Soccer Stars with Goals to Raise Awareness for Chronic Autoimmune Diseases

These world-class soccer champions’ careers were impacted by autoimmune diseases and have dedicated their platforms to raising awareness for those with a similar diagnosis.

Once every four years, everyone becomes a soccer fan as nearly 3.9 billion people tune into the FIFA World Cup tournament to see which country dominates the world’s most popular sport. Yesterday’s intense final game continued to leave us in awe of the physical and mental prowess necessary to be world champions.

90-minute games coupled with a long field and a ball in constant motion adds up to a lot of intensive running for players. According to STATS, a company that uses a motion-tracking technology called SportVu to collect detailed statistics on players from several sports, the average professional soccer player runs seven to nine and a half miles per game. This physically and mentally demanding sport leaves little room for the fatigue and chronic pain that frequently accompanies an autoimmune disease diagnosis.

When Shannon Boxx, Joy Fawcett and Darren Fletcher were diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, they were sidelined from a sport they dedicated their lives to mastering. Now they have shifted their goals to raising awareness for others suffering from chronic autoimmune diseases.

Shannon Boxx (number 7) Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Image Sport/Getty Images

Shannon Boxx

Midfielder, Women’s U.S. National Soccer Team

Diagnosed with Lupus in 2007

Shannon was competing on the women’s U.S. National Soccer Team when she began experiencing fatigue, joint pain and muscle soreness.  She was eventually diagnosed with lupus in 2007 when she was 30 years old, in addition to having Sjogren’s Syndrome, another autoimmune disease that attacks moisture-producing glands.

She went public with her diagnosis in 2012 and works with the Lupus Foundation of America to continue creating awareness for the disease, which affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States. In a 2012 interview with CNN Shannon said, “It takes people an average of seven years to be diagnosed, and in that time period they could be doing more damage to their body. If I can help spread the word about what lupus or Sjogren’s is and what the symptoms are, maybe I can help get people in to visit a doctor sooner.”



Joy Fawcett

Joy Fawcett (number 14) Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

Defender, Women’s U.S. National Soccer Team

Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2002

Joy Fawcett began her soccer career at age five and joined the women’s U.S. National Soccer Team in 1987. Her impressive career included playing time in three World Cups and the 1996 Olympics. Joy was preparing for the 2003 Women’s World Cup when she noticed painful swelling in her hands and increased fatigue. Knowing that she hadn’t sustained a recent hand injury, she sought the advice of the team coach, who immediately referred her to a rheumatologist who confirmed the diagnosis that affects almost 1.5 million people in the United States.

In a 2008 interview with Health Central, Joy credits the speedy diagnosis and combination of Remicade and Methotrexate to controlling her rheumatoid arthritis and preventing further damage. Joy remains passionate about advocating for early detection and diagnosis, “…so that people can learn about these symptoms, [can] go see a rheumatologist and get diagnosed early… [and to] help family members understand what we’re dealing with.”


Darren Fletcher vs Everton, at Old Trafford, Manchester, November 2009. By Gordon Flood [CC BY 2.0 (]

Darren Fletcher

Midfielder, Manchester United

Diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2011

Darren was a right midfielder for the prestigious Premier League team when he started experiencing debilitating pain that made him rush off the field to the bathroom 10-30 times a day. Embarrassed about the symptoms he was experiencing, and afraid of the implications it would have on his career, Darren stayed silent about his symptoms for two years.

In a 2014 interview with BBC, Darren admits it was difficult to open up about his ulcerative colitis diagnosis, a chronic bowel disease that causes intense abdominal discomfort and frequent diarrhea.  “I found it difficult, making up stories for reasons why I wasn’t at training, why I was looking ill, why I was feeling ill, why I was rushing off to the bathroom…Once I started talking about it and making it public knowledge it was such a relief; it was the best thing I did.”

Darren took an extended break from Manchester United to undergo surgery for the condition in January 2013. While the surgery was successful in ameliorating the condition’s debilitating symptoms, Darren is still dedicated to raising awareness for those who continue to suffer from ulcerative colitis and organized a United for Colitis charity dinner in aid of the charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK in 2014.


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