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'What I do is not who I am': Eagles' Lane Johnson looks to destigmatize mental health topic for HS students

Philadelphia Inquirer - 11/29/2023

Nov. 29—For a moment, Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson got to feel like he was in high school all over again, slipping on a black and red Northeast High School football jersey over his head on the auditorium stage to the tune of cheers from the entire student body.

Johnson remembers growing up playing high school football at Groveton High School in Groveton, Texas and the passion he saw from the local community for the team. But he also remembers the challenges of being a teenager, trying to figure out who his friends were and what he wanted to do with his life, all the while struggling with self-confidence.

As the four-time Pro Bowler spoke to the students, he shared the advice that he wish he was given at their age.

"What I regret looking back is how much time I wasted wondering if I wouldn't be enough, wondering all this, wondering all that," Johnson told the students. "And what you got to realize is that you only have a certain amount that you can control.

"You really don't have a whole lot of impact on anything else, you can control your attitude, you can control your mindset, you can really control the people that you hang around."

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Johnson spoke from his heart and from his experiences to the Northeast students about his mental health, specifically an anxiety disorder that dates back to his freshman year at Kilgore College, where he was a backup juniorcollege quarterback for one season before he transferred to Oklahoma in 2009. The event was hosted by Kooth, a state-funded provider of confidential online mental health support for 11- to 18-year-old students.

Northeast won Kooth's Summer of Wellness contest, which encouraged students to register and engage with the platform's various digital mental health resources and activities. A visit from Johnson, an ambassador for Kooth, was the contest's prize. By lending his voice to the platform, Johnson is making an effort to destigmatize the topic of mental health among high school students.

"I just remember being in their shoes and just remember it being kind of a place of uncertainty," Johnson said. "A few years to kind of really figure out what direction you want to head. For them, it was just relaying that message and then how they have anything mental health-related, they have Kooth here to help them and guide them."

Johnson began to open up publicly about his mental health journey last year. During the 2021 season, he took a three-game leave of absence from the team after trying to quit his antidepressant during training camp. He suffered withdrawal symptoms, which prompted his decision to return to his home in Oklahoma and seek help.

When Johnson returned to Philadelphia, he opened up to the media about his leave of absence. He started to hold speaking engagements at depression treatment clinics, using his platform to empower others to reach out for help to address their own struggles.

"I feel like people kind of wanted to know more about it, and how it was affecting me and how I came back from it," Johnson said. "So I just found inspiration from other athletes that are going through something similar, whenever they kind of spoke out about it. And I felt like I resonated with it. So I feel like maybe a lot of the local people in Philadelphia could resonate with it."

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Johnson spoke about the athletes that he looked up to for their vulnerability, including NBA legends Michael Jordan and LeBron James as well as boxers Mike Tyson and Tyson Fury. He also discussed some of the physical symptoms he experienced when he was initially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which included a loss of appetite and a sense of fear and helplessness.

In addition to addressing the student body in a 10-minute speech, students also had an opportunity to ask Johnson questions in a Q&A session afterwards. He answered inquiries about how he handles anxiety about a big game or an injury and he also shared his strategies for how he calms his nerves.

Johnson detailed his regimented approach to the work week leading up to game day, which helps him feel confident once he steps on the field. Before the game, he likes to use breathing techniques and go in the cold tub up to his neck to rejuvenate his body and his mind. Johnson shared that he doesn't like to listen to music prior to playing because he finds that it distracts his focus away from his performance.

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Following the session with the entire school, Johnson also met with the Northeast football team and answered their questions about how he has navigated his career. He took photos with members of the team and signed autographs afterwards.

"Just talking with them today, I just felt like it's really resonating with them and they're taking it serious," Johnson said. "With this, it can be kind of their own personal journey and they don't have to feel any pressure from any outside resources, and that everything's kind of private and confidential. So I just think it's a good platform that they can use."

Drafted No. 4 overall in 2013, Johnson is in his 11th year with the Eagles and was a member of the Super Bowl LII-winning team at the conclusion of the 2017 season. Throughout his time with the Eagles, Johnson has evolved into one of the best players in the league, not only at his position. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has allowed just two sacks this season. He had not allowed a sack throughout his previous two seasons.

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However, while Johnson is passionate about his profession and his teammates, he emphasized the importance of feeling confident in his identity away from his job, which led him to use his voice to inspire others.

"I love playing football, I love being around my team, I love competing," Johnson told the students. "But I learned to separate, you know, what I do is not who I am. So I love what I do. But for me, it's about being a better person. So I know my platform, I have the ability to affect a lot of people around me in the community."


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