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Football Player’s Purpose Born Out of Tragedy

“When I heard that I was in shock,” says Doug. “I just couldn't believe it. Because I just talked to my best friend the day before. There's no way that he took his own life.”

From 2016 to 2021, Doug Middleton lived his dream of playing in the NFL. His love of football began as a six-year-old growing up in North Carolina. For Doug, life was all about football and friends.

“As a 6-year-old kid, there was nothing that could compare to scoring touchdowns with your friends or making interceptions or making tackles,” says Doug. “There was nothing in life that was like that.”

One friend in particular was like family.

“Me and AJ played ball together all the way from pretty much 8 years old all the way through high school,” says Doug. “Our friendship really just started with just two young kids trying to play sports together. That's how it started and our relationship grew as two kids who had each other's back into two kids who guided each other through adversity.”

Doug and AJ were star athletes and both accepted football scholarships, AJ at Fayetteville State and Doug at Appalachian State University.

Doug says, “During those times, we took two different paths, but at the same time we remained very close and we shared in each other's journey as we tried to figure out life.”

In 2011, Doug’s freshman year, he gave his life to Jesus. “I was able to put my faith in Jesus Christ and Christianity, and that's what ended up changing my life," says Doug. “Because no matter how things are going, you know, whether they go south or whether they go right, I know that at the end of day, it may not be my plan but it's going to be God's plan.”

Doug excelled at Appalachian State. As a junior he was named to the all-conference team and in 2016 he signed with the New York Jets. Unfortunately, as Doug was thriving, AJ was struggling.

“Once AJ got done at Fayetteville State, that's when a lot of adversity started to really happen in his life. And when those experiences really started to alter, you know, his view on life. He stepped into a deep state of depression and really couldn't get out of it. He didn't want to take a shower; he didn't want to go eat. He didn't want to leave the house,” says Doug.

In July 2017, Doug received a call that changed his life.

“My wife was with me,” says Doug, “and we got a call from my dad. He didn't call my phone. He called her phone and he had let her know that AJ had just took his own life. When I heard that I was in shock. You know, I sat there for a few hours and then it started to really hit me, and I started to cry.”

Still mourning, Doug headed to training camp with the Jets. During the first pre-season game he suffered a season-ending injury.

“And it was as if life just really hit me because now,” says Doug, “I had lost the game that I loved. I lost pretty much my brother who I overcome any and everything with and had been through any and everything with. Both of my outlets were gone. And it all happened within one month. And so, I really struggled trying to find my identity, you know, what my identity was outside of the game of football.”

Doug met a couple who lost their son to suicide. They encouraged him to use his story to help others.

"They said, ‘Man, listen. You have a true story. You can help a lot of people. You have a platform. I'm not gonna tell you what to do, but I think AJ didn't die for any reason. I think he died so that you could help a lot of people,’" Doug says. “And when I heard that from that couple, I felt this huge sense of responsibility. And it wasn't something that I was intimidated by, but something that I definitely welcomed."

In 2017, Doug started the Dream the Impossible Foundation, bringing awareness to mental health and suicide prevention.

“For me, the pain of losing my best friend has put my life upside down and really turned into my purpose,” says Doug. Today, Doug dedicates his purpose to AJ’s memory. That purpose is his passion: helping others and fulfilling God’s plan in his life.

“It's a true blessing and I think it's a true testament to my obedience to God and being able to step in the purpose that He has for me,” says Doug. “Not really with football, but really off the field. And I think that's why I've been able to continue this journey so much and continue to speak faith in other people's life, is because I listened to those directions that that couple gave me when they told me that I have a duty to help other people. And I've accepted that. I've accepted that role. I've accepted being able to tell my story and being able to speak for others who can't speak for themselves. I just want to help others heal. And I want to be able to inspire others through my journey and through my passion for life. I want people to look at my life and say that God had a hand on my life and that through his journey, I know that God can take me through whatever I'm going through.”

 

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