Commentary

Matt Light reveals battle with Crohn's

Retiring Patriots lineman talks about dark period while fighting intestinal disease

Updated: May 14, 2012, 5:11 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When members of the New England Patriots gathered at owner Robert Kraft's home to receive their Super Bowl rings in the summer of 2004, offensive lineman Matt Light couldn't make it. It wasn't by choice.

Light was fighting to stay alive, in the middle of a 30-day hospital stay.

"It was one of the darkest periods in my life," he recalled Monday.

Light The pain became so difficult that in the offseason it just paralyzed me. I'd hit the ground. You can't wake up. You can't sit down.

-- Matt Light on his struggle with Crohn's disease

Had things unfolded according to plan, Light would have had 13 inches of his intestine removed, the ends could heal together, there would have been no complications and he would have been back on the field for the start of 2004 training camp.

But that's not the way it happened.

Instead, there were post-surgery complications. Light didn't eat for a month. His weight dropped from 315 pounds to 260, as his under-the-radar battle with Crohn's disease -- a bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system -- was attacking him with force.

Forget about facing potent pass-rushers such as Dwight Freeney, Jason Taylor, Aaron Schobel and John Abraham. Light just wanted to make sure he'd get out alive.

Light told this story publicly, and detailed his decade-long struggle with Crohn's, for the first time Monday in a private moment after his retirement news conference.

Monday had to be one of the happiest days of Light's life, the Patriots giving him a terrific send-off that included heartfelt remarks from Kraft and Bill Belichick. To understand why that was the case, and a large reason why he'd come to the decision to retire, one has to go back to the summer of 2004.

"I basically got to the point, over the 3-4 years of being diagnosed with Crohn's, that I couldn't handle the pain anymore," Light said. "The pain became so difficult that in the offseason it just paralyzed me. I'd hit the ground. You can't wake up. You can't sit down. You can't do anything without this becoming a problem."

Realizing that he couldn't go on like that much longer, Light saw a specialist and tapped the expert advice of one of the Patriots' team doctors, David Berger at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"I was lucky that I had his counsel and he was there to walk me through the process," Light said, referring to Berger as his lifeline.

"It came down to the fact that, 'Look, you have to have 13 inches of your intestine removed and it has to happen now and you could be on a bag the rest of your life. If there was anything else we could do, we'd do it, but you're getting blocked and there is nothing we can do for you other than this surgery.' When you have 13 inches of your intestine removed, that's not a very simple process.

"That happened in June, and I made it to training camp in the third week [of August], but not without having literally a near-death experience where I had another blockage post-surgery that I wasn't aware of -- all these complications.

[+] EnlargeLight
AP Photo/Steven SenneFamily and health were two key factors in Matt Light's decision to retire. Light has been dealing with Crohn's disease since 2001.

"It's not to tell the story as 'woe is me' -- I could care less about that -- but when you go through something like that and it's that wild of a time … I always wanted to finish the game of football and go out on my terms and the way I wanted to do it."

Light, 33, has done just that. Learning to manage Crohn's over time, he ended up playing some of his best football in 2011, with Belichick saying Light made just two mental errors all season (compared to 19 as a rookie in 2001). Light would have been a bargain for the team at a $3.4 million base salary in 2012, but this wasn't about collecting another paycheck.

Light's retirement was a health decision. Light said Crohn's isn't the primary reason he's walking away, but it is a factor. While he was playing, he didn't want to take medication, in part because it could have deteriorated his bone mass and would have added to the already difficult challenge of maintaining his weight. In recent weeks since finalizing his retirement, he has started taking medication and the initial results have been promising.

Light, who grew up in Greenville, Ohio, is one of just a few NFL players who have publicly detailed their struggles with Crohn's, joining Miami Dolphins quarterback David Garrard. Light first discovered it during his rookie season.

"I knew I had some issues in 2001, due to some bleeding and where I was finding that," he said. "People that have it know, whether it's using the restroom or all the other things that come along with it, the pain that comes along with it and how it affects people, it's just a very ugly disease.

"So I had some signs in college [at Purdue] that nobody ever picked up on, me included. When I came to New England, all the pressure and everything else, I think that kind of led to some of the symptoms and things ramping up. I found out it was definitely Crohn's and it was definitely an issue."

For three years, Light attempted to manage it as best as possible, until the breaking point in the summer of 2004.

"Even though it was horrible and it was dark and I've had a lot of things since that surgery -- Crohn's doesn't go away when they cut out your intestine, it stays and it's definitely a big part of my life, something I deal with on a daily basis -- it definitely puts things in perspective," Light said.

"When you go through a moment like that, when you have a near-death and struggle with things and can relate with other people that struggle with things, you're reminded constantly of how fortunate you are and how blessed you are.

"That's something I think God put in my path to say, 'Hey, look man, you can go out and do all these things, but the reality of it is that it means squat if you don't remember where you came from and why you're here, and what you can do with it. Think beyond yourself.'

"So that was part of my journey, and that's something I've never shared. I didn't want anybody looking at me and saying, 'That guy missed that block because he probably had a bad Crohn's day.'

"We all have things we deal with, we all have that crutch. For me, it was very important that was something that wasn't a tagline to my overall style of play or what I did and didn't do."

Now that Light has closed the book on his solid 11-year career, he's more comfortable discussing Crohn's, in part because his story might be able to help others. Maybe someone will hear about his ability to cope with it, and play at a high level (five Super Bowl appearances, three titles), and it will inspire them to do the same in their own lives.

That's one of the things Light has appreciated most about his time in the NFL -- the platform the popular league has provided to reach out to others, and possibly help them. His Light Foundation has done admirable work for less fortunate youth, and the one time Light began to tear up during his retirement news conference was when he referenced those who have helped him in that area.

As for Crohn's, Light felt one of the main things that helped him later in his career was altering his diet and educating himself on the disease so he truly knew what he was up against. He also expressed his appreciation that the Patriots took a big risk in signing him to a six-year contract in 2004, just more than a month after he was released from the hospital.

When he looks back on his career, yes, there is a part of him that is surprised he lasted 11 years in the NFL while battling Crohn's.

"Dealing with this, it's hard to keep weight on. You don't absorb things the way you typically do," he said. "I learned a lot through the whole process and learned ways to deal with it. It wasn't unlike when I broke my leg severely [in 2005] and had it fused in one spot and couldn't move the way I wanted to anymore, so I had to rethink how I got out of my stance and kick-slide and all of those things.

"It's like the old cliché, life will throw you all kinds of obstacles and it's how you deal with them, how you come back from them, that is the real true test in life."

Light is a shining example of that. On the day his NFL career was celebrated at the Patriots Hall of Fame in a first-class ceremony, he spoke publicly of his challenges with Crohn's for the first time.

"How you battle Crohn's isn't something you ever want to talk about. It's not something you want to share with other people. It's usually a very painful, ugly deal the whole way through," he said.

"A lot of people suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, and it's something that if you have the right mindset … I always went into things saying, 'I can beat anything.' I've gotten down, very depressed, very angry about having this thing looming over me for so long, but at the end of the day, there is always something you can do.

"Staying positive and knowing there were times where I told myself, 'This is just what it is' and you have to push through it, I think that all helped strengthen me to the point I am today. So, in some respect, dealing with that issue maybe kept me in the game longer. It's been a part of my life, for sure."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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