'I don't want anyone to end up like me'
Plagued by post-concussion syndrome and battling an amphetamine addiction, former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson is a shell of his former self
It has all unraveled; his career, his marriage, his health, his reputation. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was once a Super Bowl champion and a fan favorite, admired for his jarring hits and thoughtful approach to a violent game.
But now he is a struggling ex-athlete who has become unreliable and unreachable -- making promises and commitments he does not keep -- the subject of steamy tabloid gossip, shunned for an alleged domestic abuse incident involving his wife.
Johnson, 34, suffers from such severe depression that some mornings he literally cannot pull himself out of bed. When the crippling malaise overtakes him, he lies in a darkened room, unwilling to communicate with his closest family members.
The 10-year NFL veteran believes his current state is a direct result of a career in which he absorbed "countless" head injuries, including back-to-back concussions suffered within days during the 2002 season, when he says the Patriots didn't give him proper time to recover.
He has tried to make himself well. He has been in counseling, taken antidepressants (Prozac and Wellbutrin). When they made him feel sluggish, he began taking Adderall, an amphetamine. He developed an addiction to the stimulant and was admitted to McLean Hospital in the summer of 2005 to receive psychiatric care. The doctors took films of his brain, he said, but they were not conclusive.
Desperate for answers, Johnson scheduled an appointment to receive electric shock treatment before deciding at the last moment to forgo that option.
"Officially, I've probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career," Johnson said. "But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I've been dinged so many times I've lost count."
The numerous head traumas, said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital, have left Johnson with post-concussion syndrome as well as signs of early brain damage that Cantu fears is permanent.
Johnson's multiple symptoms include depression, dizziness, excessive drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, ringing in the ears, and acute sensitivity to noise.
According to Cantu, who has been treating Johnson since last May, post-concussion syndrome can occur from a single concussion, but is more likely to occur after multiple concussions, and most likely to occur when the patient has endured back-to-back concussions without time for the first concussion to clear.
Johnson toyed with going public with his story before. He shared his struggles with the Globe last summer, but later requested his comments be put on hold. The recent suicide of former NFL defensive back Andre Waters, who had multiple concussions and suffered from depression, finally prompted Johnson to come forward.
"I want people to realize that you don't have to 'black out' to have a concussion," he said. "Most times, the symptoms of a concussion don't show up for hours, sometimes days. And this isn't just happening in the NFL. High school kids get concussions, and aren't properly monitored.
"Every day there is a new study linking concussions to depression, as well as early onset of Alzheimer's disease. It doesn't have to happen. It shouldn't happen.
"I don't want anyone to end up like me."
Giants running back Sean Bennett had just caught the ball in the flat, and Johnson steeled himself for the head-on contact.
"It was a terrific collision," Johnson recalled. "I think I blacked out for a second. The guys could tell right away I was in trouble, so they pulled me off the field immediately. The trainer [Jim Whalen] asked me a few questions on the sidelines. I don't even remember what he said. The team doctor [Bert Zarins] might have come over, too, but honestly, I was out of it."
The Patriots' medical staff ruled Johnson out for the remainder of the game. When he arrived at the stadium four days later, he said, he expected to find a red jersey, signifying minimal contact, in his locker. Instead, a blue jersey -- signifying full contact -- was dangling from a hanger.
"I grabbed Jim Whalen right away," Johnson said. "I asked him, 'Is this right? Should I be wearing a blue jersey?' Jim immediately said, 'No, no, that's wrong. You are not cleared for contact.' "
Johnson pulled on the red jersey and took the field for stretching and individual skills. Shortly before the team was about to engage in their 9-on-7 drill, which is one of their more physical exercises, Johnson said an assistant trainer hurried up to him and handed him a blue jersey.
"I looked at the trainer and said, 'Who told you to give me this?' " Johnson said. "He just walked away. He didn't want to say. But I knew who it was. It was Bill [Belichick]. I was so mad I wanted to scream. But I put the damn thing on anyway. I had my pride. They weren't going to beat me."
