25 April 2013
Brad Johnson paying physical price for long NFL career
Story originally appeared on USA Today.
Brad Johnson took countless hits in a long NFL career, and says he never thought about the physical toll on his body -- but now, at age 44, he deals with it every day
ATHENS, Ga. -- Brad Johnson's plan for this April day is a light one — tutor a young quarterback on throwing mechanics in the afternoon, have dinner with his family in the evening.
But first he has to get out of bed and down the stairs of his home. It's the hardest part of his day, every day.
"I go down one step at a time with two feet. One step. One step. One step," the 44-year-old former NFL quarterback says. "My 73-year-old dad was visiting and I told my son to help him get his suitcases up the steps. He walks slow and he's got a bad knee. He starts walking and my son turns to me and he says, 'Dad, he walks just like you.'
"I never thought it would be like this."
Retired since 2008, Johnson says he's happier today — mentoring young quarterbacks and coaching his sons in football and basketball — than he was during his 17 seasons in the NFL. He won a Super Bowl and made enough money to spend most of his time with his family — wife, Nikki, and their sons, ages 10 and 12.
But it all came with a price, one that more than 200 rookies will begin to face this summer after this week's NFL draft.
Johnson's advice: "You've got to do the work. You've got to put in the time. Otherwise, you'll be passed by somebody that's better than you. If you can play, you play."
And the pain? "You live with it."
For Nikki, it's hard to witness. "I hate it for him. ... I think about what it will be like 10, 20 years from now," she says.
'Give your body to the game'
In the fall of 1997, Johnson began to feel a crick in his neck, he says.
In his second-to-last season with the Minnesota Vikings, Johnson was sent on a few quarterback sneaks in short-yardage situations in losses to the Detroit Lions and New York Jets. Over time, his neck stiffened up.
When it was time to drive to the stadium for a Monday night game vs. the Green Bay Packers, Johnson realized he couldn't safely operate a car. He asked his mother to take him.
"My neck was hurting but I didn't understand what was going on," he says.
Early in the game, Johnson attempted a pass to wide-open Cris Carter, streaking 30 yards down the seam. Johnson's lame-duck throw fell woefully short.
"I knew something was wrong but I couldn't explain it," he says. "I was in the huddle thinking, 'I don't know if I can throw a screen pass.' "
Johnson was pulled in the third quarter after fumbling twice. A grip test later revealed he had 9% strength in his right hand. He couldn't even palm a football.
He had surgery the next day to correct nerve damage between the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his spine. Carter, now an analyst for ESPN, remembers thinking of Johnson as a warrior, not unlike most of the quarterbacks he played with in his 16 NFL seasons.
"He was doing his absolute best to stay in the game," Carter says. "That's the nature of being in the NFL and the nature of playing that position. You have to be super mentally tough and you have to be a leader: Guys are watching. He was doing what was expected of us."
Today, when Johnson bowls with neighborhood friends or works out quarterbacks at local schools, his right hand will shake from fatigue, a consequence of that 1997 surgery.
"Deacon Jones said you have to give your body to the game," Johnson says. "You look at him and his fingers are crooked. His eyes are probably crooked, too. But he's right — you have to give your body."
Coaching as an outlet
The incoming high school freshman waits, football in hand, as Johnson wobbles to a spot near the 10-yard line at Prince Avenue Christian School in Bogart, Ga.
The right-handed quarterback has thrown a pass over the middle while rolling to his left. It's a football no-no. Bow-legged, pigeon-toed and teetering like a stack of bricks, Johnson leans in.
"You start throwing across the grain like this, you're going to start throwing interceptions," he says. "I do it. You'll do it. Aaron Rodgers will do it.
"You ever see those signs, 'Beware the dog?' There's a dog over here, and he's going to make that interception."
Johnson spends most of his days here, coaching individuals and teams on the football field, or basketball teams in the gym. When he's not working with kids, he hosts ping-pong and air hockey tournaments for friends. Winner takes a homemade championship belt.
When he retired after the 2008 season following two years as a backup with the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson sat around for a week wondering what he was going to do with his life. He soon discovered coaching.
"He's plugged in all over the place," says Richard Ricketts, the athletics director at Prince Avenue. "He lives on competition. He's always got something going."
Ricketts says he jokes with Johnson when he labors up a set of stairs on campus or steps onto a school bus. And despite the evidence of the game's toll, he doesn't know Brad or Nikki to have qualms about Max and Jake playing football.
"Her family's all football through and through, too," Ricketts says. "She's been around it her whole life."
But for Nikki, the sister of Georgia football coach Mark Richt and a former physical therapist who often nursed Brad's injuries, it can be hard to watch the boys play, knowing what the game did to their father.
She says football is so much faster now, at all levels, than when Brad played.
