From Keith O’Neil’s perspective, he would not be where he is today were it not for Tony Dungy, O’Neil’s former coach when he played with the Indianapolis Colts during the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He means that in more ways than one. He probably wouldn’t be a proud former NFL player with a Super Bowl ring to show for his efforts. But he also believes he might not be alive.
Keith suffers from an illness called bipolar disorder (mixed), meaning that at arbitrary times in his life, he goes through intense mood swings, depression, mania, and anxiety, sometimes all at the same time. For years, the perception of stigma around mental illness and his own lack of knowledge about the condition left him unable to ask for help. But when he finally opened up to Coach Dungy during a time of crisis, the coach was there for him, listening and helping. And for that, Keith will be forever grateful.
Keith still remembers early signs of bipolar disorder from his childhood, though it would be decades before anyone offered a diagnosis. As young as eight or nine, his thoughts turned sometimes to suicide, and he would lie awake at night plagued by racing thoughts and bouts of anxiety.
But on the outside, he was turning into a happy and successful young man. Throughout his high school years in upstate New York, he fit in easily. In college, he made fast friends – but he also developed a tendency toward drinking too much. Keith realizes now that the stress of doing well in college football as well as being so far from home – he attended Northern Arizona University – were factors that sent him astray. Nonetheless, he made fast friends there, including his teammate and roommate, a young man from Hawaii named Kaaina Keawe. The two remain friends to this day, and Keith calls Kaaina his spiritual mentor.
After college, Keith played two seasons for the Cowboys, honored to be part of “America’s team.” He benefited also from the leadership of Coach Bill Parcells, who helped Keith through a difficult time. As had happened at various times throughout his life, he became unable to sleep for days on end and a sense of anxiety overwhelmed him. “I told Coach Parcells I was having anxiety and sleeping problems, and he sat me down we talked for some time. We had a great discussion and he helped me through it. I saw a different side of him through that experience that most people don’t see.”
Though cut from the Cowboys when they changed their defensive strategy, he was signed by the Indianapolis Colts. “I was very excited to play for Coach Dungy and be part of such a great organization,” he said. “But the stress and change proved to be a very negative trigger for my mental health.”
Preparing to travel with the Colts to play the Ravens for the first game of the season, Keith hit bottom. “I’d gone four nights without sleep and I was frantic and desperate. I finally went to Coach Dungy and said, ‘I need help.’”
The depth of caring, empathy and emotional generosity with which the coach responded still surprised him. “The only reason I’m able to talk about what I went through is because of Coach Dungy,” Keith says now. “I needed someone like him in my corner all along. He brought in the Colts’ whole support system and we all talked about it. They helped me get through. My second year with the Colts, we won the Super Bowl.”
With that triumphant win, Keith began to feel that he was ready to bring his football career to a close. “I looked at my wife and said ‘I’ve played for four years; I have a Super Bowl Ring; I think I’m done.’ It was something that I prayed about for guidance and was content that I’d given my career my best shot.”
Married and generally happy, Keith and his wife settled down in Buffalo, but the mental illness that had plagued his earlier years began to encroach. When his wife became pregnant but then had a miscarriage, Keith descended into the worst bipolar episode of his life, with mania followed by severe depression.
That feeling lasted for months. And then one day Keith came across a memoir. The author was Brian “Head” Welch, guitarist for the heavy metal band Korn, and the book, entitled “Save Me From Myself,” was about how Welch overcame his addiction to methamphetamines, discovered his faith, walked away from a $23 million contract, and saved himself. “I bought the book and read it cover to cover in two days. In the book I found a passage from Scripture, Matthew 11:28: ‘Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.’ I started crying. That’s when I picked up the Bible.”
Keith truly believes that reading about Welch’s experiences saved his life, primarily by directing him toward his faith. “When I read his book and especially that line of Scripture, I thought, ‘If Brian Head Welch can get himself off methamphetamines and get well, then I can get well too.”
Today, Keith feels healthier than ever, even though there isn’t yet a cure for bipolar disorder. One of the biggest reasons for his improvement came when his parents’ priest put Keith in touch with Dr. Steven Dubovsky, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and an expert in the field of pharmaceutical treatment for bipolar disorder. “Finding the right medications, along with my faith, has made all the difference in the world,” he said. “Faith is absolutely my greatest source of strength, and after that my family and especially my wife Jill. I do regular Bible study. Exercise is important too; I run distance almost daily, and I spend as much time outdoors as I can.”
As part of their attempt to find wellness, Keith and his wife, Jill and young son Connor, decided to move from Buffalo to Arizona. And, not least, Keith is talking about his situation. For years, he didn’t understand it; then the stigma compelled him to keep his silence. Now he is writing a memoir about his experience with bipolar disorder which he hopes will help further de-stigmatize it and help society understand what people like him go through. Coach Tony Dungy is serving as mentor throughout the memoir-writing process.
Keith believes children as young as grade school need to be taught what it is and what it means, so that they will be comfortable with the idea of mental illness, whether in themselves or someone they know, as they grow older. “My mission is to educate people and help them to be accepting,” he said.
Faith, courage, persistence, and the loving support of his family helped Keith O’Neil find his way to wellness, showing the spirit and tenacity of an Insightful Player® team member.
Instant replay of Keith O’Neil’s Guiding Principles:
- Ask for help. You can’t solve everything yourself; when you reach the point where you can’t do it on your own, reach out and you will find the support you need.
- Believe in your own abilities and intelligence, and let them guide you into making good choices.
- Never give up. You may have problems that seem insurmountable, but a solution lies somewhere, and with persistence you will find it.
- Treat your friends and family with love and kindness, just as they do with you.
- Understand the importance of regular exercise to fuel a sense of mental and physical well-being.
- Find people to serve as guides, advisors and mentors. Even if they don’t know everything, their presence will add to your sense of stability.
- Look to your faith as your most important source of sustenance and survival.
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