Inspired by his own journey, NFL safety starts nonprofit for mental health awareness

An veteran NFL player is using his own journey with his mental health as inspiration for his organization that helps people in similar situations.

“When you have a friend since the age of six, you think about all the different things you experience in life,” said safety Doug Middleton. “Really as a young teen, as an African-American male, as an athlete. We experienced all of that together.”

If purpose was a person, Middleton continues to find it through A.J. Morrison’s life and now, his legacy.

“I was always interested in mental health a little bit,” Middleton told Channel 9′s DaShawn Brown. “But then it really hit me deep and made a huge connection with me when I lost my best friend to suicide.”

The two friends and avid athletes were nearly inseparable. AJ was even with the former Appalachian State standout on draft night. Middleton says AJ suffered from severe depression for nearly five years and in 2017, he died by suicide.

“So the first day that I reported to training camp of my second NFL season, that was the same day that I buried my best friend,” Middleton said. “And so at that point, I was just looking for different organizations to start working with, figuring out how I could find help for myself, but also help others with the platform that I have as an athlete.”

It’s a platform he started to build almost immediately. That same year, Middleton partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, better known as NAMI. Then, he created his own nonprofit -- Dream the Impossible -- often working with student athletes. He even earned one of the NFL’s Community MVP Awards for his work to amplify mental health awareness.

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“I’ve seen other guys in the NFL that have passed from suicide,” Middleton said.

As for how he’s finding healing -- amid losing his best friend, season-ending injuries and just the day-to-day things that happen in life -- Middleton said it hasn’t been easy.

“I’m not going to lie, my life has been pretty tough the past few years, especially with football. I’ve been cut multiple times -- a lot of times -- and I’ve had two season-ending injuries. The one that I had in 2017, I had another one the next year,” Middleton said. “My involvement with the school, my involvement with the foundation, that has really changed my life and that’s how I get my healing. From helping others.”

Which is exactly what Channel 9 found. Every few weeks, Middleton invests time at the Emerald School of Excellence. It’s the first substance abuse recovery high school in the Carolinas. In addition, he says yoga is one of the healing strategies that has helped him.

Middleton and Emerald students will often just talk, and they told DaShawn Brown they appreciate what he’s done for them.

“A really important thing to me, he feels a lot less than just another adult who is trying to diagnose us and pick our brains and more as an actual friend we can go to and talk to feel comfortable and safe around,” said Emerald senior John McMullen.

“He’s had a lot of friends go through the same issues as my friends and he’s been through a lot of the same issues as I have,” said senior Rhys Martin.

Middleton’s quest to spread awareness continues to shape his purpose, and is still his way to honor A.J.

“There is not one solution to every mental illness or mental health challenge and that’s what I originally thought. Whether it’s medicine that works for one person, it should work for everybody. Or if this therapist works for one person, it works for everybody. That’s not true,” Middleton said. “I’ve, years later, I know that. I know that every person’s journey is different.”

Middleton recently received the App State Young Alumni Award for his work to provide mental health resources. He’s partnering with fellow NFL athletes to open a yoga wellness studio in the Charlotte region next year.

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