MINNEAPOLIS — Philadelphia Eagles guard Brandon Brooks threw up everything he had in his stomach right before the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, a welcomed indicator that, in his mind, everything was OK.
“As weird and as bad as that sounds, I felt cool, I felt good,” he said. “It’s what I needed, to be honest, because when I threw up it was like, ‘OK, it’s game day. It’s just like every other game. Nothing different.’ “
For most of his pro career, Brooks has started his Sunday mornings by vomiting. But on the day of the Vikings game, that familiar feeling didn’t come immediately. He has a pretty firm grasp on things now, but a deviation from the norm before the biggest game of his life was a touch unsettling for Brooks, who missed two games last year and four games in his career as the result of the debilitating effects of an anxiety condition that long went undiagnosed. On those days, he would wake up around 4 or 5 in the morning violently ill, and remain in that state for a full 24 hours. Then, as suddenly as it came on, the illness would stop, and he’d be back to his old self.
The first game he missed as a member of the Eagles was on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers last November. His mother, Dorothy Brooks, had flown in from Milwaukee to watch her son and was standing in the middle of a large, unfamiliar city when she received an unnerving message.
“I’ll never forget this: I was downtown Philly, not really aware of my surroundings, and I got this text saying he was in the hospital. Oh my gosh, was that ever a hopeless feeling,” she said. “I didn’t know where to go. I had no clue. When you do finally find him, and he’s sick like that and they just couldn’t stop it, they hooked him up to IVs so he wouldn’t dehydrate. That was an awful feeling for a parent.”
Brooks recovered and returned for the following game, only to miss the next one against the Washington Redskins after falling ill once again.
He was unable to play in two games while with the Houston Texans for the same reason. Tests were run but no clear answers were discovered. He concluded that he just had ulcers, and tried to deal with the issue on his own. It was only after the Green Bay game that Brooks — with the help of the Eagles’ doctors — got serious about discovering the root of the problem. Several days after the Redskins game, Brooks revealed the findings to a large media gathering at his locker after practice.
“What I mean by anxiety condition, not nervousness or fear of the game,” he explained. “I have like an obsession with the game. It’s an unhealthy obsession right now, and I’m working with team doctors and things to get everything straightened out and getting the help that I needed.”
He began taking proactive measures, including seeing a psychologist once a week. Brooks has not had a repeat episode since missing games last year.
The 2017 season has been the finest of his six-year career. The 28-year-old out of Miami (Ohio) has not yielded a single sack and surrendered only 17 pressures in 16 regular-season games, according to Pro Football Focus, en route to his first Pro Bowl bid.
“I knew the ability he had, I think he knew the ability he had, it was just a matter of him believing in himself and you see what he’s done,” said right tackle Lane Johnson, one of Brooks’ closest friends on the team. “A guy with that natural gift, the size [6-foot-5, 335 pounds] and the speed, there shouldn’t be anybody better than him. And I think he’s starting to believe that now, and that’s why he is where he’s at.”
A mixed reception among teammates
When he went public with his condition, Brooks witnessed a split reaction. On one side, there was a large wave of support from teammates like Johnson, Jason Peters, Chris Maragos, Kenjon Barner and Zach Ertz. With the issue now out in the open, others felt emboldened to step forward and reveal they had battled anxiety as well.
“Well, I had a big anxiety problem coming out of college,” tight end Trey Burton said. “Kind of similar to [Brooks], before games I felt like I would have already played the game physically. Things running through me, I’m anxious, I was cramping before games even started, things like that where my mind was racing and just being extremely, extremely anxious about a ton of stuff.”
Johnson dealt with anxiety while at Oklahoma as well as during his rookie year with the Eagles, feeling the pressure to perform right away as the fourth overall pick.
“We’re all human. We’re not monsters,” Johnson said. “I think I heard it at the combine: 50 percent of guys have dealt with anxiety, depression. It’s not foreign. It’s just something that’s not talked about. It’s a stigma where it’s seen as a weakness. When you bring it to light, a lot of people in this world have it.”
