Doctors had removed a 13-inch section of his intestines. Light, the once stout left tackle, hadn’t eaten in a month. He’d lost 50 pounds. It was his latest battle with Crohn’s disease, a painful inflammatory bowel disorder Light was diagnosed with as a rookie. He kept his illness a secret until he retired this summer.
Men’s Fitness recently spoke with Light—who will be honored at Gillette Stadium during halftime of tonight’s Patriot’s game—about fighting the disease, how it affected his career and why he’s speaking out now.
MF: How did you discover you have Crohn’s disease?
Matt Light: I was a rookie in New England and we were in camp when I started really having some pain. I didn’t want to say anything—you’re a young guy, you’re trying to make a team. We were in week two of the season, and I really couldn’t take it anymore. I finally went in to the doctor and he said, “You have internal bleeding, and you suffer from Crohn’s disease.” The word disease is hard to hear. I’ve never heard of this before, so I thought, what do I do next? How is this going to affect me? I’m a professional athlete—am I going to have my job?
MF: How did that diagnosis change your approach to the game?
ML: Crohn’s is an inflammatory disease, and I would argue that football is an inflammatory sport. The things that you treat inflammation with in football don’t really mix well with Crohn’s. I could have hung my head and said, “Woe is me,” but that’s not how I operate. I said, “Let’s go back to square one, find out what the root of the problem is, and educate ourselves.” I had to do a lot more work to get ready for a season than most guys did.
MF: That approach worked until after the 2004 season. What happened then?
ML: My rookie season, we won the Super Bowl. The following season we fall short of the playoffs, and then the next year we win another one. The extra games were very stressful on my body. It got to the point where I dropped in my living room. The inflammation in my intestine and everything else had spread to my appendix, which was getting ready to rupture. But it’s definitely more of an issue for those around you. You’re moody, you go up and down. You go on and off these painkillers, which are horrible. If people need them, there are definitely times you have to have them, but they change you as a person. It was difficult on my wife, difficult on my kids.
NEXT: Light’s Low Point
MF: That summer, you had surgery to remove 13 inches of your intestine and dropped to 260 pounds. How did you handle that?
ML: It’s definitely not easy when you go 30 straight days without eating and you’re a 310-pound mammal and you don’t leave a hospital room. I had about as many setbacks as you can. None of them were fun and most were very painful, but I got through all of them because I have good people around me. I have a wife who supported me. I don’t remember it completely, but at one point I woke up and my wife was in front of me showing me a big Super Bowl ring. She had just gotten back from the ring ceremony and wanted to bring it straight to the hospital room. I thought, “I have to get back and try to win another one of those.”
MF: You recovered an won that third ring. Did your career change the way you treated the disease?
ML: I wasn’t willing to try some of the treatments that were available at the time because of what I did for a living. They just didn’t mesh well. Now that I’m recently retired, I don’t have to train the way I did before, which really beat up the body and was very stressful with Crohn’s. I don’t have to eat as much, even though I think I probably still do. On top of that, being educated and living with this disease for a while, I’ve found out what’s out there and what makes the most sense.
MF: Why didn’t you want to talk about the disease during your playing days?
ML: I didn’t want a bad play on my part to be turned into, “He battles this disease, and if he didn’t have that, he probably wouldn’t have had a bad game.” I didn’t need that, and I didn’t need a crutch to lean on. My battle was my battle, and it wasn’t for anyone else’s consumption at that point.
MF: So why are you speaking out now?
ML: Having retired, and having the platform I have, it’s just a natural thing to be able to share my story with people. If I can play professional sports and find a way to live with this disease, then you have some hope. Everybody battles it differently, but your mindset and staying positive are so important. Educate yourself and know that there are resources out there for you. Those are the kinds of things that will truly make the biggest difference, knowing this is something you deal with day-to-day for the rest of your life. Groups like Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America are incredible. I didn’t know what it was in 2001. I’d never heard of it. But now I can’t talk to anyone nowdays who doesn’t say I have a cousin or a friend who deals with it day in and day out.