Former New England Patriot Matt Light Battles Crohn's Disease

Angela Haupt

In June 2004, New England Patriots players gathered at owner Robert Kraft's home to receive their Super Bowl rings. But the team wasn't complete. Matt Light, who helped earn the victory, wasn't there. He was in the midst of a 30-day hospital stay, fighting through complications that had developed from having a 13-inch section of his intestine removed. He couldn't eat for a month and lost 55 pounds, dropping to his lowest weight since high school.

During Light's 11 seasons with the Patriots, from 2001 to 2012, football fans knew he was the most successful left tackle in the team's storied history. What they didn't know was that Light was battling Crohn's disease--an often debilitating inflammatory bowel disease--throughout his entire career. That meant severe abdominal pain, fatigue, and persistent diarrhea, among other symptoms. Light, 34, didn't speak publicly about his struggles until May, when he announced his retirement. Now, he wants to educate and encourage others who are experiencing what he went through. Light shared his story with U.S. News:

What led to your diagnosis? How did you know something was wrong?

I was officially diagnosed in 2001, but I had started experiencing a lot of the symptoms during my freshman year in college. At the time, I didn't connect it with being anything more than the flu or a stomach virus. I just wasn't up to speed with issues like Crohn's disease, or any other type of bowel disease. By the time I got to the NFL as a rookie, I just knew something wasn't right. I was experiencing internal bleeding--it's very difficult to talk about, kind of embarrassing, but this is what happens. I started asking a lot of questions, got a full exam, and the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital told me I was suffering from Crohn's disease.

[See 4 Common Diarrhea Causes--and What to Do if You Get Sick.]

How did you feel when you learned you had Crohn's? Was it scary, or were you relieved to finally know what was wrong?

I tend to process things in a very matter-of-fact way. Maybe it's my engineering background. I had this sense that I needed to find out what it was, and that's a real message I try to get across to people I come in contact with--to ask as many questions as you possibly can, no matter what it is you're suffering from.

In 2004, a series of surgeries kept you in the hospital for a month with intense pain and complications from having part of your intestine removed. You've described it as a very dark period. How did you get through it--and make it to training camp less than two months later?

It was very difficult, but I had really good doctors and a really good support team. You're not the only one who goes through this--it's all the people around you, and you rely on them. When you have a family, you have to be healthy for them. I remember my wife coming into the hospital and showing me my Super Bowl ring for the first time. It's pretty wild to think you can get through all that and still get back out there and win another championship.

Why did you decide to start speaking about your condition publicly?

I had mixed emotions about going public, because I hadn't said anything throughout my entire battle. I was worried some people were going to be upset that I had kept it hidden. But I didn't want people to say, "Well, he had a bad game because he's battling this tough disease." At the time, my battle was my battle, and I wasn't willing to talk about it. The truth is, it's not easy to talk about, but if somebody else can learn something by me coming out and telling my story--and they can say, there's a guy who's doing great, and he got through some really tough times--then I'm just thankful to have the opportunity to be that voice.

[See 8 Common Digestive Problems and How to End Them.]

How are you doing today?

It's a major transition when you stop playing the game of football. I spent a lot of time coming up with my plan of attack and looking into different treatments. I had to re-educate myself, because I had different options in 2012 than I did in 2001. I played a pretty violent, inflammatory sport, and Crohn's is an inflammatory disease, so some of the treatments just weren't possible for me. Today, I'm doing a lot better, and I don't have the day-to-day issues I had for a long time.

What's your advice to others struggling with Crohn's disease?

Your attitude is a lot of it. It's really important to surround yourself with positive people and to educate yourself. There are great resources out there, like the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. Talk to other people who have the disease, too. You can learn what their triggers are and share your experiences.

[See IBS? Could be the FODMAPs.]

And, don't ever give up hope. Don't feel like you can't get through it. There's a treatment out there for you, and it might not work the first time, but something will.

What else has your experience taught you?

When you go through tough things like this, it gives you a pretty awesome perspective on what's important and what really matters. I used to say to myself, "Even though it's bad, you've been through worse, and you can battle back--it's not the end of the world." If you give in to being negative, that's the easy route. My goal is to stay positive, because that's all you've got sometimes. Like my mom always says, keep your big-boy pants on, keep going, and you'll get it done.