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

Ted Johnson was on the ground—again. On a muggy Saturday night in August 2002, the New England Patriots were playing the New York Giants at the Meadowlands in a meaningless preseason game. One of the Giants' running backs, Sean Bennett, caught a ball in the flat, and Johnson did what he'd done a thousand times before: He charged, then lunged. His helmet hit Bennett's thigh, taking him down. Everything went foggy after that. Almost immediately, trainers diagnosed Johnson with a concussion.

But four days later, Johnson returned to the Patriots' training camp. He had something to prove that summer: A few months earlier, the Patriots, his second family, had offered him to the Houston Texans. After the Texans passed, Johnson threatened to hold out. Instead, he decided to take a pay cut to stay with New England—then learned, when he arrived at summer camp, that he had lost his starting slot. All of which explained the brutal hit on Bennett in the exhibition game: Johnson wanted to show the team that he still had it, that he was still ready to sacrifice for the team.

The team, however, appeared ready to sacrifice Johnson. A few days after Johnson had his brain scrambled, coach Bill Belichick had the linebacker in full-contact practice drills. On his first play back, Johnson hit a fullback. His head snapped back, and a sensation cascaded from the top of his skull to the bottom of his toes. Its warmth was comforting and sickening, like a blanket of fire. Johnson's mind slowed; he felt woozy. It was his second concussion in less than a week. Despite lingering grogginess that season, Johnson slowly worked his way back and finished second on the team in tackles.

But Johnson continued to be lethargic, dizzy, and confused, and by the time the 2004 season began, he had started taking Adderall, which is usually prescribed for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and patients with narcolepsy. Adderall countered the lingering effects of the concussions; it quieted Johnson's mind and allowed him to focus on subtle offensive shifts, to direct the human traffic flashing before his eyes. Johnson ripped off one of his most productive seasons, starting 15 games and finishing third on the team in tackles. The Patriots won their third Super Bowl, beating the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21.

A few months later, in the spring of 2005, Johnson was driving to a movie. In the quiet of the vehicle, Johnson thought about the upcoming training camp. He remembered the warm sensation that accompanied the concussions, and how that first tackle in practice surely would bring the feeling. The idea of another hit sickened him. Johnson turned to his wife, Jackie, whom he'd met a few years earlier at a party, and said, simply: "I'm done."

Ted Johnson Jr. was born in 1972, the only son of Ted Senior and Patrice Johnson, a striking brunette who'd grown up poor in Iowa and was on her fourth marriage. As a boy in Houston, Ted Junior used to watch Oilers games at the old Astrodome, while his father, Ted Senior, extolled the virtues of Earl Campbell, the Oilers' star running back. Father and son marveled at Campbell's power and skill, the way he'd run up on a guy and mow him down, like he was a linebacker playing offense. Ted Senior liked to watch the runs. Ted Junior liked to watch Campbell limp back to the huddle and smash someone in the face on the next play.

Johnson's half sister, Elyse, was 13 years older and moved out when she went to college (she eventually became an Oilers cheerleader). In 1979, Patrice and Ted Senior divorced. Mom kept the house and took six-year-old Junior.

Patrice and Ted moved around for the next few years, first to Iowa, then to Carlsbad, California, and finally settled in Vista, California, where they lived in a tract-style house not far from the beach.

For much of her life, Johnson's mom did not have a regular job, though she flipped houses for a time while living in Southern California. Slim, six feet tall, and beautiful, she instead relied on the men who bought her clothes and jewelry. The men visited often and sometimes stayed the night. When they didn't, sometimes she disappeared to faraway places, one time Las Vegas, the next some exotic island. Ted was shuttled to friends' homes, to couches and bedroom floors, where he lay awake at night, worried about whether his mother was going to pick him up the next morning. "Ted had a beautiful home, he had food, he had everything," Patrice told me. "Do I wish things would have been different? Yes, some things."

If a rift had developed in Johnson's relationship with his mother, he also reaped the benefits of being related to her. He'd inherited the size of his maternal grandfather—a 6-foot-4, 350-pound bear of a man—and his mother's All-American looks. One night in 1984, one of Patrice Johnson's friends, a football coach, was at the house and called Ted to his side. He put his hands around the kid's wrists. Had the boy ever considered playing football?

Johnson joined the Carlsbad High School team that fall as a tight end. At a time when most boys were getting their first razors, Johnson was 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. He dreamed of leaving his mother's house and over the years made local weight rooms his second home. "The process of building his body was an escape," his sister Elyse says now. "He could focus on something else. He worked hard to make his way out."

Former Colorado head coach Bill McCartney, whose recruiters first saw Johnson in 1990, saw him as the total package. "Looking at him, you could see that he was going to grow into his size," McCartney says. "I mean, in regular clothes he looked like a football player." Four schools—including CU—sent recruiters to the Johnson home. Colorado offered Johnson a scholarship, and he accepted immediately. Less than a month later, CU won its first football national championship. Now emboldened and with a destination, he graduated high school, moved out of his mother's house, and headed to Boulder.

"I was pretty overwhelmed," Johnson says of his arrival at college. Even when he blew up a runner, smashed a tight end coming through the middle, Johnson lamented that he had been too slow, that his technique was off, that anyone could have made the same play. "Nothing was ever good enough. Ted was emotionally damaged from the relationship he had with his mother," says Johnson's former linebacker coach, Brian Cabral. "In my coaching career, he's probably the most insecure player I've ever met."

Johnson, however, would find his calling in fall practices with "stun and separate," a technique that Cabral had mastered while winning a Super Bowl with Chicago in the mid-1980s. Under Cabral's tutelage, Johnson learned to drop larger offensive players with a single hit: forehead to the chinstrap, grab the breastplate of the shoulder pads and shove, a viciously lethal movement that cleared the way into the backfield.

The technique opened Johnson's world. "He was a beast," Cabral said one afternoon this past winter in an office overlooking the Folsom Field turf. On Cabral's wall were photos of his former linebackers, guys who'd won national awards, who went onto glory on fields in Detroit and Oakland and Foxboro, Massachusetts. He leaned back in his chair. "It was like he was created to do that one thing," he told me. "You know—" Cabral suddenly stopped, and the room went silent. For nearly a minute, Cabral had a pained look on his face. "You know," he said in a small voice, his right index finger pressed to his lips, "sometimes I wonder if [stun and separate] isn't to blame for this mess. I wonder sometimes if I didn't help do this to him."