The NFL Hall of Fame inductee opens up to PEOPLE about his lifelong struggle with migraines
For Terrell Davis, playing in 1998’s Super Bowl XXXII was a dream come true — that is, until a debilitating migraine almost turned it into a nightmare.
Caught up in the excitement of the day, the former Denver Broncos running back — who has suffered from migraines for much of his life — had forgotten to take his preventative medicine during his pre-game meal two hours before kickoff.
“So we have 15 minutes tops before the game starts, and it dawns on me that I forgot to take it,” Davis, 46, tells PEOPLE. “I went and I took it then, but it was just too late.”
A migraine eventually came on and forced Davis to sit out of the second quarter of the game. He didn’t let it stop him for long, though, as he was back on the field after halftime.
“Once it happened, I wasn’t going to let it rob me of my chance to be me for that day because I could never live past that,” he says. “I was like, ‘There is no tomorrow — this is it.'”
Davis’ skill during the remainder of the game earned the Broncos the championship title against the Green Bay Packers and also earned him the title of MVP. Almost 20 years later, in 2017, Davis was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
“By this happening to me on such a public forum, it was also a tool to affect other people’s lives in a way that I didn’t realize,” he says. “Most of the fan mail [I got was] talking about migraines and thanking me for bringing this thing to the forefront.”
Davis got his first migraine at football practice when he was only 9 years old. At the time, he started having trouble seeing and didn’t know what was going on.
“I was staring into the sun and then trying to focus on something,” he recalled during the Migraine World Summit in March. “I remember my heart started pounding because I thought, at the time, I was going to go blind.”
Davis’ mom picked him up from practice and as soon as he got home, he started getting a pounding headache.
“That headache was so different than any headache I’ve ever had at the time,” he said. “It was so debilitating, so intense. I didn’t know what had happened at the time or if we would come back or if that was a one time deal.”
The pain at the time was so bad that Davis remembers having suicidal thoughts.
“I didn’t want to live through that period,” he said. “Suicide crossed my mind. I didn’t plan it, but the only thing I could think of was just ending it.
It took a while for Davis to be officially diagnosed, but he eventually figured out how to take steps to prevent attacks.
“The doctor was asking about when these reoccurring attacks happened, and maybe it was ironic but they would always happen either after practice or during practice,” he said. “He added it up and told my mom, ‘He probably doesn’t need to play football because obviously there’s a connection to him playing football and having these occur.’ I didn’t like hearing that too much because I love football. I wasn’t connecting those dots because there was a few times I was sitting in class looking at the chalkboard and all of a sudden, bam, one is triggered. So in my mind, it wasn’t just football and there were other things. If it wasn’t just football that was causing these, then I didn’t want to remove football. I just decided to play.”
Davis has learned how to manage his triggers over time.
“You do all kinds of things as trial and error to see if it works or it doesn’t work,” he tells PEOPLE. “Over the years, we started to dial things in and tried to really hone in and we started to be really efficient in how we dealt with this thing.”
Now, Davis credits his preventative medication, a healthy diet and CBD products for keeping his migraines at bay for over a year. And by sharing his story, he is hoping to help other people dealing with migraines, particularly men.
“It’s one of those things men are not comfortable talking about,” he said during the Migraine World Summit. “I see more guys talking about it now, but it’s not a lot. It [wasn’t] until I was retired that guys would say, ‘I went through it too.’ I was like, ‘Why didn’t you say anything back then?’ If you have migraines, it’s okay to talk about it.”