Under My Helmet
By: Keith O'Neil
I have never written nor spoken to anyone in detail about playing in the NFL with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Balancing a high stress job with a mental illness is not always the easiest topic to speak about nor is it a conversation most people feel comfortable having. In my experience, people enjoy talking about my experience playing with Peyton Manning or what it was like to play for the Dallas Cowboys. I understand conversations like this come with the territory but what most people fail to recognize is that NFL players are human and have all too human issues. For me, it is bipolar disorder.
My time in the NFL was bittersweet. During my five-year career I was considered a "bubble player", a player who had to fight to make the roster each year. My salary was always league minimum, which means, I was paid the least amount of money a player could get paid, every year. I also was a special teamer, which is a position that is taken for granted and often overlooked. Despite this, playing special teams is something I am extremely proud of. I realized it took a certain type of player to play special teams, someone who could run and hit and play with a controlled recklessness. Special teams is where I belonged.
I played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts, two high profile teams, both rich in history. They embody football. So as much as I was trying to enjoy the success of being a professional athlete I was also battling the demons in my head, demons that plagued me since childhood. Even with a Super Bowl victory, I often ask myself, who really won the big game, the demons or me?
My retirement came right before the beginning of my sixth season. My decision to retire rested solely on the fact that I wanted the battle between my undiagnosed bipolar disorder and football to end. It was simply too long and I was simply too mentally exhausted to continue. Though I don’t have any regrets about my time in the NFL or my abrupt retirement, I do wish my time in the league could have been different. I count my blessings everyday and I am grateful for everything God has blessed me with but like most people, I sometimes ask myself “what if”? What if I didn’t have bipolar disorder? What if I didn’t have demons under my helmet?
My rookie training camp with Coach Bill Parcells and the Dallas Cowboys was one of the most trying times in my life. I was so determined to make the team that I literally drove myself mad. During camp I went on a stretch where I didn’t sleep for five straight nights. Looking back I realize it wasn’t because I was playing poorly but because I was playing very well. I realized I could play in this league and I wasn’t just a small kid from a small school, I could play. The pressure mounted. After the first pre-season game I climbed the depth chart at weak side linebacker from fourth to second and I remained at that position for the following two seasons.
It was then, after the first pre-season game that the sleepless nights began. My anxiety increased dramatically, the pressure got heavier, my thoughts raced. I lost fifteen pounds in ten days and my weight fell down to 219 pounds. I couldn’t eat, I was too distraught. Yet, I was playing extremely well, I became Parcells project, I was his type of player. None of that seemed to matter however because I couldn’t control the pressure I put on myself. Understanding why I couldn’t sleep and why I was so anxious was impossible to comprehend. I still don’t understand but I get it, I was a young man playing in the NFL, I needed to man up, it sounds so easy, just relax right? But I couldn’t. My illness wouldn’t let me. In general people who live with bipolar also suffer from bipolar. The high stress environment of the NFL didn’t mix with my disorder, this is when I suffered.
Camp was dragging on and I was desperate for sleep. Eventually, on the third sleepless night I took two Ambien and I washed them down with an entire bottle of Nyquil. Unbelievably, I still endured another long sleepless night. As I lay in bed voices would startle me and prevent me from sleep, thoughts flew through my mind, my body jolted as I would break out into cold sweats and my prayers for sleep went unanswered. The following day I hallucinated and was delusional but I continued to fight. My will to make the team was stronger than the illness trying to stop me.
Once practice began the physical exertion and the adrenalin seemed to bring my mind and body somewhat back to neutral. I somehow always performed well when my mind became clear and I could function. It was between two a day practices and at night when my teammates slept that I would breakdown. The sleep depravation was killing me. I had gone through severe injuries as an athlete but I had never experienced such agony. I know it sounds dramatic, but four nights without sleep heading into an NFL football game during training camp was extremely difficult, borderline insane. Yet, I couldn’t give up. I didn’t know how.
It was day five without sleep when we played the Houston Texans in a pre-season game at Texas Stadium. I played very well and I consider it one of the best games of my life. Once the game started I didn’t notice the lack of sleep that I had endured over the previous week. I still don’t understand how I got through the game, both mentally and physically. It was during this game when I realized how powerful the mind is and how strong the human will is if you truly want something. During this game I played against a special teams veteran and shut him down, every play. I also had a fumble recovery, a handful of tackles, several key blocks on special teams and a knockout shot. I truly believe this was the game that solidified my spot on the roster and when I earned the star on my helmet.
On the sixth night I finally slept for seven hours. It felt like the blink of an eye but I woke refreshed. That’s all I needed, seven hours of sleep after a week straight of insomnia. That was it; I had made it through hell, at least for a time. The rest of pre-season and my career was personally defined by sleep. If I slept I could manage. If not, I would struggle. The game I played at night was far more difficult than the game I played on the field.
Pre-season came to an end and I made the team. I was now a Dallas Cowboy. Coach Parcells told me personally that I made the team and then he shared some inspiring words with me. Words I will never forget. I was extremely relieved to make the team although I didn’t feel the way I thought I would. It was hard for me to enjoy the moment. I was too focused to really enjoy the moment and my thoughts of the regular season quickly filled my mind. The rest of the season I stuck to a very strict routine, kept my head down, stayed disciplined and played well in my first year.
Fast forward four years later; it's 2007 and I am playing for the Indianapolis Colts. We were fortunate enough to earn the right to play in Super Bowl XLI. With my history you would imagine the two weeks leading up to the game would have been occupied with restless nights and unease. On the contrary, it was filled with euphoria. I had this abnormal feeling that this was exactly where I was supposed to be at this very exact time in my life. I had never experienced anything like this feeling. Time appeared to move gently and everything seemed very calm. It seemed like everyone I encountered felt exactly the same way I did. It was weird. I was living in a dream.
To this day, I ask myself how did Super Bowl week pan out the way it did? Did I really have the ability to control my mind and my illness? Was I in a state of euphoria-hypomania? I don’t think so. How was it possible that I was playing in the biggest game in the world, on the biggest stage in the world and have zero symptoms? I felt no pressure, no anxiety, no racing thoughts, nothing. How was I asymptomatic? A question I’ve asked mental health professionals numerous times since playing in the Super Bowl. Their answer, we don’t know, the mind is amazing.
I slept sound every night and was able to enjoy time with my family and my teammates. I played in the game with a high ankle sprain, two fractured ribs, a sprained MCL and I didn’t even notice. My mental state was clear and confident. We played the Chicago Bears in Miami in the pouring rain and we won 29-17. It was the last football game I ever played in.