Ex-Cowboy Linebacker Tackles Bipolar Disorder

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Married man, father, two-time All-Big Sky Conference team member, All-American linebacker, ex-NFL linebacker, Super Bowl champion — Keith O’Neil had it all, including bipolar disorder, a mental health malady that he had unbeknownst struggled with his entire life.

The Super Bowl XLI winner suffers from bipolar disorder one, a form of bipolar disorder characterized chiefly, in his case, anxiety. Accompanying symptoms include mania, depression, and vibrant mood swings.

The anxiety tormented Keith from a young age in the form of sleepless nights. All he could do was lie awake at night with his mind racing more furiously than the final lap of the Indy 500. Sometimes, the thoughts even featured suicide, though he never dabbled in any suicide attempts.keith-oneil-240x300

Keith was an exemplary linebacker for the Sweet Home High School Panthers in Amherst, New York. He earned a scholarship with Northern Arizona University and made letterman all four years before graduating in 2003.

An undrafted free agent linebacker out of Northern Arizona in 2003, Keith only had one goal for his NFL career.

“In my rookie camp, I was set on making the Dallas Cowboys,” O’Neil said.

Keith played very well, but he didn’t sleep.

His whole life, Keith endured sleepless nights here and there. The anxiety and racing, panicky thoughts Keith worked better than any stimulant for keeping him awake at night. In the NFL, these sleepless nights turned stacked on top of each other like exponentially increasing credit card debt.

One particular instance he recalled was the night — check that. Five nights before the Cowboys’ home preseason game with the Houston Texans on August 15, 2003. Yes, the Governor’s Cup was important, particularly to the trophy-challenged denizens at the southern end of I-45, but enough for Keith to lose sleep.

“The worst part about it was the next day was a day off, and I couldn’t sleep then either.”

He couldn’t sleep after the Cowboys throttled the Texans 34-6. After playing a sport that players describe in units of “car wrecks,” Keith wasn’t able to catch a peaceful wink. It was impossible, and this ultimately led to Keith voluntarily turning in his playbook to coach Bill Parcells. The Hall of Fame coach, who had led two separate teams to three Super Bowl berths, responded in a way unique to the New Jersey native:

“Are you crazy trying to quit?”

Well, cynically speaking, yes, but realistically speaking, Keith had faced enough inner turmoil and would sell his birthright to cease the anxiety and sleepless nights. He had hidden it long enough, and would have to come out, a difficult thing to do in 2003 when mental health awareness was still steps behind national acceptance and consciousness.

When Keith elaborated that he couldn’t sleep and had gone nights without sleep, he saw a side to Coach Parcells that explains why crazed dogs like Lawrence Taylor would remain loyal to him even unto this day. The living legend sat down with the no-name linebacker and eased him through the anxiety and got him the best help he could.

“If he would have let me quit that day,” Keith remembered, “I would have missed out on a lot of great things in the NFL. So, I owe a lot to him.”

His getting cut by the Dallas Cowboys after the 2004 season had nothing to do with the episode from his rookie training camp. Rather, it was merely football related. O’Neil was a 4-3 linebacker, and the Cowboys were transitioning to the 3-4 defense.

The next day, the Indianapolis Colts called. Tony Dungy wanted Keith O’Neil to play linebacker for his team. Keith was off to Indiana with his wife and football aspirations, and his anxiety and sleepless nights too.

“I thought going to the Colts would be a relief for me.”

It was anything but that. On the day before their Opening Day game in Baltimore in 2005, Keith asked his coach, a man with quiet strength, for help.

“I went four days before the first game in Indy, and it was Saturday morning and I was frantic.”

Not only did Coach Dungy come to his aid, but so did Bill Polian, the general manager, and the entire front office, coaching staff, and training staff. Without any real definitive answers and presuming it was merely anxiety related, all they could do was refer him to a sports psychologist, who Keith admitted wasn’t someone that could diagnose what was wrong with him. Still, there was a great comfort in knowing the Colts organization was there to aid him.

“I felt comfortable that the coaches did know something was going on,” O’Neil admitted.

One of the most perplexing things about Keith’s condition is that when he wanted to sleep, he couldn’t. When he wanted to begin his days, he couldn’t. He couldn’t even summon himself out of bed to go to practice. It wasn’t just every week that he struggled, but every single day in his two-season tenure with the Indianapolis Colts, which paid off with a victory in Super Bowl XLI.

“There’s a part of me that just hated playing in the NFL. It was a love-hate relationship,” the former linebacker confessed.

In the 2007 off-season, Keith took an injury settlement from the Colts and sat out the entire season. It wasn’t until the 2008 preseason when he got a call from Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants that he had a shot to return to the gridiron. When he got to New York, he had a conversation with his wife and he decided to leave the pads and cleats in the locker. Playing in the NFL was so stressful for Keith. Why go through all of that agony again? Why not let winning the Super Bowl be the punctuation mark on his sentence of a football life?

He did, and that was the end of the anxiety related to playing football. Now came the even tougher challenge: the anxiety of living life.

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