Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Brooks overcome off-field anxieties on road to this year’s Pro Bowl | Marcus Hayes
I’m proud of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Brooks, and Zach Ertz. It isn’t proper, I know, but I can’t help it. Each faced a crisis, overcame it and flourished.
I’m proud of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Brooks, and Zach Ertz. It isn’t proper, I know, but I can’t help it.
Each faced a crisis. Each overcame it. Each flourished. And, so, each was named a Pro Bowl starter on Tuesday. That’s two in a row for Ertz and Brooks and four straight for Cox — another stepping-stone to Canton.
This feels unprofessional, and maybe it is. As journalists, we’re supposed remain detached. Objective. Impartial. I am all of those things, but I’m proud of these guys, too. So, sue me.
Cox, the best defensive tackle in team history, could have been been overwhelmed by the grief of losing his best friend, then his brother. Brooks, who tied the Eagles record for Pro Bowls by a guard, could have crumpled under the weight of self-expectation. Ertz, on pace to set the single-season record for catches by a tight end, could have withered in the spotlight of criticism. But, they are men of character, and they are buoyed by teammates, and, so, all thrived.
Cox is the best player among them, and Brooks' advocacy has the farthest-reaching result, but Ertz has the juiciest back story. On Dec. 4, 2016, at Cincinnati, Ertz passed up a block of fearsome linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The sporting world labeled him a coward.
“He told me that was the turning point in his career, the biggest fuel for him,” said right tackle Lane Johnson. “He got a lot of backlash from that. He took a good, long look in the mirror. That moment changed everything for him. Now, he’s reaping the benefits."
Cox’s pain lingers longer. He left his rookie training camp in 2012 to attend the funeral of his best friend, Melvin Baker. Less than three years later, in January 2015, his older brother, Shaddrick, died of a heart attack. Cox went to his first Pro Bowl after that season. It was not coincidental.
“Anybody who’s had anything like that happen makes you stronger. Gives you reasons to go out and play,” said Cox, whose teammates comforted him. “You can’t win football games without the bond we have. Everybody in this locker room loves each other.”
Ertz summoned redemptive bravery, and Cox survived two deaths, but Brooks displayed a rarer type of courage.
In December 2016, Brooks disclosed that he missed two games that season not because of a stomach issue but because he was too anxious to play. His anxiety debilitated him. It was a dangerous admission in the mega-macho world of the NFL. It was a watershed moment for Brooks.
He has earned two Pro Bowl spots since.
“The anxiety was just something I had to face. I felt, with the help of my brothers around me, there was nothing I couldn’t face,” Brooks said.
There it is again: the brotherhood, and its enduring effects.
He became part of a parade of athletes — Olympic hero Michael Phelps, former Seahawks receiver Brandon Marshall, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love — whose candor about mental issues have helped diminish the stigma. Brooks remains forthcoming, and he remains supported.
“I’m not going to lie to you guys: I still have anxiety attacks here and there,” said Brooks, who relies on the “close-knit" nature of the Eagles' locker room. “It’s one thing to say that. It’s another thing when something goes bad, and you have somebody who you might not even talk to that much come up to you and ask, ‘Are you all right? Do you need something?’ And for them to genuinely mean it. No matter what it is.”
That word — “genuine" — that word epitomizes the Eagles' ethos during Doug Pederson’s three seasons. The grief, the fears, and the shame of the three Pro Bowl starters are as much the fabric of the Eagles' family as Malcolm Jenkins' activism, or Carson Wentz’s spirituality, or Nick Foles' free-wheeling style.
The best families accept the members for who they are and help them succeed.
That’s what makes me proud of them, even if that pride isn’t exactly appropriate. I’ve seen it over and over again with this club. In 2016, I saw a 5-9 team regroup to win the final two games. In 2017, I saw a team beaten by its former coach, Andy Reid, run off a 12-1 record, then beat Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl. This season, I saw a 4-6 team slink out of New Orleans, then even its record and reenter the playoff scene with three wins in four games.
There’s something to be said for playing like family.
“We’re truly like brothers, man,” Brooks said. “That’s what continues to allow us to fight through our games. Not be frustrated on the sideline when something doesn’t go our way. It’s one thing with football. It’s another thing with life. We’ve all got things going on outside of here that happen to you. Guys don’t just focus on the game. They focus on you as a person.”
Pro Bowls? Super Bowls?
Those are fortunate side effects.