“When you go through [mental health struggles], you go to dark places where it feels like it’s only you. But only in those times do you really find out who you are, what you stand for, what’s important to you. And from that, you’re built back up and you understand yourself better.” – Brandon Brooks

On a cool October day, Wharton Stories caught up with Brandon Brooks, who retired from the NFL in January 2022 before committing to the pursuit of his full-time MBA at the Wharton School. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Brandon played four seasons with the Houston Texans before joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016; he went on to become a Super Bowl champion when the Eagles defeated the Patriots in 2018.

In addition to his celebrity status, Brandon is a mental health advocate, vocal about his personal struggles with stress-related anxiety. He spoke to Wharton Stories about his journey from the field to the classroom, and the hurdles he continues to overcome between those worlds.

Brandon Brooks, former NFL player, now at Wharton

As a kid from Milwaukee, did you ever expect to become a professional football player?

No – I never thought I would go pro, but kept playing well because I thought it was the opportunity for a free education so my parents wouldn’t have to figure out how to pay for college. I ended up playing pro in the NFL for ten years, but you can’t beat Father Time; and in January, I realized it was time to retire.

How did playing pro impact your mental health?

Professional sports is the only career where you’re expected to be a CEO on Day One. But in any career, you’re never going to be the best your first day, or even in your first year. And if you have a bad game and a thousand people tweet negative things at you, you’re going to see it, no matter what. Often times, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

As a football player, you’re looked at as a modern day gladiator; which is rewarding, but also brutal. I will never speak ill of the NFL because of the opportunities the game has provided for my family. That being said: I don’t have a problem with masculinity, but I have a problem with toxic masculinity, hyper masculinity. In that framework, men are told to be tough, to never show emotion, to never get too high or too low. But that’s not real life. We all have emotions: agony, joy, defeat, sadness. Too many young men are told to suppress their emotions; they’re told to “never feel depressed, never feel anxious.” But there are many ways that your emotions will come out, whether you like it or not, and understanding our emotions is natural – that’s a part of life. 

As for me, I’ve always struggled with perfectionism. Perfectionism often stems from a control aspect, where you want to do everything right every time. And if something goes wrong, things can feel out of control; but being perfect in and of itself is an unrealistic expectation.  

What advice would you give to those who struggle with the impact of pressure, perfectionism, and anxiety?

I would best describe my own experiences with anxiety as like being in the middle of the ocean, with water lapping over your head while you struggle to just bob over the waves. But you have to keep swimming. I love football so much it would drive me insane; but that’s why I also stand by my breakdowns and my meltdowns on the field, and I wouldn’t change them for the world, because they showed me who I am.

Understanding why you feel this way, who you are, and understanding why you’re different – embrace that. There’s a lot of negative associations with mental health, coping with it, dealing with it, and my anxiety gets out of control sometimes. It makes me double-check, triple-check everything that I do. But instead of perceiving my own mind as a weakness, I reframe my perception of myself into strength – if I weren’t this way, then maybe I wouldn’t have the level of success that I’ve achieved. I’ve come to the conclusion that the people who change the world were often considered weird at one time or another because of the way that they consider problems uniquely. Look at your own differences as a strength. 

People are so scared to stumble, but that is the process towards growth. It shows you how strong you really are. As long as you keep going forward, one day it will end, one day it will be over, and there are brighter days ahead. Reach out for help if you need it. There’s a million different ways to get help, from exercise to sitting in the woods to therapy, but find the one that works for you. 

What’s your favorite coping mechanism? 

As my coach used to say: ‘You need to understand that it’s not going to be all lollipops and rainbows everyday.’ And to a certain extent, that works. When I was playing, I used to think about the law of averages. You’re not going to be perfect every day. Instead of expecting myself to be a 10/10 player – a perfect player – I thought of myself as a 9/10. That way, regardless of if I played a 7/10 game or a 10/10 game, I could accept my performance and be kind to myself. A lot of people struggle with the ‘get up and get going’ part. I’ve found that’s where people often fall short. But that’s the only way. And if you need to step away from something, if your social battery is low, if you need 24 hours – give yourself some grace. Just take care of yourself. You come first. 

Brandon with the Super Bowl trophy after the Eagles defeated the Patriots in February 2018

So why Wharton? 

This past summer was the first free summer I’ve had in 21 years. But the way I ended up at Wharton was because I tried the big three – law, medical, and business – and interned at various locations until I figured out what I wanted to do. But Wharton is the best business school in the world, and I realized I have a major passion for increasing financial literacy in my community. I would love to implement programs at the middle and high school levels that teach kids how to do taxes, how to manage money, and how these skills will set them up for success.

So many kids dream of becoming a professional athlete; but, statistically, you have a better chance of being a doctor or a lawyer than ever being a football player. I want kids to understand that the most important thing to secure your happiness and future success is the ability to feed your family and give both them and yourself a comfortable life. There is so much more I can achieve and others can achieve beyond the world of sports.

Grace Meredith and Devon Chodzin

Posted: October 10, 2022

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