Reached yesterday, Belichick said his team's protocol for working players back after an injury has been the same for seven seasons. They test players in a controlled environment (i.e. practice) before promoting them to game action. Belichick said he had no indication from Johnson in practice that day that he was uncomfortable with participating in the drill.
"If Ted felt so strongly that he didn't feel he was ready to practice with us, he should have told me," Belichick said.
In the 9-on-7 drill, running back J.R. Redmond barreled up the middle, where Johnson was waiting. Although the two only made mild contact, Johnson said he immediately began experiencing the warm, hazy sensation of a concussion.
"I knew right away," Johnson said. "You get this feeling that overtakes your body, then everything slows way down to a point where you can't really focus."
Johnson said he confronted Whalen, who conceded Belichick had called for the blue jersey. When Johnson told the trainer he had just suffered another concussion, Whalen's face blanched.
"He knew they had screwed up," Johnson said. "He sent me to Mass. General right away."
Whalen was not allowed by the Patriots to comment for this story. Two players corroborated Johnson's version of what transpired. Former linebacker Roman Phifer said, "What they did to Ted was just wrong."
One other player, who remains on the Patriots roster and asked not to be identified, said, "I'm not saying what the team did is right. But if Ted thought his health was in danger, he never should have put on that blue jersey. You have to be your own advocate."
That, say experts, is easier said than done. Pressure to perform in a sport where there are no guaranteed contracts and where being "soft" is the worst moniker that can be thrust upon you creates a culture in which players feel they must play through almost anything.
Johnson was stunned. After practice, he grabbed a garbage bag, dumped all of his belongings from his locker into it, and took off.
"[Former defensive backs coach Eric Mangini] saw me leaving," Johnson said. "He asked me, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'Far from here.' "
Johnson arrived home and told his wife, Jackie, he was retiring. Belichick called and Johnson asked for his release. The coach refused.
The next morning, Johnson said, Larry Izzo and Tedy Bruschi came to his home to try to persuade him to return to the team.
"I told them what happened in August," Johnson said. "Larry said, 'Hey, I'm sorry, but c'mon, you gotta get back to practice.' Tedy was different. He said, 'That's wrong. You have a right to be upset. I support you.' "
After conferring with his agent and the Players Association, it soon became apparent to Johnson he had no recourse. The team sent him a certified letter stating if he did not return in five days, his contract would be voided. He reluctantly reported back to work, but his relationship with Belichick remained strained. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when the coach asked him to join him in his office for a meeting, that Johnson confronted him.
"I told him, 'You played God with my health,' " Johnson said. " 'You knew I shouldn't have been cleared to play, and you gave me that blue jersey anyway.'
"Bill said, 'I had to see if you could play.' That's when I lost it. I told him, 'After all these years, you had to see if I could play?'
"Bill finally admitted, 'Hey, Ted, I [expletive]. I made a mistake.' "
Belichick said he remembers the meeting with Johnson well. The two had been at odds, he said, and he hoped they could clear the air.
"It was a watershed meeting for us," Belichick said. "We had a long conversation and we both tried to see the other's position.
"I'm sure in part of that conversation I apologized for things I said or did, as he did for his actions and his emotions following his decision to leave the team. If I made a mistake or hurt Ted in any way, I don't feel good about that.
"I felt as though we left that meeting saying, 'We've both made mistakes. Let's move forward and get on a higher level.' And that's what we did.
"In fact, I remember seeing Ted in the weight room a few weeks later and him saying, 'I'm glad we had that talk. I feel a lot better about how things are.' "
Although Johnson was reinstated, the balance of the 2002 season was a challenge. He returned to action against the New York Jets in Week 2, Sept. 15, a game the Patriots won, 44-7, but he said during huge chunks of the game, he was unable to focus on his assignments, hampered by a persistent "fuzziness."
"The one touchdown the Jets scored was my fault," Johnson said. "I adjusted incorrectly. I was supposed to be the play caller, the middle linebacker, and half the time I didn't know what the hell was going on. On the very first play of the game, the tight end got open for a big gain because I vacated the spot in the zone where I was supposed to be.
