PHILADELPHIA - When you’re 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds with a personality and bank account as big as that body, few are going to entertain the thought that anxiety and depression could creep into the mix.
That was the case, however, for Eagles’ All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson, who was forced to leave the team hours before the Week 4 game against Kansas City in order to better address his mental health.
Ironically the same kind of issues had haunted Johnson’s best friend on the team and the guy who plays right next to him: right guard Brandon Brooks.
Brooks, who would occasionally have panic attacks before games, has turned into a high-profile advocate for mental health, something that has only been exacerbated for many around the country during the COVID-19 pandemic where lockdowns forced isolation on all of us at times.
Johnson’s personal issues were kept close to the vest by the organization and head coach Nick Sirianni, whose first core coaching value is connecting with his players,
Sirianni began to wear No. 65 on his visor as a show of solidarity for his veteran star during the Week 5 game at Carolina.
"We just want our players to know that we're all here to support them at any time,” Sirianni said on WIP Radio Monday morning. “Anything they're going through, good or bad, that's what a team does and that's what we do here.”
Johnson himself officially announced his return to the Eagles on social media, first thanking those who offered their support and then explaining the reasons for his absence, which included losses to the Chiefs and Tampa Bay sandwiching a comeback win against the Panthers.
“I would like to thank everyone for their understanding and support over the last two weeks,” wrote Johnson in the statement. “I appreciate the positive notes and messages as I’ve worked hard to restore my personal life.
“Depression and anxiety are things I’ve dealt with for a long time and have kept hidden from my friends and family. If you’re reading this and struggling, please know that you are not alone.”
Football is a passion for so many fans who sometimes forget their favorites are real human beings who are often dealing with significant issues off the field at the same time they are expected to perform on it.
After eight-plus seasons and 108 professional games, Johnson had to press pause to collect himself and move forward.
Rewind a generation or two and Johnson would have been expected to keep that anxiety and depression bottled up. Perceived weakness would not have been tolerated in the ultimate tough man's sport.
The NFL has evolved in many ways - some good and some bad - but when it comes to treating players like Johnson with empathy and compassion instead of derision we should all be happy that the days of “North Dallas Forty” are in the rear-view mirror.
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.