Brian Dawkins Opens Up About Mental Health Struggles

The Eagles legend and Hall of Famer battled depression throughout his NFL career

Zach Gelb
May 22, 2020 - 9:13 am
Philadelphia Eagles

USA Today Images


Brian Dawkins spent the first 13 years of his NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles. During that time, he was a seven-time Pro Bolwer, a four-time first-team All-Pro, and helped the Eagles reach five NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl.

After the 2008 season, however, his tenure in Philadelphia ended. 

“It was painful, man. It was extremely painful,” Dawkins said on The Zach Gelb Show. “I wore my emotions on my sleeve. I’m an emotional dude. I literally felt like I was mourning. I was sad for no reason. I studied up on trauma and the effects of trauma on people. I was going through mourning is what I was doing. I was tearing up at times, I was sad often, and I didn’t know what was going on. That’s what I was doing. So the first month was brutal, man.”

Dawkins, as it turned out, battled depression throughout his career. Fortunately, the 46-year-old is in a much better state of mind today.

“If I had not gotten help, had I not listened to the people that love me, pushing me and urging me to do it, had I listened to that voice that was speaking to me negatively at that time, my three daughters would not be here,” Dawkins said. “My three daughters would not be here, I would not be a Hall of Famer, I would not have played 16 years in the National Football League. So all of the things that I’ve been blessed to be able to do past that point of pain, of darkness, all [that] stuff would be lost, gone. 

“You don’t know what’s out there for you past the pain,” Dawkins continued. “Sometimes we like to be in comfort. We like to be comfortable, and we don’t grow in comfort. It’s virtually impossible for you to truly grow in comfort. Because if it’s comfortable, why would I get out of the chair? Why would I move if everything is always comfortable?”

Dawkins compared life to lifting weights.

“In order for me to get stronger, I have to put more weight on the bar from time to time,” he said. “But I can’t do it by myself. If I’m going real heavy weight, I have to call somebody to come spot me to spot the weight – so if I push the weight off the bar and it hits me on my chest, they can help me get that weight off me. That’s life, man. We have to have people in our lives to help pull the weight off our chest from time to time. Yes, it’s going to be weight that’s going to be too heavy for us [at] different times. But here’s the thing: when you didn’t push that weight up and get it up off you, when somebody helps, you actually still have gotten a little stronger because of it. At least you tried to push it. You’ve gotten stronger. The more you do that, the more you understand that, that on the other side of your pain is power, is wisdom, is knowledge, is discernment, is perseverance, it’s patience on the other side of your pain. 

“So look at pain as a workout partner,” Dawkins continued. “Look at pain like that. If I continue to push through this pain, I’m going to be stronger on the other side. There’s going to be something on the other side of this pain that’s going to blow my mind when I get there.”

Dawkins, a second-round pick in 1996, was asked what advice he would give to his younger self.

“Talk earlier,” he said. “Talk earlier. I believe that, especially as men, our silence is literally killing us. Our silence is literally killing us. We don’t speak about our pain. We suck it up. We’re taught to rub dirt on it. Don’t ever show weakness ever. But that’s not the proper way to do it. Yes, there’s times that you have to suck it up. But there’s other times you have to talk about some things.”

If people don’t talk about their emotions, Dawkins says, pressure keeps building inside. Eventually, like a machine in a factory, it blows up.

“It blows up and destroys the whole factory and possibly kills people in it,” Dawkins said. “But that’s what happens to us when we hold that pressure, we hold that pain from the past, the resentment, the heartbreak – all those things that have happened to us in the past, if we hold onto [it] and we don’t talk to nobody about them . . . at some point, somebody’s going to push a button, turn a dial, and all of that anger and bitterness and hatred that you have bottled up, it’s going to explode on that person. And then it’s going to be something you either have to say I’m sorry for, or something even worse. So, in order to not go down that path, talk more.”

Dawkins, who played the final three seasons of his career in Denver, returned to the Eagles as a consultant. He helped prepare players for their victory against New England in Super Bowl LII.

“I believe the Lord puts people in our lives, sometimes for different phases or different stages, and sometimes for life,” Dawkins said. “But [have] at least one person that you can talk [to], that you can talk real to. I have four individuals that I can go talk to at any point and let them know, ‘Hey, this is what I’m feeling. This is going on with me.’ That is a truly, truly blessed feeling to have, to know that I have that.”

To support young people’s mental wellness, particularly during the pandemic, Dawkins recently launched a digital mental health and wellness course in collaboration with social impact education innovator, EVERFI, Inc., as the first project of the Brian Dawkins Impact Foundation