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April 11, 2017

How an obsession with perfection took ‘Mr. Eagle’ Brandon Brooks from huddle to hospital

There were never any warning signs that it was coming. No turning in his sleep from stomach nausea; no twisted sheets caused by internal stress; no physical symptoms whatsoever. 

But for Brandon Brooks, serene game day mornings were pierced with the sudden guttural sounds of projectile vomiting in the toilet. That rush to the bathroom, with his hand cupped over his mouth, was his alarm clock. 

That’s the way the Eagles’ starting right guard woke up Monday morning, November 28, 2016 – the day the Eagles were scheduled to play on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers. And it’s the same way he awoke Sunday morning, December 11, when the Eagles hosted the Washington Redskins, which was followed by violently expelling his innards in a hospital for 24 hours afterward.

On the field in 2016, Brooks, the 6-foot-5, 350-pound free agent signee, had his best season as a pro in his five years in the NFL. 

Off the field, he arguably had his worst. On March 9, Brooks, 27, signed a five-year, $40-million deal ($21 million guaranteed), with an $11-million signing bonus, the largest in Eagles’ history for a guard. 

The money, the pressure to perform, it all caught up to him and exploded – quite literally.

*   *   *

'That’s a caveman kind of thinking.'

If you closed your eyes and erased his physical dimensions, you could easily imagine Brooks standing behind a podium wearing glasses, a brown flannel jacket and a black bow tie teaching economics or modern banking. Those closest to him joke that he’s 27 going on 40. 

Off the field, he’s affable, highly cerebral, a young renaissance man who is not averse to trying new things and stretching his intellect. 

On the field, he’s a complete contradiction – a thinking destroyer devoted to all aspects of the game, someone who immerses himself in trying to absorb everything he can about his opponent he’ll be seeing on Sunday. What he wants is to be perfect and impregnable. 

And everything last season seemed to be working out that way for Brooks until that Monday morning in late November.

“There is no rhyme or reason [why it happens]. I go to sleep on Saturday night, just like any other Saturday night, but unfortunately that next morning, I woke up out of my sleep and start throwing up,” said Brooks, who played his first four seasons in Houston after being selected in the third round out of the 2012 draft from Miami of Ohio. “I’ve always had a habit of throwing up before games. Game days, I’ll throw up once. If I throw up more than once, like a couple of more times, more than likely I’m going to get sick. That’s about, as far as physically, what happens to me. 

"It’s like we’re not human beings, like we’re devoid of feelings or emotions. ... It is like you’re just a number on a field."

“There’s no physical symptoms the night before. I just physically wake from my sleep throwing up. It becomes uncontrollable for 24 hours and there’s nothing a doctor can give me to stop it. It usually stops on its own and I grow so weak that I can barely stand. Those are the two things that go together. The crazy thing is, the next day, it’s as if it never happened and I can eat anything and I’ll be fine. It just gets me that football players are put on these pedestals where they’re not supposed to be, that things like this aren’t supposed to affect us.

“That’s not the world we live in today. That’s a caveman kind of thinking. My rookie year I had to find myself in this league. But last year, going through that stuff, I would say last year wasn’t the toughest, but it was a close second. Other than actually missing the games, I didn’t really have a problem. I thought I had my best year as a pro, I thought.” 

Brooks – who, like any competitive person hated missing games – felt compelled to go public.

“I was going through it,” he said. “Then having to come up to the media and talk about what happened, and worrying about how the media was going to spin it and what they were going to do and how fans were going to respond … what happens is, as pro athletes, especially in football, we’re put on a pedestal as if we’re invincible. It’s like we’re not human beings, like we’re devoid of feelings or emotions. They’ll hold you to that.

“The fact is, you’re making more money than 95 percent of the public, so in their eyes, the emotions, feelings, what you’re going through, injuries to a certain degree, shouldn’t exist and you should play through them. It is like you’re just a number on a field. Going through what I went through last year made me ask myself a bunch of questions.”

The first self-observation was what made him reach this point. 

*   *   *

'It’s not a mental illness. It is anxiety...'

The anxiety started in his fourth year with the Texans. They were playing in Buffalo on December 6, 2015. Brooks’ good friend and mentor, Jarrod Johnson, the senior vice president of operations at the Erie County Medical Center, in Buffalo, New York, was there to see him play. 

