If you've ever played sports at any level growing up, you've likely heard your coach yell at you to "push through" an injury, to "tough it out" if you showed emotion after a loss, or even to "man up" if you had to miss a game due to social stress or pressures from school or family.
Men, especially pro athletes, aren't supposed to show vulnerabilities on the field, the court, or the rink. We've heard stories of guys who've played through concussions, broken bones, and a myriad of other injuries. In the NFL, there is increasing awareness around CTE and its link to dementia, depression, and suicide. Some players have come out and expressed regret about staying in the game too long and suffering the mental and physical consequences.
Yet, there have been countless pro athletes who have overcome physical AND mental limitations in order to rise to the top of their respective sports. This is especially true in football. Some NFL players are starting to discuss their trials and tribulations publicly. In the field of psychological health, this is particularly important as we work to de-stigmatize the bugaboo of mental illness. You can succeed no matter what your limitations.
Here are 15 NFL players who have proved it:
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15 Keith O'Neil
The undrafted linebacker signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 2003. By that point, O’Neil had been struggling with extreme anxiety and depression since age nine. He never received a proper diagnosis because his friends and family figured he was just “a moody child.” The Colts claimed him off waivers in 2005, but nothing seemed to quell his anxiety. Head coach Tony Dungy sought help for O’Neil, and provided him a therapist to talk to.
The Colts’ Super Bowl win helped O’Neil in his recovery. He decided to retire from football in 2008 to focus more on his mental well-being. He was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010, but by that point, was in a much better place psychologically.
He says the disease still affects him, but he has learned to manage it. O’Neil has since founded the “4th and Forever Foundation,” dedicated to spreading awareness and funding research for mental illness.
14 Samari Rolle
Rolle was already a veteran in the NFL when he joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. However, the former All-Pro cornerback missed five of the first ten games of the 2007 season due to an undisclosed illness. The team later found out Rolle was suffering from epileptic seizures.
Although Rolle claimed he had experienced smaller seizures for two years before that, the 2007 episodes were severe enough for him to publicly acknowledge the problem and seek proper treatment. The seizures left Rolle physically incapacitated and emotionally drained. Rolle had to restrict himself from certain activities, such as driving, swimming by himself (due to drowning concerns), and even having his own hotel room.
Rolle returned later that season, and played through 2008 while effectively managing his symptoms. He retired in 2010, not because of his epilepsy, but because of repeated neck injuries.
13 Brandon Marshall
The Jets All-Pro wide receiver is just as famous for his off-field issues as he is for his on-field domination. He has had several run-ins with law enforcement, including a 2004 assault charge and a 2007 DUI. In 2011, Marshall was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which gave him his first insight as to why he might have acted out the way he did.
Since his diagnosis, he founded Project 365, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading mental health awareness, and ending the stigma surrounding it. Marshall wore a special pair of cleats to support Mental Illness Awareness Week in 2013, and donated the $5,000 fine he received from the NFL to charity.
Marshall hasn’t let his illness weigh him down. He made the Pro Bowl four times since 2011, and was co-leader in touchdown receptions during the 2015 season.
12 Jason Pierre-Paul
I don't blame anyone for begrudging Pierre-Paul for his July 4th fireworks mishap in 2015. The defensive end’s self-inflicted injury resulted in the amputation of his right index finger, and serious damage to two others. As a Giants fan, I was furious at JPP for his carelessness and figured the All-Pro player would never be the same. He certainly wouldn't repeat his 12.5 sack season from 2014.
I doubted whether he would even suit up for the season. He wore a modified football glove to cover his maimed hand. It looked more like a mix of a mitten and a cast, but hey, it worked.
He played fairly decent given his disability. He racked up 28 total tackles and one sack in eight games started. In 2016, he re-signed with the Giants on a one-year, 10.5 million contract. Although JPP proved serviceable in 2015, the Giants were wise not to invest in him beyond next season. There are too many questions about his long-term production given that he will essentially be playing with one hand for the rest of his career.
11 David Garrard
Garrard spent 12 seasons in the NFL, eight of them with the Jacksonville Jaguars. From 2007-2010, he served as the team’s starting quarterback. However, Garrard was released before the 2011 season, and persistent knee injuries have since hampered his comeback attempts with the Dolphins and Jets.
