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

After he retired from the NFL, Johnson still felt dizzy and fatigued. His short-term memory was shot. He continued to take Adderall. If, during his pro days, he had been using the drug to get up for the next play, he now was abusing it to get up in the morning. Johnson visited five different doctors, making sure the symptoms he described to them closely matched those of ADHD. Each prescribed Adderall as a remedy. "I became a pretty effective liar," Johnson recalls. "I just had to remember what story I told to what doctor; who was giving me 50 milligrams, who was giving me 75. As long as I kept the stories straight...." At one point, his now ex-wife, Jackie, remembers, Johnson consumed a month's worth of pills in two days.

He got a job as a football analyst at a local television station shortly after his retirement, but he had to quit because the lights were too bright and gave him headaches and made him feel dizzy. Worried that his addiction had gotten out of control, in 2005 Johnson checked himself into the first of three rehabilitation centers, where he planned to kick the pills and get answers to the headaches and lethargy that were plaguing him. Treatments, including 12-step addiction programs, and diagnostics, such as an inconclusive brain scan, failed, leaving Johnson feeling depressed and agitated.

In February 2006, Johnson entered McLean Hospital, 10 miles west of Boston. For two weeks, Johnson shuffled from one darkened room to another and met a host of doctors and therapists each day, but, still, he didn't get any answers.

A few months after leaving McLean, Johnson and his wife argued about the prescriptions he was taking. According to police records, Johnson twisted Jackie's arm behind her back and pushed her into a bookcase. She fought back, punching and scratching him. She called the cops, who showed up at the couple's home. The two were arrested, but the charges were dropped when the pair declined to testify against each other.

Regardless of the legal outcome, the damage was done. The pair divorced late in 2006; Jackie took the kids—their oldest, Samantha, was two; their son, Charlie, was less than a year old—and Johnson moved into the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Boston. There, in the darkness of his room, he continued abusing Adderall and briefly used Ecstasy, which he purchased from strangers who immediately recognized him on the street. "I didn't hide who I was," Johnson recalls. "I just didn't care."

Johnson blamed his life's ugly turn on his head injuries, but his closest friends weren't totally buying the story. "There's fallout from his years of playing and the injury, but there became a cloudy area of how much of that was because of the misuse of drugs," his friend Barry Kolano says. "Ted knew and led us to believe it was all from the head injuries. I think he was being dishonest with himself and to us that he needed [the drugs] because of how badly he felt. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Eventually, even Johnson grew tired of the game. He hired his friend Barbara Rizzo to help organize his life, and he planned to detox alone. "For a few months, I was ordering room service three times a day," Johnson recalls. "I wondered what those guys answering the phone thought about me. I was pathetic." Rizzo checked phone messages, returned calls to Johnson's friends and family, and kept in contact with lawyers who were finalizing his divorce. When Johnson didn't answer his door, she'd use a master key, rush to the bedroom, and make sure he was still breathing.

In April 2006, Johnson met Chris Nowinski, a then 27-year-old Harvard-educated former college football player and professional wrestler whose career had been cut short by concussions. Nowinski made fast friends with Johnson, in part because of their shared fear of what the future might bring. In the darkness of his room, Johnson confided to Nowinski his worries about dying young, about not knowing his kids' faces as he grew older, of living alone, drugged and depressed. Nowinski, who had found something of a mental clearing—a respite from the same worries that consumed him—consoled Johnson. Neurologists, Nowinski said, helped diagnose his own concussion problems. Nowinski now wanted the same relief for his friend, and he recommended several doctors.

One of them, Dr. Robert Cantu, the chief of neurosurgery and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, ran film of Johnson's brain. After years of questions, Cantu's work seemed definitive—and frightening. Johnson, the doctor said, had suffered several concussions at the end of his career that grew so devastating in severity that Johnson now had post-concussion syndrome and showed signs of early brain damage that might be permanent. Johnson's symptoms, the doctor told him, were so relentless that by his 50s Johnson could have severe Alzheimer's.

The diagnosis was both liberating and terrifying. Johnson was referred to Dr. Heechin Chae, who eventually directed his patient to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Johnson wasn't prepared for what he was about to see. Inside Spaulding, the walls, the floors, everything in the clinic was dull and white and made him uneasy. Some rooms smelled like urine and feces. Most of the patients wore gowns, but Johnson did not. Even if the doctors didn't consider him normal, he at least wanted to look the part. Patients mumbled to themselves in the hallway; one man wore a bicycle helmet. Johnson's roommate was a Marine who'd had an RPG explode next to his head while he was on a mission in Iraq. The man didn't talk and had forgotten how to walk.

Johnson was embarrassed. He was nothing like these guys. Their minds had been wrecked in battle, in car crashes, in things that were far beyond their control. He was just a football player who'd taken too many hits to the head.

Before he began his therapy, Johnson's first task was to run on a treadmill until he became exhausted. The former world-class athlete lasted two minutes.

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