On May 31, 2006, I was at the high point of my career. I had been named president of the Packers and a transition plan was in place for the subsequent year when I would succeed Bob Harlan as CEO. All the pieces were in place in my life and career. On June 4, I went to Milwaukee and rode in the Miller Lite Ride for the Arts, a 75-mile bike race, and I broke five hours for the first time. That was a big deal for me. I was on top of the world. On June 10, a Saturday night, I went to sleep and I had my plans for Sunday, but Sunday was when everything came apart. I had numbness in my legs and they felt very heavy. The Packer docs, Dr. John Gray and Dr. John McKenzie, got me over to Bellin Hospital, and they thought at first, as most docs would in those circumstances, that I probably did something to my spine in the bike race, but they couldn’t find anything. I might have left the hospital then and gone home, but because they knew me so well, they said this is not adding up. They did a CAT scan, found that my aorta was dissected and from that point on it was a race to save my life. A dissected aorta is fatal about 90 percent of the time. I survived the surgery, but I suffered a stroke during surgery.
I was in recuperation and eventually I got back to work. By the time the 2006 season opened, I was able to be working mornings and I gradually worked up to being back in for a full day. But the thing I experienced that I had never expected was the sheer physical exhaustion. The doctors told me this would be a part of it, but my bulletproof attitude was, ‘I can handle that.’ I’ve been tired before. I’ve run marathons, I’m a long-distance cyclist, I know what fatigue is. But this was a completely different kind of physical experience, and in the end I wasn’t able to continue.
The kind of bulletproof myth we men tell ourselves is that we can do health, just like we can do everything else. You know, ‘Show me what mountain I have to climb, how fast do I have to run, what weight do I have to lift.’ We will do that, but we don’t do health care and that’s the fulcrum point of my message these days – that it is not enough to do health, guys have got to do health care and that means getting in and getting checkups.
Health care a very hot topic right now in business. Executives want to make sure they are managing their health care costs and health care for their employees very effectively. But a lot of execs spend more time thinking about health care for their employees and how to manage those costs than they do about their own health. The higher you rise up that corporate ladder, the more bulletproof you believe yourself to be.
And the wild card, as I learned myself, is you can be managing your own health very proactively and there can still be one of these biological time bombs in you. I was fortunate that I had a relationship with the doctors, because their knowledge of me and my health led them to take a step beyond. If you walk into an emergency room with a dissecting aorta, you’re probably going to die because it’s not the first thing anyone is going to diagnose. The key is having regular checkups and a relationship with your doctor, so there is an awareness and a knowledge and you’re giving the doctors a fighting chance to save you if something happens.
I have my bulletproof.com website and I go out and do talks. I never thought that this would be the direction my life would take, but this is what moves me today the way my career in the NFL used to move me. It’s personal to me and personal to the people I talk to. Business execs, men in particular, will stay up all night trying to figure out the next thing we need to do to move our companies forward, but one of the most important things we can do is taking care of ourselves so we’re going to be around to carry those strategies out.