Yet, Garrard never let his Crohn’s Disease limit his playing time. Crohn’s Disease is an incurable form of inflammatory bowel disease marked by abdominal pain, diarrhea, skin rashes, and arthritis.
Garrard knew something was wrong when a sudden jolt of pain ripped through his gut one afternoon in January 2004. He was doubled over on the floor, feeling as though his stomach would explode. He underwent surgery to remove part of his small intestine, and within six weeks, was practicing with his Jaguar teammates.
Garrard credited his doctors and his faith in God in helping him triumph over the debilitating chronic pain of Crohn’s and become an NFL starting quarterback.
10 Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw is perhaps better known nowadays as a football analyst and commentator. However, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback won four Super Bowl titles during the team's golden "Steel Curtain" Era.
However, for as much success as he experienced on the field, he struggled mightily to maintain happiness off the field. He suffered from ADHD and depression throughout his playing career, and experienced panic attacks after games. He was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1999 after a divorce from his third wife.
Bradshaw struggled for years before his diagnosis, unsure of what exactly ailed him. He drank to self-medicate, which he detailed in his biography, "Keep it Simple." He later realized the root of his depression came from the intense criticism thrust upon him as an All-Pro quarterback in the NFL. Amazingly he hasn't let his ADHD or his depression get the best of him. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, in his first year of eligibility, and won two Emmys for sports broadcasting.
9 Mark Schlereth
The well-known Sportscenter analyst and former All-Pro offensive guard didn’t let his dyslexia deter him from becoming a three-time Super Bowl champion. Schlereth first became aware of his disability as a seventh grader when he was called to read aloud in front of his class. He couldn’t read the words on the page, and thus, struggled with the assignment.
Learning to read at a later age, Schlereth was subjected to a fair amount of teasing from other kids. Fortunately, he worked hard with his teacher and made substantial progress by year’s end. He used his dyslexia to his advantage, and sought to prove the kids who made fun of him wrong. He used his athletic ability to show that he did indeed have self worth.
Even by age 25, Schlereth admitted he wasn’t an accomplished reader. Yet, he read as often as he could when not on the football field.
In retirement, he has forged a successful career as a sports television and radio personality. In the sports media arena, where reading is essential, this is a remarkable feat.
8 Arian Foster
The Miami Dolphins’ running back struggled through more than just physical pain throughout his NFL career. Despite missing several games over the past few seasons with back, calf, and Achilles injuries, the four-time Pro Bowler’s greatest fight was with alcoholism.
Foster explained to FoxSports.com in November 2015 of how he felt worthless to his team due to his injuries. He drank to numb the pain, and avoided getting help because of the stigma surrounding mental illness in the NFL. It wasn’t until his wife, Romina, filed for divorce, that he knew he had to make a change.
Since going sober, Foster has worked with Brandon Marshall’s non-profit “Project 365” to end the stigma and shame around mental illness. This is especially important to Foster since his sister suffers from bipolar disorder. Foster says reading and playing the piano helps keep him centered as he starts his first season in Miami.
7 Tom Dempsey
In November 1970, Saints kicker Tom Dempsey set the record for the longest field goal in a regular season game at the time (63 yards). The record stood for 43 years. What makes that feat so special? Well, Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot!
Dempsey suited up for the Saints, the Eagles, the Rams, the Oilers, and the Bills over his 10-year NFL career. He kicked 159 field goals, all while wearing a specialized football cleat with an enlarged, flattened front surface to compensate for his disability. Despite protests from some players who claimed the shoe could've given Dempsey an unfair advantage, he was allowed to wear it.
One exception was made in 1977, as the league ruled that "any shoe worn by a player with an artificial limb...must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe." The rule aptly became known as the "Tom Dempsey Rule."
6 Charles Haley
Haley is another prime example of how mental disabilities don’t define or determine one’s worth in life. The 2015 Hall of Fame Inductee, widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of all time, collected over 100 sacks and almost 500 tackles in 169 career games. He remains the only player in NFL history with five Super Bowl rings, a feat he accomplished with the 49ers and Cowboys. He did all this while battling undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
He detailed his struggles with the disease during his 2015 Hall of Fame induction speech, explaining how it contributed to his tense, icy relationship with teammates and coaches.