As Johnson was sitting in the stands of Ralph Wilson Stadium on a frigid Sunday afternoon, he received a text from Brooks: “I’m in your hospital.”

“Brandon stayed overnight and we took care of him, and I remember telling him that he had to face this thing,” said Johnson, 47, a Lehigh University graduate with an MBA from Howard University who played briefly in the early 1990s with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was with the Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football. “He’s still doing that. In Houston, Brandon was doing internships at investment banks, working on his MBA. When he signed with Philadelphia, he put more pressure on himself. He became too consumed with football. 

“His trigger comes up before games. That’s just his thing. Every football player goes through it. My anxiety was a little different. I would get an upset stomach; other guys spend time on the toilet until they’re relieved. Brandon goes into every game prepared. He’s in shape. He’s doing everything he needs to do, and I told him if you screw up, so what. Face it, own it and he’s taking all of those steps. I told him to play the game, play it like you’re a little kid again. Brandon would tell me how consumed with football he was. That was the beginning.”

So Brooks peered a little deeper into who he is. 

He didn’t start playing organized football until he was 12, living in Milwaukee. He was always big for his age, and Johnson, Brandon’s neighbor, remembers the times Brandon would ride his bike up and down the street and then gobble up food at Johnson’s house. An FCS college official, Johnson began his officiating career doing high school games in the Milwaukee area, where Brandon played for Riverside University High School. 

"Let’s be honest, I signed a $40-million contract. That’s a number you’re tied to, and all of a sudden, if you have a bad game or a bad play, you’re not worth the money."

Brooks’ ascension began his junior year, when his tenacity began to surface. He literally put Riverside, a traditionally weak program, on his back and lugged that team to the state semifinals his senior year.

“I officiated one of Brandon’s first games when he was a freshman; he played nose tackle and he was always a big, solid kid,” Johnson recalled. “I think of Brandon as my little brother, so I was trying to watch what I was doing while keeping an eye on him. I pulled him aside after the game and told him that he should be dominating these kids. Brandon was always a mild-mannered kid; he never had a mean streak. I saw Brandon grow up in front of my eyes as far as his tenacity and aggressiveness by the time he became a junior.”

That’s when Brooks’ love of the game blossomed. Last season tested that.

Was he holding on too tight?

“You start sacrificing your entire fall; you start sacrificing your entire summers; you start sacrificing time with your family,” said Brooks, who interned at Morgan Stanley when he played in Houston and whose mother, Dorothy, possesses an MBA she achieved when Brandon was in high school. “Older people in the game I see start sacrificing time with their kids to play a game that you love, because you sacrifice and you’re obsessed to make at this level. A lot of times, you sacrifice so much you forget to take those steps back and enjoy it, to see who you are beyond football. I had to do a lot of self-reflecting last year. 

“Those were the first questions that I posed to myself: Who I am? What do I like? What do I stand for?"

And in his search for those answers, Brooks began realizing not just the "who" and "what," but the "why" as well.

“It’s not a mental illness. It is anxiety – we’ll leave it at that. Everyone goes through it," he said. "I never got sick in high school, I never had the anxiety to this extreme in college. I have to say this, I’ve always had confidence before a game. Always! My problem is my obsession to be perfect. I’ve always been that way. It’s happened everywhere I’ve been. I become obsessed. I don’t eat. I focus. That’s how I am and it’s probably what’s always given me my edge, especially when it comes to sports.

“My obsession for perfection is so great that mentally I don’t tolerate anything but perfection. Out of 80 plays in a game, if I have five bad plays, 75 plays don’t exist; those five bad plays do. That’s all I think about. I go over in my head what I could have done differently, or where I went wrong in preparing, not realizing that, one, the guy across from me is getting paid, too, and, two, even the best in the world gets beat. Finally, three, football is not a game you can completely control. It has moving parts, and you’re not going to be perfect every time.

“That’s what I’m starting to realize now. When I say anxiety, my constant pursuit for perfection heightened when I came here. Let’s be honest, I signed a $40-million contract. That’s a number you’re tied to, and all of a sudden, if you have a bad game or a bad play, you’re not worth the money. When I came here, my perfectionist ways intensified.”

*   *   *

'I wasn’t going to hide from it.'

The Eagles, Brooks keeps reiterating, were great throughout his ordeal. Head coach Doug Pederson wanted him to step back and take some time off. 

Brooks refused. To solve the issue meant confronting it.

