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NFL Great Matt Light’s Painful Secret

After battling Crohn’s disease in private, the former New England Patriot opens up about what it’s like to live—and play—with the debilitating disorder.

Months after he won his second Super Bowl protecting Tom Brady’s blindside for the New England Patriots, Matt Light was in a hospital room, unsure if he’d ever play football again.

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.

[see: Milk Fat May Cause Bowel Diseases]

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

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