Feature

This is Ted Johnson's Brain

A former star at the University of Colorado and celebrated NFL linebacker gave himself to football—only to find at the end of his career that he'd lost his mind. Now, at age 36, he's trying to put the pieces of his broken life back together.

August 2009

This article was selected for inclusion in the Best American Sports Writing 2010 anthology.

 

Ted Johnson is flat on the turf of Boulder's Folsom Field.

From a bleacher seat on the 35-yard line, Ted Johnson Sr. had seen his son run headlong into a University of Miami running back on that warm, fall afternoon in 1993 and disappear into a tangle of pads and helmets as Johnson's University of Colorado teammates piled on. Now, Ted Senior strains his eyes and waits for his namesake to pop back up. Where are you, Junior? Ted Senior repeats quietly to himself. C'mon, Junior. C'mon.

The players peel themselves off the heap slowly, pulling their bodies, one by one, off the green turf, until they are all standing—every one of them, except number 46.

Johnson's CU teammates have formed a protective barrier by the time a trainer arrives at the linebacker's side. The man kneels down and looks closely at Johnson's face: his boyish, upturned nose and strong, fierce features. Johnson is unconscious, but he's hardly still, and the man almost instantly realizes that he's choking on something. The trainer opens Johnson's mouth and pulls his tongue from his throat.

In all the football games Johnson had played—from high school up to this point as a junior at CU—never once did he need to be carried off the field. It was a simple, almost trivial, fact, but one from which Johnson derived a great deal of pride. While others fell and rolled on the field in pain, Johnson always got up, went back to the huddle, and prepared for his next hit. Not this time, not today.

As he cranes his neck to get a better view of the field, Ted Senior sees, finally, that his son is sitting up, then standing, then is helped off the field. He looks sick, glassy-eyed, empty. Players clear a path to the bench where Johnson sits, face in his hands.

All at once, the stadium sounds began to crystallize in the young man's head: the roaring crowd, the barking coaches, and a voice calling to him from the railing above the Buffaloes bench.

"Junior! Junior!" his father yells. "Are you OK?"

Johnson turns his head and tries to focus his eyes. His face is long and worn.

"Yeah, Dad," he says. "I'm OK."

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