Each game day, Philadelphia Eagles guard Brandon Brooks used to wake up and then throw up — twice — every hour on the hour. It got so bad that he missed two games in 2016 (against the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins). Doctors performed endoscopies, diagnosed Brooks with ulcers and prescribed medications, but nothing helped. “I never knew what it was. I thought it was something physical,” Brooks tells OZY. Each time he met with a doctor, though, he was given a clean bill of health.
It turns out the condition wasn’t physical. Brooks was suffering from a debilitating anxiety disorder, one in which he would imagine everyone watching the game focused on him for every play. “I was just overthinking,” he says simply.
At the end of last season, he started seeing a therapist, which allowed him to talk through his anxiety issues. “That’s probably the biggest thing that helped me,” he says. Brooks still goes to therapy once a week and has medication in case of emergency — when he feels the anxiety “coming on real bad” — but he hasn’t needed any this season.
Instead Brooks has played every game for the first time in his six-year career while also earning his first Pro Bowl nod.
That Brooks conquered his demons is triumph enough, but he also overcame negative stereotypes in a tough man’s game where mental illness, if talked about, would be considered a sign of weakness. “That’s just ignorance,” he says. “We’re in a sport that’s very ego-driven, old school in that aspect.… That’s just an old-fashioned way of thinking about it.”
Brooks shrugs off questions about how much he can lift, but it’s clear that the 6-foot-5, 343-pounder is anything but weak; he may in fact be the most muscle-bound Eagle. Asked what makes his teammate so good, offensive tackle Will Beatty jokes: “Have you seen the guy?” Starting left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai is quick to add, “I’ve never seen so much strength.”
Eagles assistant offensive line coach Eugene Chung, who played five years in the NFL, makes a habit of warming up his linemen. At 6-foot-4, the coach, who weighed 300 pounds during his playing days, says he can get movement when he locks on stalwart Eagles linemen like right tackle Lane Johnson or center Jason Kelce. But Brooks?
“Every time I push against him, it’s like trying to push against a huge sequoia. It doesn’t budge,” Chung says. “It’s like pushing a brick wall.”
Brooks pushed through his own emotional wall with the help of his teammates, especially veterans Darren Sproles and Jason Peters. “He trusted us, and we trusted him,” Chung explains. “When the trust is there, it’s huge. You move mountains.”
And you can break down stereotypes. “I feel a lot of guys in this sport have had anxiety. It’s not something that’s talked about. It’s perceived as not masculine,” Lane Johnson tells OZY. “It shows a true sign of strength to overcome it and learn how to cope with it.”
Johnson, the right tackle, and Brooks, the right guard, have become a power duo for the Eagles, anchoring a run game that ranked third in the NFL over the 2017 season, averaging 132.2 yards per game. Brooks in particular has wowed coaches by nimbly weaving through traffic and staying on his feet to cut off backside linebackers. “The things he can do in space, in a confined area for such a huge man,” Chung says, “that’s impressive.”
Brooks is equally adept at pass blocking, an area where Chung can’t recall a defender beating him. And then there are Brooks’ “lawn chair” blocks, so named for the defenders who seem to collapse as easily as garden furniture. “If you notice what a lawn chair looks like when you fold it up,” the coach says, “that’s what he does.”
Physically intimidating, for sure, but not just for his brawn. At the 2012 NFL combine, Brooks ran the 40 in 4.9 seconds, prompting the Houston Texans to draft him in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. And now, by overcoming psychological hurdles, he may have reached his most notable and inspiring achievement yet. “I never got into it to be a role model or anything,” Brooks says. “But for me the biggest thing is if my story can help anybody, to let them know that there are brighter days ahead, let them know if they need help, it’s OK to get help if you need it. That’s what it’s all about.”
With a five-year, $40 million contract with the Eagles, Brooks is locked up through the 2020 season, allowing him to breathe and enjoy himself more these days. And for the son of Robert, who works for the city of Milwaukee, and Dorothy, an employee at Miller Brewing Co., that means a measure of freedom — from financial worries, even if the emotional worries are still there.
Brooks still vomits before every NFL contest, but now it’s one and done and no longer debilitating. “Once I throw up,” he says, “it’s all good. It’s OK.”
Who will come out on top between the Eagles and New England Patriots in Sunday’s highly wagered Super Bowl LII remains to be seen. But there is one sure bet: Whatever Brooks eats before the game will surely come out: “It’s a guarantee,” he says.