The Keith O'Neil Story

Under My Helmet – an Athlete’s Battle with Mental Illness

by Maggie Fitzgibbon

It’s a story of struggle, pain, and persistence and a life that almost ended. But today Keith O’Neil is very grateful for the life he has and for a future filled with much hope. O’Neil is a former National Football League (NFL) player who, at the age of 30, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This former NFL linebacker now travels the United States sharing his story in hopes of ending the stigma of mental illness.

He recently visited the Batavia Career and Technical Education Center where he spoke with Health Dimensions students about his illness, how he struggled before his diagnosis, his suicide attempt and his journey toward wellness. He shared some staggering statistics - one in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year.  “Looking at these statistics and looking around this classroom or even in your school, mental illness is much more prevalent than you think,” O’Neil said. As he spoke with students, O’Neil described his life as a NFL football player who coped with crippling anxiety and depression that he fought on and off the field. He shared his life growing up – suicidal thoughts as a teenager, his triumphs of winning SuperBowl XLI in February 2007, and how he lived in pain.

“I had a lot of pressure to play football. My father was a first round draft pick in the NFL – Ed O’Neil. Football was in my blood. After high school, I was offered a scholarship to Northern Arizona University but being that far from home is when my life began to unravel. I struggled with my classes and turned to drugs and alcohol,” O’Neil said. Despite these challenges, he pushed through, graduated and was signed by the Dallas Cowboys Football team in 2003.

Over the next five years, he played for the Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants. He passed his Super Bowl ring around to the class where many students commented on its weight and size. During his talk, O‘Neil encouraged students who might be struggling with mental illness to reach out to someone whom they trust.

“Seek help. Not only to benefit you but also those who love you. If you don’t want to tell your friends and classmates, that’s your business, but speak with a counselor or therapist. I went 18 months after I was diagnosed without telling a person other than my immediate family,” O’Neil said. “But I felt that I was hiding my illness and the shame from hiding it. My whole life I had been public and then I was keeping this secret. As soon as I came out with my story, I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders,” he said.

Nicole Welka is a senior from Byron-Bergen High School and a Health Dimensions student. O’Neil’s presentation opened her eyes as to how many people have a mental health diagnosis.

“It’s not a bad thing to admit that you have a mental illness and it’s not a bad thing to ask for help. I have a diagnosis and was not taking my medicine and after listening to him, I decided that I needed to take my medication. I always thought that you can’t lead a normal life but he proved to me that you can,” Nicole said. “People need to talk about mental illness and not be ashamed to share. If people open up, like Keith shared with our class, then we can end the stigma of mental illness.”

Bonny Shelby is the Health Dimensions Instructor at the Batavia Career and Technical Education Center. She invited O’Neil to come to speak to her students for many reasons.

“Over the years, I’ve seen students struggle with mental illness. Each year this number seems to be increasing. I recently heard Keith speak at a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) event in Buffalo. He was so inspiring,” Shelby said. “I thought that students would benefit from hearing him speak and that Keith would help them to understand that you don’t have to be afraid and you don’t have to hide your mental illness.” 

O’Neil has written a memoir that chronicles his story. In his book titled, “Under My Helmet,” O’Neal shares the details of his life before and after his bipolar disorder diagnosis, including his path to recovery. He addresses the stigma of mental illness in hopes of helping others to find their path to leading a healthy and happy life.