This is a simple story about a man you probably didn’t know.
It’s not the kind of story that will draw great page views. It’s not about a college football championship game. It’s not power rankings or gossip about who will coach what team next.
It’s a story about a former NFL player named Charles Johnson. As you watch the playoffs starting this weekend and eventually the Super Bowl, you will see hundreds of players like him. Players who aren’t the stars but are still the lifeblood of the sport. They aren’t always noticed (unless something goes wrong). Their jerseys aren’t sold by the millions. They practice hard, play hard and go home, only to do it again and again and again. Then their careers are over and we mostly forget about them.
That’s what happened to Johnson. He was a star receiver at the University of Colorado, but in the NFL he was a solid player for four teams from 1994-2003. Johnson, like many other players before him and since, was mostly invisible in his post-playing career.
Quietly, amid a flurry of huge sports headlines over the past 48 hours, this ruling about Johnson’s death has gone almost unnoticed. But I don’t want that. I don’t want him to just disappear into the night.
Not because I knew him well (I didn’t) but because I think, occasionally, as we watch and love the NFL, we need to use moments like these to remember that football, while beautiful and graceful, is also brutal and highly destructive to the body and mind.
Then, after the game is over, some players realize there’s not much else they can do outside of football, and that takes an additional toll on their mental health. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young this week told the ‘Let’s Go!’ podcast with Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald and Jim Gray that the day after retiring, ‘you’re at the bottom of a cliff in a broken sack of bones.’
It would be unfair to draw a direct correlation between football and Johnson taking his own life. It is, however, accurate to say that football severely damaged his physical body, and based on the science, it’s safe to say it perhaps did damage to his mind, too.
“In the previous week, he had been acting strange and had recently purchased a funeral and cremation service,” said the medical examiner’s report, obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
A high school friend told USA TODAY Sports that Johnson said he was seeing a medical specialist to deal with issues related to head trauma from football.
The report said Johnson had “acute oxycodone, hydrocodone and mirtazapine toxicity” after his death. There’s another important fact: The report also said Johnson had paid for a hotel room, returned home, only to depart his home again leaving his wallet, cell phone, keys and vehicle at his house.
We don’t know for certain if Johnson suffered from CTE. However, as Chris Nowinski, a behavioral neuroscientist and the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, wrote recently in the New York Times, Boston University’s CTE Center study showed ‘that around 90 percent of the more than 300 N.F.L. players they have studied since 2008 have had C.T.E., a neurodegenerative disease that is linked with the development of dementia and is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries. While it is unlikely that those 300 N.F.L. players studied are representative of the total N.F.L. population, a separate analysis has suggested the minimum prevalence in N.F.L. players is 10 percent, more than 10 times what it is in the general population…’
We watch these games. We love them, and they are mostly played by men like Johnson: dutiful, hard-working and professional. You won’t see them in television ads or hosting ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Then, suddenly, their careers are over and they’re gone from the game.
That is what happened with Johnson until this tragedy.
This is a simple story about a man you probably didn’t know. Johnson was an NFL player and like so many others, deserves a moment of your time beyond what happens on the field.
Just a moment. It won’t take long.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.