For former NFL linebacker Keith O’Neil, bipolar was too big to tackle alone
For former NFL linebacker Keith O’Neil, bipolar was too big to tackle alone
By Chrissy Carew
Chrissy Carew is the author of Insightful Player: Football Pros Lead a Bold Movement of Hope.
As an All-American linebacker in college and a pro with the National Football League, Keith O’Neil was a champ at bringing down the other team’s players. He won a Super Bowl ring in his second season with the Indianapolis Colts, playing under celebrated coach Tony Dungy.
Blocking and tackling enormous athletes came naturally to him—but an opponent he couldn’t bring down lived inside his own mind. In fact, symptoms of his undiagnosed bipolar disorder kept him out of his first game with the team in September 2005.
“I was very excited to play for Coach Dungy and be part of such a great organization,” he says. “But the stress and change proved to be a very negative trigger for my mental health.”
For the most part, O’Neil tried to mask his debilitating fears and other issues. But as the Colts prepared for their season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, O’Neil realized he was in no shape to play.
“I’d gone four nights without sleep and I was frantic and desperate,” O’Neil recalls. “I finally went to Coach Dungy and said, ‘I need help.’”
The depth of caring, empathy, and emotional generosity with which the coach responded still amazes O’Neil. Over the years, the older man has become a source of hope, a mentor, and a role model.
“The only reason I’m able to talk about what I went through is because of Coach Dungy,” O’Neil says now.
At the time, O’Neil says, Dungy listened with his full attention, then pulled in the team doctor, trainer and general manager. The doctor prescribed medications to combat his anxiety and help him sleep.
O’Neil was able to join the Colts for their next game. Several weeks later, he was selected as a team captain.
Dungy’s intervention was just one instance of the helping hands that kept O’Neil moving forward and, ultimately, put him on the path to wellness.
Sleepless nights and anxiety were nothing new for O’Neil. He remembers lying awake as young as 8 or 9, plagued by racing thoughts and ideas of suicide. But neither was success a stranger: He was a standout linebacker at his high school in western New York and a four-year letterman at Northern Arizona University. (Football runs in the family: His father is former NFL linebacker and college coach Ed O'Neil.)
Off the field, however, he began to buckle under the pressure to do well at the college level. Looking back, he thinks being so far from home was also a factor. He began drinking heavily, partly as a coping mechanism and partly as a result of the poor impulse control typical of bipolar.
On the plus side, O’Neil made fast friends with his teammate and roommate Kaaina Keawe. In his darkest days, that friendship would become a sustaining force in his life. O’Neil now calls Keawe his spiritual mentor, and the two still talk on the phone regularly.
Starting his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys in 2003 meant even bigger changes and bigger pressures. Playing in front of 60,000 fans brought on acute anxiety. O’Neil worried that he would forget the playbook. He was reckless in games.
When he mustered the courage to approach Coach Bill Parcells about his anxiety and sleeping problems, O’Neil says, he found empathy and encouragement.
“He sat me down and we talked for some time. We had a great discussion and he helped me through it,” O’Neil recalls. “I saw a different side of him through that experience that most people don’t see.”
While support from his coaches in moments of crisis helped O’Neil continue playing, he never dug down into the root of his problems. When he decided to retire from the NFL in 2008, it all began to catch up with him.
O’Neil’s most substantial and life-saving help came in 2012, when his parents’ priest put him in touch with Steven Dubovsky, MD, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and an expert in the field of pharmaceutical treatments for bipolar.
By that point, O’Neil had gone through an extreme manic episode marked by paranoia and hallucinations, received a bipolar diagnosis, and endured a severe depression that lingered for 18 months.
After declining an opportunity to play with the New York Giants, O’Neil had returned to Buffalo with his wife, Jill, and started a new career in medical device sales. Then his wife had a miscarriage. Sadness over the loss shifted to euphoria and hyper-motivation. That gave way to a spending spree totaling $25,000 over a few days. Then he segued into paranoid delusions.
Awful as the situation was, it did have a somewhat positive outcome: It forced O’Neil to seek professional help. The medication he was prescribed calmed the psychotic symptoms, but O’Neil pitched to the other extreme.
“The former name for bipolar disorder is manic depressive, and I really think that’s more accurate than bipolar. I went from being manic into a depression, and it was awful,” he says. “I slept all the time. I was mentally in a cold, dark, sad place and no one could help me.
“My wife quit her job to take care of me, family and friends tried to understand, but no one could really help.”
In the midst of impenetrable darkness, O’Neil came across a memoir by Brian “Head” Welch, guitarist for the heavy metal band Korn. Titled Save Me From Myself, it was about how Welch discovered his faith and overcame his addiction to methamphetamines.
“I bought the book and read it cover to cover in two days. In the book I found a passage from Scripture, Matthew 11:28: ‘Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.’ I started crying,” O’Neil says.
"When I read his book and especially that line of Scripture, I thought, ‘If Brian “Head” Welch can get himself off methamphetamines and get well, then I can get well, too.”
The birth of his son, Connor, in summer 2012 gave O’Neil something positive to focus on and the critical motivation to somehow get better. Connecting with Dubovsky was the final piece of the puzzle.
“Finding the right medications, along with my faith, has made all the difference in the world,” he said. “Faith is absolutely my greatest source of strength, and after that my family and especially my wife, Jill.”
PAY IT FORWARD
Regular Bible study is now part of his wellness regimen, along with near-daily distance running and spending as much time as possible outdoors—one of the reasons the family relocated to Arizona.
Not least, O’Neil is talking about his situation. For years, he didn’t understand it; then stigma compelled him to keep silent. Now he is writing a memoir which he hopes will help further destigmatize bipolar and help society understand what people with the illness go through.
Having been helped along his journey by coaches, doctors, family and friends, he feels driven to reach out to others who are in the same kind of pain he was once in. An in-demand motivational speaker, he shares frank explanations of bipolar illness and recovery with his audiences.
A member of the consumer advisory council of the International Bipolar Foundation, he was recently elected to the organization’s board of directors. He has also launched the 4th and Forever Foundation (www.keithoneil.com/foundation) to raise awareness of and fund research into mental disorders. (The name refers to a football team’s fourth and final chance to complete a 10-yard advance with the ball. O’Neil says people with bipolar may feel they have “forever” to go to get to recovery.)
O’Neil believes children as young as grade school need to be taught about mental illness so that they will be comfortable when they encounter it, whether in themselves or someone they know. Although winning the Super Bowl with the Colts was a peak experience, he’s set his eyes on a very different kind of goal-post than in his playing days.
“My mission is to educate people and help them to be accepting,” he says.
Sidebar: Keith O’Neil’s tips
Ask for help. You can’t solve everything yourself. When you reach the point where you can’t do it on your own, reach out.
Never give up. You may have problems that seem insurmountable, but a solution lies somewhere, and with persistence you will find it.
Build a support team. Find people to serve as guides, advisors and mentors. Even if they don’t know everything, their presence will add to your sense of stability.
Give as well as get. Treat your friends and family with love and kindness, just as they do with you.
Look to your faith. It’s your most important source of sustenance and survival.