Keith O'Neil wasn't born on a football field, but he might as well have been. He was a scrapper—six feet tall and 240 pounds. He had speed and hit like a train. He also had pedigree: His dad, Ed O'Neil, was an NFL linebacker from 1974 to 1980, primarily for Detroit.
Still, as physically gifted as he was, O'Neil never quite felt right as a kid. "I had a lot of anxiety," he says. "I first started feeling things when I was nine, but I was too young to know I shouldn't be feeling them." He had no idea what was brewing in him. He pushed through it all with football—high school, college, and eventually the NFL. He played for five years as a part-time linebacker and special teams player for the Cowboys, Colts—winning a Super Bowl ring in 2007—and briefly with the Giants (he retired later in 2007).
Then it all fell apart. For all those years, he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Here, O'Neil gives us a taste of what he went through. Today he's a speaker and advocate for mental illness issues through his foundation, 4th and Forever. His new book, Under My Helmet: A Football Player's Lifelong Battle with Bipolar Disorder, is in stores this week.
When did you first suspect something wasn't right?
I had an enormous amount of trouble sleeping at night when I was a kid. I also got into a lot of trouble. I fought a lot. Nothing really bad, I was just mischievous.
So it wasn't anything diagnosed at the time.
No. Through high school I played ball and things leveled out a little bit. I went to college. And drank a lot [laughs].
I know, everyone drinks in college, but I truly drank to cope with my illness. I have no doubt. But the condition didn't affect my game. Once I got to the NFL, though, the complexity of the playbook and the pressure of making the squad really started to make my illness take root. My rookie year with the Cowboys was Bill Parcells' first year, too. At one point I went five nights without sleeping.
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Holy crap. That's brutal
It was agony. Sleep deprivation was worse than any injury I've had in my life. This carried over to the field. I'd forget things. One coach actually asked me if I knew who Jesus was and if I had a learning disability. So all this plays games with your mind and your mind is already compromised, so my illness definitely played a big part in my rookie year.
But you were still able to stick on the roster?
Yeah. For the first couple years in the NFL I just white-knuckled it. I did my best not to tell anybody because what do you say? I was a bubble player, a free agent trying to make the squad every year, so I didn't want to say anything. But finally I got cut by the Cowboys after two years and got picked up by the Colts. The same thing was going on, I wasn't sleeping—I think I had a four-night stretch at one point.
Was that a breaking point?
Yes, but only because I felt I had an option open to me. Now I was under Tony Dungy. He's a really caring person and I knew I could approach him. I was engaged at the time and I told my fiancé, "I'm either gonna quit or get help." So I walked into his office and didn't really know what I was gonna do at the time. But I sat down and said, "Coach, I need help."
Men hate the word "help." Some guys just won't ask for it.
To be honest, it wasn't hard at all to ask for help. I was with Coach Dungy and I just knew that he would understand. I was at the point where I was either going to quit, which I really didn't want to do, or get help. And after four nights of not sleeping, you really don't care much about anything. So at the time it wasn't difficult. But the times when I was relatively healthy and sleeping, I definitely didn't want to talk about it. The stigma attached to mental illness…you can go to the trainer with a broken collarbone, but how do you go in and talk about your mental illness? It's something that wasn't talked about. But I knew Dungy would be there for me.
How did he help?
I ended up spilling my guts to him about everything that was going on and a little bit about my past. He brought in support and medical staff and just that was more a relief than figuring out what the problem was. That they knew something was going on kind of helped me a little bit.
What happened then?
I ended up starting to play the best football of my life. I was there three years, won a Super Bowl, then eventually got cut. Then I went to the Giants for a bit, and then I just retired. I was like, "I'm sick of this." So after the Super Bowl, I basically threw in the towel.
Now you're facing life after the NFL. How did that go?
I've had my struggles, to put it mildly (laughs). The true bipolar came out after I retired. I had a major episode. I went into psychosis, lost touch with reality, spent time in a hospital. Unfortunately, I had a suicide attempt. But within the past three years, things have been steady in my life and it's because of medication, working out, and stability—being close to my support system. Just not giving up.
When you say you lost touch with reality, how exactly did that play out? Do you remember what was happening to you at the time?
At first, I had no idea I was going manic. But once the paranoia and delusions started coming in…I knew what was going on. But I believed what was going on was real. I thought my phones were tapped and my computers bugged. My wife tried to tell me they weren't, but I was convinced. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I thought I'd been summoned by a higher power, airwaves beamed into my head, really weird stuff. But I definitely thought it was true and I definitely remember it.
Once you quit being an athlete, the illness intensified. Do you think all that physical training during your playing years helped keep the worst of it at bay?
Absolutely. I feel like I would literally sweat out my anxiety. After practice, I'm done, sitting at my locker, I felt great. Then when I was finished playing, I stopped working out for about a year. That's when I really lost my mind and I do think it could be because I wasn't physically active and releasing those endorphins anymore. I definitely believe that exercise is key in living a mentally healthy life. Definitely.
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