"Our safety, Lawyer Milloy, was waving his arms at me, trying to direct me, but I was so confused I didn't know where to go."
There were more incidents of memory loss and confusion. His teammates, he said, often covered for him out on the field.
"I remember one game when I was in the completely wrong coverage," Johnson said. "I'm yelling to Mike Vrabel to go outside, and he's looking at me like I'm crazy. I was telling him the exact opposite of what he should have been doing."
Johnson estimates he had at least a "half-dozen" concussions in his final three seasons, but reported only one, fearing his reputation as an injury-prone player would be perpetuated.
At the beginning of each season, he said, he would brace himself for that familiar, warm sensation that he knew would come with the first hit of the spring.
"Looking back, it was stupid not to tell anyone," Johnson said. "But I didn't know then that every time you have a concussion, you are four to six times more susceptible the next time. I had no idea the damage I was causing myself."
He did not seek help until one night, while sleeping in a hotel, he woke his girlfriend up by trying to climb the wall of the room. She shouted to him and grabbed him in an effort to wake him, but he remained in his trance-like state, jumping off the bed and crashing through a nightstand.
He awoke 15 seconds later, surrounded by broken glass, his girlfriend screaming his name.
Nowinski sought treatment, then began researching athletes and concussions. He wrote a book, "Mind Games," and, after meeting Ted Johnson through a friend, commissioned the former Patriot to write the foreword. But, as Nowinski's book went to print last fall, Johnson, not ready to tell his story, abruptly yanked his foreword.
"It's difficult to watch how much Ted struggles with the aftereffects of his concussions," Nowinski said. "He can trace his troubles back to those two in a row in 2002. I can do the same with my history. It's heartbreaking how much it has cost him."
Johnson finished second on the team in tackles that 2002 season, and came back to play eight games the next season (he missed the final eight with a foot injury) and 16 games in 2004. Johnson planned on suiting up in 2005, but, he said, the thought of absorbing that first hit "made me physically sick." On the eve before training camp, he contacted owner Robert Kraft and informed him he was retiring.
"I told Mr. Kraft everything," Johnson said. "I told him about the two concussions. He was shocked. He told me I needed to do what was best for me and my family. He was incredibly supportive."
Kraft, who declined to be interviewed for this story, allowed Johnson to keep his roster bonus of $400,000. He also held a halftime ceremony in his honor.
"Robert has always cared for him," said a team official. "But Ted Johnson is a very sick young man. We've been aware of the emotional issues he's had for years. You can't blame all of his behavior on concussions."
That, said Cantu, is open to debate. Head trauma can alter people's personalities drastically, he said. So can the stress of such a nebulous condition.
Last July 16, Weston police were called to the Johnson home and arrested both Ted and his wife for assault and battery. Jackie told police she and her husband argued, then Ted grabbed her wrist, twisted it behind her back, and repeatedly pushed her head into a bookcase. She later recanted her comments in an emotional television interview. Ted and Jackie Johnson divorced last fall.
He wants the NFL to establish specific rules about how and when teams should hold out players with head trauma. Cantu said the NFL should fund studies on concussions, but then leave the actual research to the experts.
"It's a huge, inherent conflict of interest otherwise," Cantu said.
"It's not just the New England Patriots that need to change how they do things," Johnson said. "It's the entire culture of the NFL."
Last spring, Ted Johnson, who missed football and his teammates, was invited to play in a Patriots charity golf tournament. He happily accepted, and agreed to emcee the program that would follow.
On the day of the event, Johnson was a no-show. Repeated phone calls to his home and his cellphone went unanswered.
Only later did the team learn what happened. It was one of those dark, dark days when Ted Johnson simply could not drag himself out of bed.
Jackie MacMullan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson in Friday's Sports section gave an incorrect title for a book written by former professional wrestler Chris Nowinski. The book is titled "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis.")