Asked what the NFL is doing to help with this problem, league spokesman Brian McCarthy pointed to the presence of Dwight Hollier, a former player and licensed counselor who, as the NFL’s vice president of wellness and clinical services, works directly with clubs and current and former players on psycho-social related issues.
“We take a holistic approach to the health and safety of our players,” McCarthy said. “While plenty of attention is paid to the physical well-being of the players, we have programs at both the league and club level for the total wellness of these men. We make available resources to help provide assistance on a variety of issues. The care extends well beyond the playing field.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Brooks was met by teammates who he said were less than understanding.
“You pull your hamstring, right? And you [treat it] to get it right. Same thing with mental illness,” Brooks said, “but for some people, they don’t view it the same thing as a physical injury. Some people did have my back, and some people didn’t. No hard feelings. You definitely forgive; you never forget, though.”
Added Barner: “Brooks isn’t a young guy. He understands how this game goes. But when you have people that you think are in your corner, but they’re really coming down on you and not really caring about you as a person, that can do some damage to some guys. If you don’t have anybody on the other side of things to build you up, it can really do some damage to you. You can feel like you’re on your own, and that’s a terrible place to be.”
Fortunately for Brooks, he has a large support system, from family to teammates to complete strangers. He has had people come up to him on the street and has received countless letters, cards and messages on social media from people who identify with what he is dealing with and have thanked him for being open about it.
The most meaningful interaction he has had was with a grade-school student during a visit to a school in Delaware. “He just had severe anxiety, sitting in the back of the auditorium. Super shy, man, and I know what that’s like,” Brooks said. “I just went back there and talked to him and let him know it’s cool, I went through the same thing, no need to feel overwhelmed. I do sometimes as well, but there’s things in place and people in place to help you.”
Brooks has always stood out because of his size. His mom, Dorothy, remembers taking Brandon to one of his first doctor’s visits. He was already sitting up and the doctor checked his chart, looked down at Brandon and said, “How old is he again?”
He began playing football in grade school and quickly found a passion for the sport.
“He always told me, he said, ‘Dad, I want to be in the NFL, I want to have money, faith,’ ” said Brandon’s father, Robert Parker. “I said, ‘Well, nothing is stopping you if you can keep to your dreams, son.’ I am just so happy for him.”
His parents stressed education above all else, though, and continue to do so, calling the NFL just the icing on the cake. Brooks graduated from Miami with a degree in psychology and a minor in business. He has already started his pursuit of a master’s degree in finance and has found time for internships during the offseason, including for Morgan Stanley and the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Finance and Revenue.
Brooks was drafted in the third round by the Texans in 2012. The anxiety issues did not crop up until he reached the pro level, and they intensified when he inked a five-year, $40 million contract with the Eagles in free agency in 2016. His perfectionist tendencies were heightened in the pursuit of justifying the big-money deal he had just signed.
“He said if he didn’t make a play to perfection, he’d be like (deep sigh) and that would be inside him,” his father said. “He studied like a quarterback. He studied all the time because he wanted to do well, he wanted to help the team win.”
Brooks has since learned to loosen his grip and accept that there will be times when he fails. That shift in mindset has empowered him. He has learned to let go and, in turn, is having fun again.
That’s not to say that he still doesn’t get nerves, it’s just that he’s better equipped to handle them.
“My mindset is so much further than it was last season, as far as dealing with it,” he said. “Obviously, you’re going to have, not relapses, but situations where you feel it come on, and really how you handle that in that split second is going to tell you if you have a grasp on it or if you’re just holding it down for a little bit. There’s been situations where I feel the anxiety come on, but I know what to do, I know what it is, so I just don’t let it affect me the way it did last year.”
Brooks’ parents are due to arrive in Minneapolis soon for the Super Bowl, eager to celebrate their son’s biggest professional moment. There is no noticeable trepidation in them, or their son, about the anxiety getting the better of him on the game’s biggest stage. That familiar feeling will surely hit him, as it has for most games of his professional career, but it appears he has succeeded in wrestling away the control.
“He’s at peace now,” his father said. “He’s fine. He’s good.”