Ted Johnson’s Choice to Speak Out on NFL Concussions Turned Him Into a Pariah, Until It Turned Out He Was Right
Amid the sunshine and rainbows of a $9 billion annual revenue stream, the clouds of litigation hover somewhat menacingly over the NFL.
On a judge's desk in Pennsylvania sits the lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly 5,000 former NFL players who suffered concussions while playing and who continue to suffer some form of post-concussion distress in retirement. The judge, Anita Brody, is in the process of determining an appropriate settlement amount, having deemed the initial number of $765 million insufficient to compensate the plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, in a court in California, just a few weeks ago, several hundred former NFL players filed a separate lawsuit claiming that the league illegally gave them narcotics and other painkillers during their playing days in order to get them back on the field sooner.
At the heart of both lawsuits is the contention that the league and its doctors knew about the traumatic, potentially deadly side effects of concussions and painkillers but withheld that information from the players in order to protect the owners' multibillion-dollar golden goose.
Embedded in both lawsuits is an army of players, to varying degrees chewed up and spit out by a game they love but steady in their resolve to receive compensation and justice for unwittingly donating their brains and bodies to their chosen vocation.
The players in 2014 have strength in numbers.
In 2007, though, Ted Johnson was an army of one.
From 1995 through 2005, Johnson was a middle linebacker for a New England Patriots defense that went to four Super Bowls, winning three. A 6-foot-4, 250-pound beast, Johnson was a Patriots fan favorite, largely because he was adept at pulverizing opposing ball carriers, racking up 757 career tackles.
Johnson spent the final three seasons of his career battling dozens of concussions, a constant wave of skull-rattling brain trauma that would be the eventual reason he would retire in the spring of 2005, the day before the start of training camp.
At the time of his retirement, Johnson only knew that he was suffering, but didn't know exactly from what. "I didn't really know anything about post-concussion syndrome; I just knew I'd been suffering from multiple concussions and something wasn't right," he recounts.
It wasn't until more than a year after Johnson retired that he learned about the serious, long-term cognitive effect of concussions. It was also about that time that Johnson met Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler who has been a major player in concussion awareness and research.
It was Nowinski who would share an article with Johnson that would change his world forever.
"There was a safety for the [Philadelphia] Eagles named Andre Waters who had suffered over a dozen concussions in his career, and he had committed suicide in 2006. Chris [Nowinski] shared an article about Waters's suicide with me," Johnson recalls.
Research had shown that Waters's brain was so damaged from playing football that he would have been totally incapacitated had he lived another 15 years.
"At that point," Johnson says, "I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't tell people my story. People needed to know how concussions were being mishandled."
Johnson's story, which would be told in an explosive 2007 piece in The New York Times, would rock a football world in which concussions were still placed by most fans alongside conventional injuries like pulled hamstrings and sprained knee ligaments.
Johnson told the Times that in August of 2002, in the first game of the preseason, he suffered a concussion making a tackle against the New York Giants. Just four days later, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pressured Johnson into participating in a full-contact drill in practice, and he immediately suffered another concussion.
"After getting the concussion in the first preseason game, they had me in a red jersey in practice, which meant I was off limits for contact. Out of nowhere, a trainer brings me a blue jersey, which means I'm live," he remembers.
"I knew I shouldn't be hitting, but I was afraid if I didn't get in there and hit, maybe I'd get cut. So I got in there, our offense ran a play up the middle and the fullback blew me up. I had a concussion again. From then on, I never felt right."
To hear Johnson talk about the next three seasons is to feel the pain he endured. In what became an inhuman and dangerous tradition, the first big hit each season would concuss him. There would be weeks where he'd suffer multiple concussions.
Johnson would tell the Times of the failure of the Patriots training staff to protect him, which was exceeded only by Bill Belichick's abuse of his power.
The fallout from the Times article was swift and jarring for Johnson.
Patriots fans, armed with blind love for their team and virtually no knowledge of exactly how concussions destroy brain cells, saw Ted Johnson as a turncoat, a football Judas who had just whacked Bill Belichick over the head with a steel chair.
For the next month, ostracized by New England and paralyzed by depression, Johnson didn't leave his apartment. He ordered pizza multiple times a day, developed an amphetamine addiction and listened to sports-talk radio, where he was able to hear the myriad ways that Patriots fans wanted to physically torture him because of the Times interview.
"When I gave that interview about how the Patriots mishandled my concussions, I knew I was putting my legacy and everything on the line," Johnson says. "I burned a lot of bridges doing that."
Alone, depressed, divorced, concussed. For Ted Johnson, that was the bad time.
Sadly, there is a list of concussed former NFL players who reach this fork in the road and choose tragedy. Thankfully, Ted Johnson was not one of them. He spent time in rehabilitation, rededicated himself to physical conditioning and moved to Houston, where today he co-hosts a talk show with me on SportsRadio 610.
Johnson is very open about the ups and downs of his life in and after NFL football, so much so that the Houston Texans had him share his story with their entire class of rookies on June 3. Indeed, though once he was an NFL pariah, Johnson's story has now made him an honored guest.
Looking back, despite the dark places it dragged him, Johnson knows his New York Times interview in 2007 was a huge turning point for the league in concussion awareness. It pulled the curtain back on the culture of concealment and abuse throughout the league. "The story came out the Friday before the Super Bowl, which helped maximize the impact," Johnson recalls. "I feel like I played a big role in where we are now with all of this."
And where we are now is a much safer game, according to Johnson.
"It's like night and day from when I played. We now have mandatory baseline testing for concussions with all 32 teams. That's huge. Every team has a neurologist on the sideline. That's also huge," he says.
"Most of all, players are just better informed. Nobody is going to force a player with a concussion back onto the field. What happened to me won't happen to somebody else, and that's what I wanted when I did that New York Times interview."
When Ted Johnson exposed the Patriots' negligence in 2007, fans called him a traitor. In part because of Johnson's forthrightness helping to pave the way, former players doing exactly the same thing in 2014 are called plaintiffs.
"I see where we are now, how much safer the game is, so I would definitely still do the interview again," confirms Johnson.
"I sleep well at night."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.