NFL Star's Struggle With Digestive Disease

Fans only knew Matt Light as a strong, energetic pro-football player who was a three-time Super Bowl champion. But many had no idea that ever since his rookie days with the New England Patriots, he suffered from a debilitating case of Crohn's disease, a digestive disorder affecting more than 700,000 Americans.

Light battled Crohn's for his entire NFL career, and it forced him to occasionally miss games when he was simply too ill to play. His first Super Bowl ring ceremony was spent in the hospital.

Now, however, Light is feeling much better. Retired since May 2012, Light, who is originally from Greenville, Ohio, has teamed with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) to bring this illness to the attention of the public. He has been taking an infusion therapy called Remicade® to control his symptoms; he credits this medication, which he receives at Massachusetts General Hospital, with helping him get his life back.

Crohn's disease falls under the umbrella term of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which also includes ulcerative colitis. Both UC and Crohn's are caused by the immune system's abnormal response to triggers present in the gut, causing the digestive tract to become inflamed. Crohn's disease may affect any part of the digestive tract, while UC affects the colon or large intestine.

Light first fell ill when he was a freshman in 1996 at Purdue University and thought he had a stomach virus. It didn't get better, although it waxed and waned throughout his college years. "I was having very severe symptoms," he recalls. "I was having some bleeding, and [whenever] I tried to eat, it was painful."

Couple that with not feeling well and a demanding schedule as a football player, and you get an idea of how unpleasant his four years of college really were.

In 2001, he was finally diagnosed with Crohn's disease. At first, Light tried to manage his disease by diet. He decided against medications. "Some of the drugs that were available in 2001 [could] really deteriorate your bones and be more of a problem than the Crohn's itself," he says.

One of the problems he faced was that, as a football player, he had to maintain a certain body weight, and that can be very tough when faced with a lack of appetite.

Somehow, he got through college and was drafted to the New England Patriots. There, he spent a 10-year career, but privately, he was suffering.

In a 2004 surgery, doctors removed 15 inches of his intestine, but he then was hospitalized for a month with a post-surgical infection. Light has called that time "one of the darkest periods of my life."

Last spring, he decided to retire and just a couple of months later, he joined ESPN as an analyst. Light recently participated in "A Touch of Football," a flag football tournament and fundraising event for the CCFA, and he feels positive about his treatment and his future.

"I want other patients to act early to get the help they need and find what works for them," he says. "The key point that I try to get across to people is that you can do it. I played 11 seasons for the National Football League, and as difficult that was while suffering from Crohn's, you can pull through it."

Dr. Vijay Yajnik reviewed this article.