Ealy: Why I'm not in the NFL anymore
Just over four years ago, Kony Ealy was making NFL history.
These days, Ealy is a defensive end for the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks.
How the heck did that happen? It’s a long, sad story of the fall of a guy who made history with the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. In that game, Ealy tied the Super Bowl record (on only 23 snaps) with three sacks. He also had an interception and forced a fumble.
It’s also a story of possible redemption. But to understand that, you first need to hear the sadness and the real reason Ealy isn’t in the NFL. He was out of football entirely in 2019, and for the first time, he revealed the reason why to XFL.com in a Wednesday afternoon telephone interview.
“I had a nervous breakdown,’’ said Ealy, 28. “I went through a deep depression. I didn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t work out and I couldn’t play football. I couldn’t do anything.’’
“I had a nervous breakdown, I went through a deep depression. I didn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t work out and I couldn’t play football. I couldn’t do anything.’’
Ealy said the breakdown and depression stemmed from the deaths of his father (Willie Ealy) and sister (LaToya Brown) in close proximity. Both died from respiratory diseases.
“It just mentally knocked me off my game,’’ Ealy said. “I’m not talking just football. It knocked me off my life.’’
There was even more to it than just the two deaths. Ealy had recently become a father (daughter Royal).
He also had made a deep pledge to his father.
Ealy has another sister, Sierra Jones. She was born with a chromosome disorder that left her mentally and physically challenged. Ealy had promised his father long ago that he would care for Sierra after his father’s death.
“I just had so much on my plate,’’ Ealy said. “I didn’t handle it well. I just collapsed instead of stepping up.’’
The depression went on for more than a year. Ealy’s girlfriend, Asia Walker, held the family together. She took care of Sierra and Royal. She also took care of Ealy, who said he was incapable of caring for himself.
“I was afraid I would be like that forever,’’ Ealy said. “I was afraid I’d never snap out of it and I was sure I’d never be able to play football again.’’
But everything changed last fall when Ealy got an invitation to play for the XFL.
“The light went on in my head again,’’ Ealy said. “No more darkness.’’
He began working out again. His mood continued to brighten. Football mattered again. Life mattered again. He was drafted by Houston, and it looks like he’s found a home that he hopes is temporary.
In his XFL debut, Ealy was dominant in a 37-17 victory against the Los Angeles Wildcats. He recorded half a sack, five quarterback hits and two tackles for losses.
“What’s he doing in the XFL?’’ Houston defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. “I can’t figure it out. But I’m just happy he’s with us because he’s a great player. If he keeps playing like this, he’ll be back in the NFL in no time.’’
That’s the goal, Ealy said.
“I thank (XFL owner) Vince McMahon for giving me and so many others an opportunity,’’ Ealy said. “This is a great league and it’s going to succeed. I’m having fun here and I have a lot of work to do. But I really want to get back to the NFL.’’
Ealy said he has unfinished business in the NFL because he didn’t play to his full potential before the breakdown. A second-round pick out of Missouri in 2014, Ealy played well his first two seasons, recording nine sacks. But his playing time dipped in 2016 and he started only six games.
A Carolina source said the coaching staff soured on Ealy because it believed he took plays off and didn’t work as hard as he should. Ealy doesn’t disagree with that assessment.
“I was young and I wasn’t totally focused,’’ Ealy said. “Some of it was my fault.’’
Ealy wanted out of Carolina. He said he requested a trade and the Panthers accommodated by shipping him to New England in 2017. But Ealy was released in the final cutdown.
Ealy spent the 2017 season with the New York Jets, and it was during that time frame that his father and sister died. In 2018, he was signed by Dallas and the Cowboys shifted Ealy to defensive tackle. The move didn’t work, and he didn’t make the roster. Depression had set in, and Ealy signed with the Raiders, but that only lasted a week.
Ealy then was out of football until his XFL debut. He now says he’s fully invested in football and plans to be in the game for a long time.
“What I went through was painful,’’ Ealy said. “But I’m stronger than ever. I think I’ve grown from it. I learned to never get too comfortable because tomorrow is never promised.
“I appreciate the game so much more this time around. I want to be the best I can be and get back to the highest level.’