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Milwaukee native overcomes crippling anxiety to make Pro Bowl with Philadelphia Eagles

Posted at 10:34 PM, Jan 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-01 23:38:25-05

A Milwaukee native in the NFL is going to his first Pro Bowl. 

Brandon Brooks, a Riverside University High School graduate, is an offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is in his sixth year in the NFL but this time last year, he was dealing with severe anxiety problems. 

"The biggest thing for me this season, bigger than making the Pro Bowl to be honest, I was able to go through a season without having an episode," Brooks said. "That's the greatest accomplishment I've had this season."

In 2016, Brooks missed two games for the Eagles because of his anxiety.

"The effects physically, it was like I had the flu," Brooks said. "I'd lose 10 to 12 pounds. It would be pretty serious. No drugs would be able to stop me from vomiting and stuff. It was pretty serious."

Brooks says it's common for him to throw up before games. The nerves of getting ready for game day can get the best of him. However, these two incidents were different. He was forced to go to the hospital because of how severe his vomiting was. 

His first game was a Monday Night Football game against the Packers. It was the first time his mother had ever seen him like this. 

"You're the mother of a child, no matter how old he is," Dorothy Brooks said. "It's still your child. To not know how to help this child, especially something like this, what do you do?"

Dorothy Brooks says she noticed her son was different on game days but just thought it was him "getting in the zone." She would give him his space to get ready. She didn't know it was this severe.

"Everyone has anxiety," Dorothy Brooks said. "But to that level is something totally, totally different."

Brooks was drafted by the Houston Texans but signed with Philadelphia last year. With this new contract came a bigger pay day and more pressure to prove himself. 

But the pressure he put on himself was proven to be too much. 

"I was looking at the game as if it was life and death," Brooks said. "Trying to make a block every time. If I miss, it's like I let the whole world down or something."

The usually jovial Brooks was a different person on game days. During the week, he says he'd be the first to make some jokes and keep it light hearted. But on Sundays, he got in his own head. 

"I wouldn't talk to anyone," Brooks said. "Headphones on. Facing into my locker. I'd listen to motivational stuff like basically run through a wall. I'd hit the field and I was locked into this zone."

During his pregame ritual, Brooks would vomit because the nerves were too much. It's not uncommon but it would consume him. 

"I think back a year ago and I was in the same position and like, how miserable I was," Brooks said.

"Thinking, I'm about to get sick. I'm going to miss this game or something. There is nothing I can do. I don't know what's going on."

Brooks had made some progress by now. At least he knew what he was battling now. The next difficulty was facing it in the public eye. He met with the Eagles front office about how to handle his diagnosis with the media.

The Philadelphia media, notoriously tough on athletes, were told the truth by Brooks himself. He knew this was an opportunity to break the stigma against mental illness. 

"You really can't see it. You can see a broken leg, a broken ankle, but you can't necessarily see mental illness," Brooks said. "Getting it out there saying it the way I did helped me let go of it. It showed me a lot about myself. Being able to talk about something so close to the vest within me with what's going on in an ego driven sport, a macho sport, where we are put on pedestals like we're modern day gladiators. Nothing physically or emotionally should affect us. We're making all this money, how could you not play? Just as somebody pulls their hamstring and needs ice, there is no difference between a mental injury. You go out and seek help."

Brooks knows some people don't take his anxiety issues seriously and he's ok with that. He's been able to let go and have more fun. He still wants to be successful but knows, if he misses a couple blocks a game, it won't be the end of the world. 

"One thing I think of that helps me, the law of averages," Brooks said. "If I'm an eight out of 10 player in the NFL, some days you'll be 10 out of 10 but some days you'll be six out of 10. It sucks but it is what it is. The talent gap is so small. If you're six out of 10, that's pretty damn good. I look at stuff like that."

Playing a little bit looser has allowed him to have the best season of his career. The Eagles are 13-3 and first in the entire NFC. He says he's having the most fun in his career, which is easy to say when you've won 13 games. But he says even in the losses, he's enjoying the game more than ever. 

"I'm having a ton of fun even when we're not winning games," Brooks said. "I went out there and did my best. If I don't win every rep, well I try to make sure I win a majority of them, but if I lose a rep, he's getting paid too. This is the National Football League."

It's this perseverance that has made him one of the more inspiring players in the NFL. By sharing his story, he's becoming the face of beating mental illness. 

"Different guys come up to me and even on the street," Brooks said. "They're dealing with anxiety from different situations. Mine just happens to be from playing the sport I love and looking at it like life and death out there instead of wins and losses as a game. People talk to me on the streets, players in the locker room and not just ours but across the league have spoken to me and say they go through similar things. It's nice to hear someone speak out about it." 

"For him to come out and make more people aware, how do you know teammates or other people in the league or other players don't have this as well?" Dorothy Brooks said. "To make more people like myself aware. It's a good thing. I'm very proud of him."

He's winning the battle right now but it's an every day struggle. Brooks sees a psychologist once a week and has different ways of dealing with the issues.

"Although I've got a better grasp on it and have control over it, there are some days where it might flare back up and might be bad," Brooks said. "But I have these coping mechanisms to help me out." 
One thing he hasn't been able to conquer entirely is his pregame ritual. Before each game, he wakes up early in the morning, heads to the bathroom and throws up. However, it doesn't debilitate him anymore; quite the opposite actually. He actually has a vomit buddy now in teammate Lane Johnson.

He says the two of them have had times their vomit sessions are synced up and they head to the bathroom at the same time at the Eagles facility. 

"I get up and throw up but when I throw up, I don't panic," Brooks said. "It's not the end of the world. Life goes on. My body knows, it's game day. It knows it's time to really crank it up and perform. Now I get it out of me and I just laugh."

But he knows anxiety is no laughing matter. It's a serious issue and he says no one should be afraid of how it's perceived. Even if you're a 6'5, 335 lbs. Pro Bowl NFL lineman. 

"Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness," Brooks said. "It's a sign of strength."