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January 19, 2023

Eagles star Lane Johnson is learning how to block his biggest opponent, anxiety, and helping others confront it, too

The All-Pro tackle quietly battled a mental health 'monster' for years. Now, he's become an advocate for treatment and self-acceptance

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Lane Johnson Mental Health Eagles Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson is raising mental health awareness by sharing his knowledge about anxiety and depression in a series of group discussions in the Philadelphia region.

The Eagles will get a major boost on the offensive line for Saturday's playoff game against the rival New York Giants, who will have to deal with Lane Johnson up front if they want to slow down Jalen Hurts and company.

Johnson suffered a torn adductor during the team's Christmas Eve loss to the Cowboys, sidelining him for the rest of the regular season. He's chosen to put off surgery until the offseason and instead suit up for a shot at his second Super Bowl victory.

"There are a few times when you're on a team that you know has a chance to win it all," Johnson said outside his locker last week. "I could see that throughout the season. The timing of the injury wasn't great, but my whole reason for coming back was because I feel like we have a chance to be something special. That's my reason."

Much has been made about the Eagles' fortunes with and without No. 65 in the lineup. Since entering the league in 2013, the Eagles are 79-47-1 with Johnson on the field. Without him, they're 13-22. Stats like the one below help explain Johnson's impact as well as any glowing description of his talent can.

What makes Johnson's NFL career that much more admirable is not necessarily what he does on game days. It's how he has grappled with the anxiety and depression that have chewed at him since he was a teenager in East Texas, troubled by a menace that lurked behind the accomplishments in his life.

Johnson, 32, missed three games last season due to the effects of withdrawal from Paxil, an antidepressant he was prescribed to help him manage his symptoms. He had tremors in his hands, nausea, vomiting and a sense that he had lost control of himself.

"It's very scary," Johnson said in early November, speaking in front of a small group of people at a mental health clinic in Cherry Hill. "For people who aren't familiar with that, it's difficult for them to understand. But if you have seen a loved one that's going through it, you understand what someone in a manic state is going through."

Over the past several months, Johnson has led a series of talks about his mental health struggles to advocate treatment and self-acceptance. His discussion in Cherry Hill can be viewed below.

"Communication is the biggest factor behind all of this. Not hiding," Johnson said. "Not being scared to reveal your true self and how you're feeling. People can look at this as a scapegoat and not a manly thing to do, but it takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there in the world and not be scared of judgment. At the same time, you can feel validated and liberated because what you're saying is true."

Johnson's upbringing was steeped in the hardcore football culture of Texas, the kind that leaves kids hanging their heads around town after a loss. From an early age, he knew he wanted to play in the NFL, but the path wasn't neatly laid out for him. Johnson's graduating class in the small town of Groveton had about 100 kids, and the best offer he received from a college football program came from Rice University. He didn't feel that would put him on the NFL scouting map, so he opted to play quarterback and tight end for Kilgore College — a small junior college outside Dallas — in hopes of transferring to a major NCAA university.

That's when Johnson's mental health began to suffer.

"It really started on game days," Johnson said. "A lot of vomiting, a lot of nervousness. Hard to eat. Hard to associate with others. What I wanted to do was just run and isolate myself, really get away from everybody."

At the University of Oklahoma, injuries on the Sooners' offensive line gave Johnson the opportunity to display his elite footwork. Over three seasons, he got into a groove and emerged as one of the nation's top prospects. Still, something wasn't right.

Every other day I feel fine. Game day, I don't. Ever since college, as soon as I wake up, it's a panic attack. I feel nauseous. I go to the bathroom and throw up, doesn't matter if it's a night game. – Lane Johnson, Eagles tackle

"I felt like the monster just kept building and building," Johnson said. He visited a counselor at Oklahoma to talk about handling his perfectionism on such a massive stage.

"You're at a big, highly publicized school, so it feels more like the NFL than maybe some NFL programs," Johnson said. "This is really where I feel like I suffered the most. It was hard for me to function. We had workouts. We had school, but I lost my appetite and felt like my personality was taken from me."

When Johnson was selected by the Eagles with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, few would have imagined this was the mental state he was taking with him to Philadelphia.

Even Johnson believed that he could achieve his way out of the problems he faced.

"I thought that since I accomplished some things, some of this stuff would go away and subside," Johnson said. "Really, I felt like the monster kept building. I did some stuff to talk about it, but I didn't follow through."

Johnson has earned four Pro Bowl selections during his 10-year NFL career. He was a key piece of the team's first-ever Super Bowl title five years ago. He's regarded among the best offensive linemen in the league, if not the best. 

He's played through brutal injuries, including a surgically repaired ankle, to be there for his team.

And yet, come game day, like clockwork, he's still an emotional wreck.

"Every other day I feel fine. Game day, I don't," Johnson said. "Ever since college, as soon as I wake up, it's a panic attack. I feel nauseous. I go to the bathroom and throw up, doesn't matter if it's a night game."

As Eagles fans get hyped for Saturday's game, Johnson will be at war with his familiar monster — until he stares at his opponents and forgets about it on the field. 

A balanced mental diet

Sports psychologist Joel Fish has worked with elite athletes for the past 30 years. He's a nationally recognized expert who has been a consultant for numerous professional teams including the 76ers, Flyers and Phillies. And he's followed Johnson's story, though he hasn't worked with him. 