Since his retirement, Haley has become a mentor for young players on both the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. He works with various charities to help at-risk youth and educate others on the nature of bipolar disorder and paths to treatment.
5 Ronnie Lott
Ronnie Lott epitomized the hard-hitting, menacing nature of the NFL in the physical style of play he brought to the field every Sunday. It’s no surprise, then, that Lott suffered an injury when he delivered a crushing tackle on the Dallas Cowboys’ Tim Newsome in December 1985. He broke his pinkie finger in the incident, but it’s how he chose to rehab the injury that proves his toughness.
Rather than undergo reconstructive surgery, which would cause him to miss significant time, he chose to simply have the tip of his pinkie finger amputated. Lott admitted he was initially disgusted at the sight of his stubbed finger. However, he went on to log a league-leading 10 interceptions during the 1986 season.
He retired in 1995 as a 10-time Pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl champion. He is universally lauded as one of the greatest safeties in NFL history.
4 Mark Herzlich
Herzlich didn’t have a long NFL career, but the fact that he had one at all is a minor miracle. Not that the linebacker didn’t have the skills to make it, he certainly did. He was a first team All-American in 2008 and All-ACC linebacker for Boston College.
However, tragedy struck in May 2009 when the then-22 Herzlich announced that he had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Amazingly, he was declared cancer-free that September, and returned to BC the following season.
In 2011, the New York Giants signed Herzlich as an undrafted free agent. Since his debut against the Philadelphia Eagles that season, he has collected over 150 tackles, won a Super Bowl Ring, and authored a book “What it Takes: Fighting For My Life and My Love of the Game.” If Herzlich’s story of survival doesn’t inspire you, I’m not sure what will.
3 Rocky Bleier
We all praise Cowboys Hall-of-Famer Roger Staubach for his U.S. Navy service during the Vietnam War. Let’s not forget about another Vietnam veteran who returned from his tour of duty to achieve NFL success. Rocky Bleier was as tough and rugged as they come. He served as the Pittsburgh Steelers halfback for 11 seasons.
Bleier was drafted into the war in December 1968, shortly after his rookie season. What makes Bleier stand out, though, was that he was severely wounded during his tour of duty in South Vietnam. While on patrol in May 1969, Bleier suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh when his platoon was ambushed. While down, an enemy grenade landed nearby, exploded, and sent shrapnel into his right leg and foot.
Doctors told Bleier he could never play again. Yet he was determined to return to his team, which he did in 1971. He won four Super Bowl titles with the Steelers over the next decade before retiring in 1980 with over 3,800 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns.
2 Eric Berry
Perhaps no one deserved the 2016 NFL Comeback Player Year Award more than Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Berry took a leave of absence from the team after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in December 2014. He immediately underwent chemotherapy treatments, yet somehow was strong enough to work out and train during that time.
As someone who has witnessed first-hand the effects of chemotherapy on a family member, I can tell you it truly drains every ounce of energy from an individual. The fact that Berry worked to keep his fitness up during that time is a testament to his sheer will and determination to beat his cancer.
And beat it he did. He was declared cancer free the following summer, and played the entire 2015 season. He helped the Chiefs clinch a Wild Card berth, and he made the Pro Bowl! Talk about an inspiration.
1 Tedy Bruschi, New England Patriots
As much as I loathe the New England Patriots, I have the utmost respect for Tedy Bruschi given how he battled back from a stroke at age 31. It was February 2005, and Bruschi had just returned home from his first Pro Bowl, fresh off the Patriot’s third Super Bowl victory. He woke up one morning with complete numbness on his left side and a pounding headache.
After being admitted to a hospital, the doctors informed him he had suffered a mild stoke, and had a small hole in his heart. Bruschi endured months of rehab, and had to relearn to walk and talk again. Miraculously, just eight months after his near-death experience, Bruschi was medically cleared to play football. The linebacker was back on the field for the Patriots, and earned a share of the 2005 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award at season’s end.
Since his 2009 retirement, Bruschi founded “Tedy’s Team,” a running club that works with the American Stroke Association to spread awareness.
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