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

On a sunny fall morning, two months after he left Spaulding, Johnson and I walked to the Suffolk University campus in Boston where Johnson had an appointment with a career coach/assistant professor. Johnson had had his prescriptions taken away by his doctors and—at the urging of his therapist—had set out to find a job that would give him a reason to get up in the morning. The search was remarkably easy: Johnson had offers to do everything from working for insurance companies to playing golf with high rollers. The only thing that appealed to him was teaching; a friend who taught at Suffolk suggested to the dean that Johnson teach a course on sports crisis management.

As we walked, Johnson seemed nervous. He was dressed in slacks, a white dress shirt, a red tie, and a blue blazer, with the collar unintentionally flipped up in the back. Sweat poured down his face. "Bro, I'm dying here," he told me. We stopped, and he pulled out his wallet. There, from behind his driver's license, he removed a creased index card. He read it quietly. "Number one, go slow. Number two, get the gist. Number three, check your work. Number four, make necessary changes."

Johnson's Spaulding therapist recommended that he keep the card with him at all times, lest he inadvertently sabotage his progress. Two months out of rehab, he'd embraced the changes in his life with the spirit he once used to study his playbook.

"I even have a mission statement," Johnson told me. "My therapist said I needed one. Wanna hear it?" Johnson took a deep breath: "To be a devoted warrior whose love for his family is unmatched and who strives for authenticity at all costs, with the hopes that in my final act I can look back to say I've had a life well-lived." With that, he patted my back. "For me, bro, that's powerful." The word lingered in the morning air.

Inside one of the brick buildings on the campus, the career coach met us as we got off the elevator and ushered us into a room where another assistant professor was seated at a desk. She was short with graying hair; Red Sox and Patriots pennants hung from the walls.

"You look familiah," the woman said in a thick Boston accent.

"This gentleman is Ted Johnson," the career coach said. "He played for the Patriots."

The woman jumped from her chair. "Oh my gawd! I knew it was you!" She charged, open-armed, toward Johnson. The embrace knocked him backward.

"My sistah was the biggest Pats fan in the world," she said.

"That's great," Johnson said, smiling.

"She was diagnosed with cancer the year before your first Super Bowl win; boy she woulda loved to see that. And you know what? That Super Bowl parade was on the first anniversary that she died. I just know she was smiling that day. Boy, she woulda loved to meet you."

The woman opened her arms again and embraced the linebacker.

"This isn't from me," the woman said. "This is from my sistah."

Johnson gathered the woman in his arms. He turned and wiped away a tear.

Back at his townhome later that afternoon, Johnson hung up his jacket and said he needed a nap. "All that work has my head spinning, bro."

The door opened to a small foyer, and beyond that to a family room and a kitchen with granite counters and a stainless-steel refrigerator. A tin Kokopelli swung a golf club from a windowsill; there was a glass coffee table with sports books, and the walls were lined with dozens of remnants from Johnson's playing career—photographs, footballs, and helmets, one of which was chipped and dented across the reinforced forehead, like a worm had chewed its way through the plastic.

Before he went to his room upstairs, he sat in his leather chair and turned on the television. He pushed some buttons on his remote, and in a few seconds there was Ted Johnson, number 52, taking down running backs and smashing quarterbacks in their ribs. A smile washed across his face. It was a tribute video the Patriots had played on the jumbo screen a few months after Johnson retired.

He settled in. "When I was lying around the house, I'd put this on so I could remember who I used to be. I know that guy is in here somewhere," Johnson said, pointing to his heart. He studied his old self on the screen, breaking through offensive lines and making tackle after tackle. Television Ted blasts a running back—a face full of Johnson's forehead under the chin. "That's what fucked me up," he told me. Johnson watched the hits, staring at the television. The smile evaporated.

In that moment, he was looking back but found himself again faced with his future, with the creeping uncertainty of a life and a mind that had veered terribly off-track. Regardless of his work, his improvements, and the friends who stuck with him, there is a fear—a gripping, stomach-twisting agony—that one day he will not recognize those people, and, maybe even more devastating, that he won't remember the man he now sees on his television screen.

Johnson paused the video. He sat forward, his shoulders square. He pushed play and watched the hit. Each time he unfreezed the video, he'd say, "Boom."

Another running back entered the screen. Johnson paused again before the hit. "Boom." He started and stopped the video for several minutes, again and again and again. "Boom," he said.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

Robert Sanchez is 5280's staff writer. E-mail him at [email protected].

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