Fish has a full repertoire of mental skills training techniques that he uses to help athletes recognize and conquer what ails them when it matters most.

"Usually, it's a performance issue, a slump," Fish said. "Often, it's the athlete saying, 'Where's my confidence?' Half of the time, it's about teaching mental skills."

In recent years, Fish said he's seen important signs of progress in the way teams are run and the willingness shown by players like Johnson to be vocal about not suppressing their needs for help.

NFL teams now have sports psychologists who are available to help players in more informal ways. These specialists blend into the team culture and are available to offer their input to players, often without the need for appointments.

"It's an integrated part of the team," Fish said. "It's making an important statement on the part of the organization to develop the person, not just the player. There are unique pressures for these players."

Johnson began seeing sports psychologist Dr. Lionel Rosen, a Michigan State University professor, during his second year in the NFL.

"(Rosen) told me that 50-60% of athletes have some kind of anxiety disorder," Johnson said. "I found out that men can be very stubborn, and a lot of times if you ask somebody how they're doing, they'll say, 'I'm doing fine.' And that's not the case at all."

From a skills training standpoint, Johnson said he has benefited greatly from techniques that are proven to ease anxiety. He listens to the Marconi Union song "Weightless," which research has shown can reduce anxiety and physiological tension.

Johnson also uses a breathing exercise called Kirtan Kriya, an Indian meditation chant that relies on a simple mantra and a series of finger poses to increase focus and clarity. He pairs this with a program known as the Wim Hof Method, which emphasizes cold exposure and conscious breathing for improved mental and physical balance.

But beyond these specific rituals, Johnson has worked to adjust his overall perspective on the outside world — to limit the suffocating nature of a society that loves to doomscroll.

"When you look at the world now, everybody is on their phones. The phone is taking over the world, taking your attention," Johnson said. "I think people become very good at what they practice. What I noticed is that a lot of anxiety stems from what people think. You want people to think highly of you, and you can get self-absorbed."

I give pro athletes a lot of credit for helping move the needle. When people are needing some help, they feel it's easier to reach out. – Joel Fish, sports psychologist

Johnson advises those dealing with anxiety to take a careful look at how they spend their time.

"It stems from what your diet is, and I'm not talking about food," Johnson said. "I'm talking about what you watch, what you listen to, who you hang around with — those three factors can be the biggest influences in helping you turn a corner."

Fish said fans too often minimize the humanity of professional athletes. He started noticing more of this behavior with the dawn of ESPN's round-the-clock coverage in the 1990s. And it only intensified with the evolution of the internet.

"You could make a statement in Philadelphia and it was all over the world by the end of the night," Fish said. "Social media multiplied that by 10. I can do 99 things right, but if I sneeze the wrong way, it's all over the world."

Johnson has dealt with his fair share of this. He once apologized for questioning the Eagles' home field advantage because fans were mercilessly booing the team at Lincoln Financial Field. He's been through the ringer because of his two suspensions for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy. He's even caught flak for saying that the Eagles won the Super Bowl, in part, because the team's culture emphasized having fun, in contrast to the so-called Patriot Way in New England. 

Johnson has never publicly drawn a connection between his anxiety and his past PED suspensions, though he previously suggested the suspensions should disqualify him from Hall of Fame consideration

Fish said the issue of PEDs is a perverse function of the social and financial incentives that are magnified in pro sports. Many players object to the NFL's rigid standards on supplements. After Johnson's second suspension, he strongly criticized the NFL Players Association for failing to make clear which supplements are permitted.  

"The reward system is so clearly set up for performance that it can be tempting to want to take that advantage," Fish said.

Through his personal growth, Johnson hasn't lost his sense of humor. He knows that the harsh criticism and media spin are sometimes part of the package with his success.

"I have no complaints," Johnson said after his talk in Cherry Hill. "We're getting paid a stupid amount of money to play a f***ing dumb*** sport so people can have something to do on Sundays."

If anything, Johnson said the toughness of the sports atmosphere in Philadelphia has gotten the most out of him as a player and has given him valuable wisdom.

"The pressure, the environment, it makes it so your focus has to be intensified," Johnson said. "And I feel like it makes you the best player you can be."

Johnson, a father of three, continues to line up his priorities on a week-to-week basis to manage his issues. He's relied on friends, family and former teammates — like Brandon Brooks, who's been through similar issues — to keep him grounded in what really matters.

For one of the most seasoned voices in the Eagles locker room, that now means being part of the solution for fellow players, many of whom now come to him for advice.

"This isn't a pity party for me," Johnson said. "This is really an initiation for the people in the NFL to take notice."

But Fish believes the societal impact can be much greater when athletes like Johnson — among many others who have opened up about difficult personal problems — make their situations relatable to average people.

"I give pro athletes a lot of credit for helping move the needle," Fish said. "When people are needing some help, they feel it's easier to reach out."

No matter who people are, or what they may be dealing with, Johnson said the most important step is finding the courage to talk about it.

"It's hard for people to admit to themselves that they may need help," Johnson told the group in Cherry Hill. "That's the biggest thing. Pride gets in the way sometimes. But not everybody is in the situation I'm in to get easy access. The main thing is to communicate. Even what we're having now, this stuff didn't exist 10-15 years ago."

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