NFL Player Engagement
An undrafted linebacker, you signed with Dallas in 2003, which was also Bill Parcells' first year as the head coach of the Cowboys. You made an impressions on him to make the team. What was your impression of Parcells?
“He was tough, but fair. He was going to give every player a chance to make the team. I don’t think he really cared too much what round you were drafted in or whatnot. He was going to keep the best 53 players on the team.”
After two seasons, you joined the Indianapolis Colts and discovered that Tony Dungy was more than a head coach when you had a battle with anxiety before the season opener. What did he do for you?
“Well, just one-on-one, he was there for me. He was more like a father figure than a coach. He was just very open and very sincere. I felt very comfortable speaking with him about some issues that I was going through mentally.
“I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed after my playing years. But I believe I was going through a manic episode at the time before our first game. I’d only been there for about a week, not even, and I went into his office and told him I wasn’t doing well and that I couldn’t travel for the game. And what he did next really blew me away.
“He brought in [team president] Bill Polian, the head trainer, the team doctor, my position coach, and he brought in my wife, who was actually sitting out in the car. And we sat there for a good half an hour to 45 minutes just talking about my symptoms and what was going on.”
Your second season with the Colts ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLI. Was that experience everything you expected it would be?
“Yes, and more. It was unbelievable. As everyone says, you can’t really put it into words, but it was everything that I ever played for. The week leading up to the Super Bowl, with my history you would think that with my symptoms of pressure and anxiety I would be a mess. But I was actually the opposite. I was totally focused, totally comfortable, and it felt like I was supposed to be there.”
You mentioned that you were diagnosed after your playing years. Was it kind of a relief to discover what it was and that it could be treated?
“Not initially. Because when I got diagnosed I was in a severe manic episode and I was actually in psychosis, which means that I had lost touch with reality. So when I was diagnosed it really didn’t mean much to me. I just wanted to get healthy again, and stable. But as the years went on, I’d say a year or two, once I started getting healthy and on the right medication because it took a while, it definitely answered a lot of questions. And I am content living with it.”
You founded the 4th and Forever Foundation last year. [www.keithoneil.com] What are your goals?
“My mission really is to raise awareness and fund research. I believe there definitely is a stigma attached to mental illness and I want to break down those walls and speak about it. I want people to realize that if you have a mental disorder you can still be successful. That you can ask for help like I did. And that you can find the right medication through research and live a healthy life.”
In addition to giving speeches around the country, you’re also writing a book?
“Yes. I actually just signed with my literary agent, and I’m on my way. I’ve been blogging and that’s how I was found. I’m excited about the process and about having a book come out.”
What’s the best advice you can offer someone who is dealing with a mental illness?
“Never be too afraid to ask for help because there are a lot of people out there who are willing to help.”