NEW YORK (AP) — Keith Mitchell only ever considered himself a football player. It was a label he willingly claimed for so long. When that was ripped away, he was lost.
"You don't realize how attached you are to the identity," the former All-Pro linebacker said. "I didn't know myself."
He had to relearn who he was.
On Sept. 14, 2003, playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mitchell made what appeared to be a routine tackle — until he wound up flat on his back, unable to move. He was rushed to the hospital.
There Mitchell learned his playing career was over in only his seventh NFL season — at 31 years old. He had a spinal contusion.
"All my life, I've been told doctors have all the answers," he said. "So what do you do when the doctor doesn't have an answer for you? I mean, do you become the victim? That's where things can get really chaotic with depression and suicidal thoughts — all that kind of stuff you hear about — and that's what showed up for me."
Until he found conscious breathing, which led to meditation and ultimately yoga.
Mitchell latched onto the practice quickly, even though he had never done it before.
"I realized that I had to," he said. "If I didn't, I don't think I would be here.
"It held me together," Mitchell added. "It created a new way of investing in me and creating a new me, not just with the physical ways I sustained and held trauma but also the mental ways I sustained and held trauma."
Yoga gave him a holistic view of himself as he was healing.
Not only does Mitchell still do yoga, he's a certified yoga instructor with more than a decade of experience. He founded the Light It Up Foundation and the KM59 wellness movement that helps children, trauma survivors, first responders and veterans.
He's even pioneering for the NCAA and NFL to further adopt the practice . Mitchell believes some players lose perspective as they latch onto "the concept of a gladiator" as a football player. Instead of listening to their bodies, they just push them.
Mitchell says the meditation aspect of yoga can bring them back to reality, allowing them to focus on themselves and figure out who they are beyond football. The workout part then simply maintains the body.
Post-career physical and mental dips can be prevented.
"Even though the headline intention of most yoga sessions is to lengthen muscles and to work on core stability, the benefits that are reaped from the mindfulness piece are huge," said National Athletic Trainers' Association president Tory Lindley, who's also the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Health, Safety and Performance and Director of Athletic Training Services at Northwestern University. "Yet in some ways, more athletes aren't even aware they're doing it when they're doing it."
Some are, and it's part of the reason why they practice yoga.
"It helps you stay clear, so that you never get down or up and down or up," New York Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. "It helps you just think about your intention every day, saying clear and focused on what you want in life."
Mitchell wishes he had practice yoga while playing football. It would have helped him recover all that he sacrificed to the game on a regular basis, mentally and physically, and find a better balance.
But he knows not to stress the what-ifs in life.
"I used to go around the country hitting people," Mitchell said. "Now I go around the country saying, 'Namaste.'"