"But I would never want to discourage them from doing something they would love," she says. "You want your child to follow their dreams and you want to give them as much wisdom as you can about it, and make their own decisions."
Heavy painkiller use
Johnson's pain could be classified as chronic as early as 2002, when he says he started receiving injections of the painkiller Toradol before games.
Commonly used in operating rooms, Toradol is a non-narcotic approved by the FDA in 1989. The drug is not physically addictive, but it was the subject of a lawsuit filed in 2011 in which a group of players said NFL teams inappropriately administered the drug en masse before games while neglecting to tell players it could mask their ability to self-assess injuries, such as concussions.
Johnson says he needed the drug to numb pain from tendonitis in his throwing elbow and shoulder, as well as three major injuries.
In 1998, during the second game of his final season in Minnesota, a second-half play was whistled dead for a pre-snap penalty. The offensive line heard the whistle over the raucous dome crowd. The defensive line did not. One rusher hit Johnson high, the other low, breaking his right ankle.
In 1999, Johnson had surgery to correct microfractures in his left knee. Two months later, doctors went back in to correct the problem. That summer with the Washington Redskins, he needed to wear three rubber knee braces on top of one another "to get any kind of push," he says.
In the 14th game of the 2002 season vs. the Lions, Johnson scrambled for a few extra yards on third and 10, hoping to set up a game-winning field goal. Detroit defensive tackle Shaun Rogers -- all 320 pounds of him -- caught Johnson 3 yards downfield and fell firmly on top of him, cracking the transverse processes in his vertebra.
A few months after the injury against the Lions, Johnson led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers past the Oakland Raiders for a Super Bowl victory, a first and only for Johnson and the franchise.
Over the next six seasons, with three teams, he continued to receive pregame Toradol shots, Johnson says.
"I didn't think I could play without it," he says. "It wasn't an addiction — I don't even take Advil now. It was like, 'I'm so sore, I don't know if I can actually play.' I felt like I had to have it to play."
Nikki says she never thought to stop him from playing hurt: "I would never say anything like that. I knew that Brad knew how much his body could take."
In contrast with what the lawsuit alleges, Johnson says players in his locker rooms weren't lined up to take the shots. But a teammate, former Bucs offensive lineman Roman Oben, now retired at 40, said half of the starters were taking Toradol shots, including himself.
"We all took shots before games," Oben says. "We were an older team. We did what we had to do to win. We don't want anybody to feel sorry for us. We signed up for it."
Johnson and Oben didn't join any related lawsuits against the NFL. As more than 2,000 players fight a court battle with the league over head injuries, Johnson says he has never had a concussion, but he describes scenarios that say otherwise.
"Now I might have a play where I ask the running back which way he turns to get the ball, and he'd remind me. But I'd get it back. You get knocked, but I wasn't like, 'I've got to get out of the game.' "
Oben says it's unlikely Johnson went all those years without a concussion.
"If you get hit and you hit your head on the turf and you get up because that's what you've been doing since you were a kid and you don't want the next guy to take your job, that's how you deal with it," Oben says. "He's a football player who happens to be a quarterback. I've blocked for Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers and some other great QBs, and as a leader and a quarterback and a competitor, Brad's my favorite.
"This is a tough guy who could step into the huddle and you knew things were going to work out."
'I never thought about it'
After retiring, Johnson sought and earned Line of Duty disability payments from the NFL, provided when a player suffers "substantial disablement arising out of NFL football activities."
He is also is one of many former NFL players seeking worker's compensation payments in California, which has allowed pro athletes from non-California teams to seek such benefits from their employers. A bill written by Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno would exclude athletes from out-of-state teams.
Down the road, Johnson could get up to $5,250 toward the cost of a joint replacement surgery.
When he retired after the 2008 season, Johnson was due five years of health insurance paid for by the NFL. After that, the NFL benefit ends unless Johnson develops a neuro-cognitive disease or an ailment that precludes him from being employed. In 2006, the league established health reimbursement accounts, funded at $25,000 per year of service for players who qualify, and offers other financial support through the Player Care Foundation.
Johnson says the league has made strides in protecting player health, but he would like to see the NFL provide health insurance for life for its 18,000-plus former players.
And if not for all of them, for the future retirees playing right now.
"A lot of it to me is about the years of service, how much wear and tear they actually took and injuries that have happened," he says. "I know how I feel now every day that I wake up. I wish there was health insurance depending on years of service.
"I do think the league has done a better job as far as providing better benefits. I don't know if they can backtrack for all the guys who played. But for the future players, I wish they would extend those benefits."
He looks at former Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who had both knees replaced at 50, and knows the same is likely in his future. Johnson has a pronounced limp, due to the microfractures in his left knee that caused him to put added pressure on his right knee.
"I know (knee replacement) is coming," he says. "I never thought about it until now. When I played, I never thought I would need anything like that."