In the morning hours before the Eagles play, Brandon Brooks retreats to his hotel bathroom and vomits.
Then he laughs, takes out his cellphone and sends a text message to Lane Johnson, who might be in his bathroom doing the same.
Brooks, a key member of the Eagles offensive line entering Monday's game against the Oakland Raiders, earned the first Pro Bowl invitation of his six-year career on Tuesday. It is deserved recognition for a standout right guard who thought he played at a Pro Bowl level last season – when he was on the field. Brooks mysteriously missed two games because of what he later learned was an anxiety condition.
One year ago, this pregame morning ritual debilitated Brooks. He was in the first season of a five-year, $40 million contract with the Eagles, and he sought perfection on every snap of every game. Unlike Johnson, who does not have an anxiety condition, he imagined everyone in the stadium and watching on TV was focusing on him every play. It became a burden.
With professional help and a new perspective, Brooks has not missed a game this season. Football now brings more joy than worry. And when he's hunched over the toilet before dawn, he no longer panics and tumbles into further disquietude. He laughs and goes on with his day.
"I'm always going to be anxious," Brooks said. "But I realize it's OK to be anxious. Really, how I look at it, it's your body knowing you're about to go out there and play. … It's how my body handles it. But it's OK. It's not something I need to panic about. That's just how my body handles it on game day. Go in there and throw up, and I'll be fine."
Just have fun
Brooks' Pro Bowl season has been "night and day" from last year, he said. His top individual goal this season wasn't to reach the Pro Bowl. It was to play every game.
Brooks missed two games in three weeks in 2016 because of a perceived stomach illness, with vomiting and other symptoms that kept him from playing. He needed intravenous fluids and didn't have the strength to stand. He was hospitalized and sought help. While playing four years in Houston, he underwent endoscopies to try to determine what was wrong with his stomach after missing games. Maybe the problem was ulcers or indigestion. He didn't realize it could be something else but knew the first step to solving the problem was acknowledging it. He said he needed to learn how to deal with imperfection and "turn my brain off." He did that this season.
Anyone holding the stereotype about Neanderthal football players would be well served meeting the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Brooks, who worked toward his MBA during his early career with the Texans, reads Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks and Peter Thiel, and interned in Philadelphia's revenue department to better learn about taxes from the viewpoint of the public sector. The same way an accountant might be curious about the Eagles' offensive line, Brooks is interested in Philadelphia's tax structure and the effect it has on businesses.
So he's a thinker, and when it came to football all his thinking started to hurt him. He needed to learn how to let it go, how to avoid paralyzing analysis and realize there will usually be another play after a mistake.
The reality is that many observers don't know what's happening every play. There are 22 players on the field. Unless there's a sack or a long run behind Brooks, how many watching the game in real time know whether the right guard blocked with the correct technique? He doesn't take his job any less seriously. Brooks was adamant that what he does matters. But he doesn't get tripped up any more by a mistake and certainly not the fear of one.
"People say this is just a game, but it's not at all," Brooks said. "If it was just a game, people wouldn't be able to make careers off it. Not just players but reporters, coaches, etc., etc. You almost get locked in a mindset of you can't make a mistake or if you make a mistake, it's the end of the world. That's not the case. Everybody [makes mistakes], top down. If I make a mistake, I laugh about that [stuff]. There's more plays to play. Life goes on."
Want to know how Brooks is different this year? Consider how he arrives at the stadium. On game day, you used to find Brooks isolated with headphones, alone with his music and his thoughts.
"Just … locked in thinking about you have to go out there and be perfect," Brooks said.
Now, he doesn't bring headphones to work. He'll talk with teammates in the locker room and laugh during warmups.
"Last year, I was like … about to go to war," Brooks said. "That's probably the thing. Pregame on game day, man, I'm just thinking I put all the time into prepare. I know what I'm doing. … And my last thought is to go out there and have fun."
Once a week, usually on Tuesdays, Brooks meets with a therapist. He identified the sessions as the catalyst for his change. When he resumed playing last season, Brooks said he took medication. When discussing his progression this season, Brooks pointed to the professional help the same way a player recovering from an injury might point to rehab work with a trainer.
"I guess the mental awareness tip was just like, if you pull a hamstring and you need ice to [stimulate] your rehab, it's the same thing mentally," Brooks said. "It's a lot of stuff that goes on in life. It's not all rainbows and lollipops. Sometimes you need someone to talk to. Sometimes things are deeper than what you think, or you have something from your past that's affecting you, and you don't even know. But it's nice to be able to talk to somebody on a confidential level and get Ph.D. advice."
An anxiety condition is not often viewed on the same level as a traditional football injury, and there was a lot of curiosity last fall about why the Eagles' high-priced right guard wasn't on the field in important late-season games. Brooks remembers, keeping his own version of a naughty or nice list. He had the support of many teammates, with respected players such as Jason Peters proving to be trusted confidants during that period.
But he also acknowledged there were some who weren't supportive one year ago, even inside the NovaCare Complex. He'll accept the pats on the back about the Pro Bowl. He also knows what was said last December.
"The funniest thing to me is going through everything I did last year and sitting here now and seeing the night-and-day difference," Brooks said. "Whether it's from different people or different coaches, just stuff like that. Because, obviously, let's be real, when I was going through the anxiety stuff not everybody had my back. … The same people that didn't support me are now here to pat on my back. Let it be understood that, although you forgive you never forget. That's what's been interesting to me from a year ago to now."
Brighter days ahead
One of the high points of Brooks' time in Philadelphia came on Dec. 14, 2016. It coincided with the low point of his tenure.
After determining his absences were related to anxiety, Brooks met with the Eagles' media relations department. The team was purposely cryptic about Brooks' absences, and the questions were going to come about what was wrong. So, on Dec. 14, he waited by his locker for the cameras and recorders, and he disclosed the anxiety condition. He invited more questions and exhibited his vulnerabilities.
"I definitely was nervous," Brooks said. "Do I really want to tell people what's really going on? But also, that was one of the highest points, too, because [I was] able to speak about what's going on, be honest about it, be able to reach out and help people who are going through the same thing."
Brooks realized the spotlight of the NFL would allow him to reach others suffering from anxiety. After Brooks went public, an unknown neighbor in his apartment building slid a note under his door. "Don't worry about being perfect. Our imperfections are what make us who we are," it read. He's since heard from fans who have benefited from his transparency.
"Through the Pro Bowl and I guess getting my name a little bit bigger … I really just hope I can reach further to help people out going through the same thing," Brooks said. "You can overcome it, although times can seem at their darkest, brighter days are coming."
And it's not limited to anxiety, Brooks added. "We all go through something," he said. And he wants to be an example of confronting a problem and figuring out how to solve it.
Brooks is set to play on Christmas night with the Pro Bowl label attached to his name for the first time. And he might awake early Christmas morning, go to the bathroom and have the same symptoms of the nerves that were his undoing in previous years. But on Monday, he'll laugh about it. He'll show up to the stadium without the headphones, and he won't worry so much about what anyone else is thinking.
"Football," Brooks said, "is fun again."