabbatical to address his mental health, right guard Brandon Brooks drove over to the home of his brother-in-arms, his brother in pregame, anxiety-induced vomit.
“I really didn’t have to say anything at first,” Brooks recalled Wednesday. “I just sat there, man. Sometimes words aren’t necessarily needed. We sat there …”
Brooks, visibly emotional during a video news conference, paused at the thought.
“... and really just reflected on life,” he continued. “The ups and downs, the struggles, the things you go through. It wasn’t even a football conversation at that point. Just like he had my back through the ups and downs, I wanted to have his when he had his struggles.”
Brooks, earlier in the news conference, announced his retirement from football. The Eagles guard cited mounting injuries that denied him most of his last two seasons when asked why now, after 10 seasons. But the 32-year old also acknowledged the mental component involved with accepting one’s physical limitations.
“After all these injuries, I just realized, at what point do you listen to your body?” Brooks said. “And I think my body was just telling me.”
Brooks, perhaps more than most athletes, has a keen understanding of the sometimes-perilous balance between the mind and body. In 2016, he put a public face to the mental health issues that plague many when he revealed that anxiety caused him to miss two games that season.
Five years might not seem like much, especially considering how far society, and especially the macho NFL, has advanced in understanding the importance of mental health. But when Brooks approached his locker stall that November, only recently signed by the Eagles, he was stepping into an abyss.
While most from the team were outwardly supportive, Brooks said then that some players and coaches weren’t, and that he had received contrary advice on whether to address his private plight.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to say, to be honest,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know how I was going to voice it. I didn’t know how it was going to be taken. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I just wanted to get my truth out there because I do understand people do go through it.”
There were trailblazers in sports who did speak about their battles with depression. But some faced backlash. In 2008, Shawn Andrews, another Eagles guard, attributed a few turbulent seasons to his depression and would later say that he felt ostracized by some on the team as a result.
Brooks missed time with the Houston Texans when he first came in the NFL, but it wasn’t until the Eagles that his anxiety was diagnosed. He got so agitated before games that he had to throw up. Johnson was often there by his side just as he was on the field.
The Eagles right tackle admitted as much even before he mysteriously was scratched before the Week 4 matchup with the Chiefs in October. But it wasn’t until he returned from a three-game absence that Johnson opened up about his anxiety and depression.
“A lot of stuff when [Brooks] was going through it, I understand,” Johnson said then. “He was talking about how he puked every game day. I was right there with him at 5:30 [a.m.]. He was probably the main guy that helped with this situation.”
Johnson seemingly returned for the better. He had arguably his best stretch to finish the season and was voted second-team All-Pro. Brooks had a similar experience. In 2017, he played in every game all the way through the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and was named to his first of three Pro Bowls.
The next year was essentially the same, except he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the divisional playoff loss at New Orleans. Few gave Brooks a chance at being ready for the 2019 opener, but he recovered in remarkable time.
His anxiety, though, never exactly goes away, as Brooks mentioned Wednesday. That November against the Seahawks, he suffered panic attacks and had to leave early. It was no coincidence that Johnson wasn’t in the lineup that day, just as it was with Brooks out against Kansas City.
The pair were a formidable force on the right side of the offensive line. The chemistry required to play in unison can’t be overstated. Each had moments without the other, but a new playing partner could stoke unease in an already troubled mind.
For Brooks and Johnson, internal pressures to be perfect helped spur them to greatness, but they could also be their undoing. And the fear of one mistake, and of subsequent criticism, could affect them mentally.
“You’re in a fishbowl. You got thousands and millions of people watching,” Brooks said. “And I guess at the end of the day, as highly paid athletes, we’re expected to be modern-day gladiators and not have any feelings. …
“It’s just for us, a lot of our stumbles, a lot of our falls, a lot of ills, are public. You continuously just have to be in the right mindset to go out there and play and try and block out the noise. But you are human beings, you’re always going to hear it. We are in the age of social media. You are always going to see.”
The vitriol has seemingly only increased. The large majority of fans are respectful, but some have felt emboldened to voice their displeasure with just more than boos at Lincoln Financial Field. Wide receiver Jalen Reagor was often a target this season.
But the nastiness on social media, some anonymous, plenty not, has forced some players to cancel their accounts.
Brooks was a popular Eagle considering his success, but there was an undercurrent of exasperation with his injuries. The four-year, $56 million extension he signed in November 2019, just before the Seattle loss, was widely applauded at the time. But he would play in only nine games after that.
He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the 2019 finale, and another Achilles tendon rupture the following June that would knock him out for the 2020 season. He rehabbed again, but admitted that last offseason, for the first time, he started to consider retirement.
An oft-repeated saying from NFL players is that once you think about it, you’re on your way to retiring. Brooks missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, and started in the first two games. But he tore a pectoral muscle, and even though coach Nick Sirianni said Brooks would be back, it was never meant to be.
“It took a little longer than I would have liked,” Brooks said. “In the end, I didn’t have enough time to get where I needed to be, to be able to at least get a couple of practices under my belt.”
Brooks and the Eagles agreed to a contract restructure that reduces his compensation and creates salary cap space for 2022 while pushing the remaining number into future years. But he won’t have to forfeit his bonus.
A few, at least on social media, seemed only concerned with the financial windfall Brooks’ retirement would create. Many honored him as one of the best guards in franchise history, and arguably one of the best in the NFL for a four-year period.
Under the tutelage of assistant coach Jeff Stoutland, Brooks, like many Eagles O-linemen, would reach career heights in Philly. He said that he plans to live here and apply to business school at Penn.
His contributions to the team will forever guarantee him a free drink at local bars. But Brooks’ openness and thoughtfulness on his mental health struggles may prove to have a most lasting effect.
It was evident in the way more athletes have similarly spoken out since, in the way Johnson openly attacked his problems, and in the countless correspondence Brooks has received from those who suffer in silence.
“Defeat is never fatal,” Brooks said, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, in his parting message to Eagles fans. “Victory is never final. It’s the courage that counts.”
Brooks’ is unmeasurable.