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Football’s unease: Trey Burton didn’t throw “Oompah Loompa” touchdown due to anxiety

The veteran tight end succumbed to a mental block on a play he executed only 10 months earlier. A worthy reminder of pro athletes being very human.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Last February, now Bears tight end Trey Burton threw one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history in Super Bowl LII: the “Philly Special” to the Eagles’ Nick Foles. One of the gutsiest calls you’ll ever see on such a grand, national stage polished off by a backup quarterback in Foles and backup tight end in Burton. The signature moment of Philadelphia’s first-ever Super Bowl victory over the Patriots, and a play Burton will never forget.

Roughly 10 months later, it’s still so ingrained in Burton’s mind that he earnestly admitted he couldn’t execute the same kind of play against the Giants last Sunday. That’s why Tarik Cohen was the man to eventually throw a touchdown to Anthony Miller on what the Bears called their “Oompah Loompa”. Burton’s mental state precluded him from doing so, so the Bears had to turn to other options.

It was when the Bears came to installing the play in their playbook under Matt Nagy way back in October, that Burton said he had “crazy anxiety” over being the focal point again, according to WGN’s Josh Frydman.

“I was kind of freaking out a bit because a ton of unbelievable memories come to mind from the Super Bowl,” Burton said. “We were playing the Patriots at the time, we wanted to run it then ... I just couldn’t. Physically, there was some type of block, wasn’t letting me do it.”

“I told Nagy, ‘hey coach, I’m having crazy anxiety,’” Burton continued. “Thankfully he said no big deal, I appreciate you letting me know.”

It can be difficult to confront your past in such a poignant fashion, particularly when it’s your career-crowning achievement to this point against the same exact team that let you accomplish it. The fact that Burton struggled with reliving his memory and having to recreate the same magic out of rampant anxiety isn’t surprising, and is also entirely okay.

It’s a reminder that as freakish as professional athletes are physically, they’re human. They’re just as susceptible to the same mental pitfalls, intense rationalizations, and insecurities as anyone that isn’t a world class athlete accomplishing incredible physical feats on a regular basis. They go through the same struggles any of us can face through our own mental imbalances through any variety of obstacles. They can, indeed, often put those self-imposed walls up themselves, too.

Professional athletes, NFL players, aren’t infallible or invincible because they can sky over a defender for an acrobatic catch or effortlessly plow through 300-pound men.

They’re vulnerable.

They’re apprehensive.

They’re riddled with angst, and sometimes on a regular basis.

They’re human.

The only difference between athletes such as Burton and a person not playing professional sports is that you wouldn’t think of the athletes having such relatable weaknesses, because they rarely get the opportunity to display that side of their persona.

Those on the outside looking in may think that because a man plays football at the highest level, it then means he doesn’t go through the same roadblocks anyone else does. Or, that he isn’t allowed to, especially in such a macho sport like football oft-treated like war in terms of seriousness. To some, players are supposed to venture into the Thunder Dome and not utter a word about it.

It’s not war. It’s a game, and football players aren’t super soldiers.

Athletes like Burton are propped up and placed on their platforms and are then regarded as demi-gods forever until proven otherwise. Sometimes even if proven otherwise. An unfair distinction to make for any person.

It speaks well upon Burton for sharing his relatable story while fully knowing the stigmas behind mental health, and amidst a pervasive, toxic football culture that’s evolving. It also speaks well upon Nagy as a coach and leader for actually listening to Burton and not telling him to “rub some dirt” on his anxiety, or so to speak.

It’s the smallest gestures that matter in moving the needle behind changing not only a team’s culture, but in seeing anxiety and poor mental health as something that can eat away at anyone. Even a 236-pound man like Burton behind one of the most famous plays in sports history.

Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network (subscribe here!), the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and writes for a host of other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.