PHOENIX – When Josh Dobbs dons his NFL helmet, he represents something greater than himself. He is carrying the message that alopecia areata doesn’t define him or anyone else diagnosed with the disease.
The game of football plays an important role in his life, but it’s not his whole story. A less-visible chapter is a desire to inspire others, especially children who have a tough time expressing the reason behind their hair loss. At Lincoln Elementary School in Mesa recently, the Cardinals’ quarterback, mascot and cheerleaders read to students as part of the season-long Milk and Cookies Reading Program that promotes literacy throughout the Valley.
“It’s fun to use my platform to give back and relate with other people across the world who have alopecia,” Dobbs said. “Given the spotlight that I’m in, it’s very visible. I have a lot of people reach out to me that have alopecia, that were just diagnosed with alopecia or have had alopecia their entire lives and are learning how to deal with it and accept them. Be who they are. For me, it’s really cool to be able to stand on my platform and represent that.”
Dobbs and a first-year Arizona Cardinals cheerleader who goes by just Ellie have served as influential figures in the community by refusing to allow Alopecia dictate their outlook on life.
Ellie was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that can cause significant hair loss, in January 2023 during her preparation to audition audition for the team.
Dobbs was diagnosed with Alopecia areata in the third grade. By the time he was at the University of Tennessee, he had completely shaved his head.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 21, 2023
“Any time you’re able to just relate with something like alopecia, everyone’s story is different,” Dobbs said. “Everyone gets alopecia at different stages in their lives. And anytime you’re able to have that point of relation but also share stories, share, you know, the trials, tribulations, but also sharing the growth that you have. It’s really cool. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, the great relationships they have.”
Dobbs became a national spokesperson for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF), where he spoke at its patient conference in Seattle during June 2019. He flew in extremely late on a Saturday night for the conference but made sure to fulfill his commitment.
“To his credit, even though he got there I think around midnight, Joshua still came downstairs after checking into the hotel and was signing autographs all night,” said Gary Sherwood, the Communications Director for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. “He was hanging around there well past midnight, talking with people so you know, his heart was there with that community. And then the next morning he attended our kids camp, which we always have at our conferences.”
Dobbs, who has his own philanthropic foundation called the ASTROrdinary Dobbs Foundation, devotes time to community service for the less fortunate and inspiring members through his nonprofit organization with an emphasis on empowering the youth through economic, recreational and education initiatives.
Dobbs established his foundation in 2022 and is known by many as the most recognizable Tennessee Volunteers quarterback since Peyton Manning because of his philanthropy work in Knoxville.
“We’re promoting my background, which is in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” Dobbs said. “Aerospace, aviation, growing up. So we love giving back to the community itself, supporting me throughout my career starting at Alpharetta, Georgia, to Tennessee and throughout my career, but also just promoting stem engagement, giving back to those less fortunate, and just being involved.
“It’s very important to me to support those communities and to be able to represent my own foundation. It’s really cool. As I said, just having the platform being able to give back.”
NAAF first contacted Dobbs during his time at Tennessee and in preparation for the 2017 NFL Draft.
“Joshua had been on our radar as far back as when he was playing college ball,” Sherwood said.
During the next several months, NAAF discussed his potential involvement with him and his management team, which his mother oversaw at the time.
“She liked to have a say,” Sherwood said, “because I didn’t think she wanted her son to be taken advantage of.”
Alopecia areata is defined as a disease that happens when the immune system attacks hair follicles and causes hair loss, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. While hair can be lost from any part of the body, alopecia areata usually affects the head and face. This autoimmune disease impacts close to seven million in the United States.
Approximately $5.7 million has been donated for funding research purposes, NAAF reports. Although a cure has not been developed, JAK inhibitors, a form of anti-inflammatory drugs, help slow down the disease.
“That’s important because most people who are diagnosed are at a young age, Sherwood said. “If we can get a treatment that’s that successful and safe for children, that’s, really big. And right now, what we’re seeing is a lot more treatments in the pipeline. They have to go to clinical trial phases. And that’s where a lot of them are right now.”
Dobbs has cherished the privilege to speak out and use his status as a professional athlete to influence positive change and bring laughter to people during difficult stages in their respected lives.
“I’ve been blessed my entire life,” Dobbs said. “A lot of the youth look up to us as professional athletes. Adults look up to us professional athletes, people get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing us play on Sundays and to support them as they support us, man. It’s a part of the position to do that. And so I take a lot of pride in that and enjoy giving back.”