“Someone his age or younger doesn’t have the capacity Brandon has in talking about many different things,” Johnson said. “Brandon won’t avoid conflict, either. He’ll challenge you. You can walk away and find yourself agreeing with him, or you may disagree with him, but you’ll like him anyway.

“He had a disagreement with the Eagles coaching staff last year. Coach Pederson cares a lot about his players. Pederson’s first concern was Brandon the man, not Brandon the player. They were going to hold him out; they wanted to ease him back. Brandon was like, ‘No, no, no, I want to play. I need to play football and figure this thing out.’ Of course, Brandon started the next game [against Baltimore], but Brandon liked the constructive conversation he had with Coach Pederson. Brandon was the one who pushed to come back and play.

“He’s the kind of young man who honors his commitments. He loves playing for Coach Pederson and the Eagles, and with that offensive line. They’re tight-knit, and when Brandon was thinking about Philadelphia, the guys on the offensive line – guys like Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce – were a reason Brandon signed. They talked up Philadelphia to him. When he was going through it, they all backed him and were there for him.”

As for Brooks, he’s realigned his priorities. 

He already possesses a degree in psychology and a minor in business and was half way through his MBA at the University of Houston with a focus in finance when he signed with the Eagles. This offseason he’s started taking Spanish lessons. He gets his lifts in at the NovaCare Complex later in the evenings by himself, initiating small talk with the facility janitors. He reads. He’s traveled the country, flying out to Portland, Oregon, for the first time, “because I’ve never been there,” he says. 

"I’ve reached a point now where I really don’t care what people say or how they feel about what I do, and that goes for fans, coaches, players. I’m not just a number on a football field. I’m a human being."

He’s also working on going to Wharton after his pro career, with the intention of one day being the guy in the bow-tie as a college professor. Johnson foresees Brooks as an all-pro in the near future and after football one day as a corporate CEO, or a city controller — maybe even mayor or congressman Brooks.

He is also learning to ease up — mostly, on himself.

Brooks openly admits that he’s seeing a psychologist. There’s no shame in asking for help. He’s not taking any medication and it’s important to him that he shares his story. 

When he went public last November, he received letters throughout the area from parents, coaches and kids, telling him how brave he was by facing this head on. 

“I wasn’t going to hide from it,” Brooks said emphatically. “If my story helps one person, I know I did some good. It’s reached a point where I am truly comfortable in my skin and with the decisions that I’ve made. I’m happy that I spoke to the media, I did that, and I did think about how the media would take it and how the city would take it. It was positive overall. I guess, sometimes, unfortunately, we live in an age of social media where it gives a voice to assholes. 

“Because you’re a modern-day gladiator, you shouldn’t be affected by what affects everybody else? I’m a human being like anyone else. I went out and said what I had to say, the journey went on, and a lot of people wrote letters saying that they appreciated me coming out and talking about it.

“I’ve reached a point now where I really don’t care what people say or how they feel about what I do, and that goes for fans, coaches, players. I’m not just a number on a football field. I’m a human being. I just live my life and have fun, but it’s important that I make sure that I produce. That’s first and foremost. It’s my job. I still have a commitment to the game, to my teammates and my coaches. I had a great year last year. With this behind me, I’m going to be even better."

How, aside from his late workouts at NovaCare, does he plan on making that happen?

“I’m going to wear my emotions on my sleeve a lot more, because for me personally, I’m an introvert and an only child who bottled up a lot of stuff. 

"You’re going to see a better football player in 2017.”

You'll also see someone willing to live with imperfection.

After the final game of last season, Johnson and Brooks went out for dinner. Brandon did what he always does with Johnson, asking for feedback on his game, something the two have done since Brooks played in college. They spoke about the creed they share, “live and maintain,” and about leaving all of the craziness behind.

“Last year’s episode has helped Brandon grow,” Johnson said. “I tell him all of the time no one is going to make you happy, you have to make yourself happy. Brandon was always beyond his years in maturity. Every situation Brandon goes through he sees as a learning opportunity. He went through that thing last year and he learned a lot about himself. The first step is acknowledgment. That’s what he did and he worked his behind off to have the season he had – and I think he deserved to be recognized as an All-Pro last year. This guy is a pretty good football player, but he’s a far, far better person.

“He’s going to lick this anxiety he has, and furthermore, you’re going to see Philadelphia fans endear themselves more to this kid. He’s Mr. Eagle.”

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