- Friends & Family
Submitted by: Susanne Johnson
My early childhood was dominated by fears and insecurities. I often had a fear of my father and didn’t understand what it was all about. My mom made me wear my PE clothing for school underneath my regular clothing because I had marks all over my body, and she didn’t want me to change clothing in front of others. He used what was closest: a shovel, a dog chain, anything, to beat me. I didn’t understand it at the time.
All my friends said, “You have the best dad in the world!” I struggled with that. It was as if I loved him and hated him at the same time. There was never any type of closeness between us. He expected me to be perfect, and I tried so hard.
Athletics became my outlet in life. I struggled in the classroom. I was held back one year and classmates called me stupid. My response was, “Stupid? Let’s go in the arena!” It didn’t matter what kind of ball you put in my hand, what bat, hockey stick, or other item. I was good enough to beat you and proud enough to tell you that I could. That’s the kind of competitor I used to be. When I look at it today, I see that my early-onset fear drove me into that area of life, because it was not dealt with in any other area of life.
Sometime during middle school, I found myself with three friends and a 12-pack of beer for the first time. I experienced the perfect feeling. I could still walk and talk, I could face my parents without fear, and I felt great. The alcohol took something away from me and made me feel like I was someone I was supposed to be. In essence, when I look back today, I was lost. I had no idea who I was. I didn’t like who I was. I think my parents didn’t like who I was.
I entered high school and more of the same things happened. I performed poorly in school, but did well in sports. I was not interested in my grades, until one day, it struck me that if I had any aspiration in sports whatsoever, I had to do the classroom part as well. I began to walk that fine line. I went out with friends, enjoyed my sports and made it as the average C-student. At least I was passing.
It all started going downhill in college. Once my parents were not around anymore, I was alone and by myself and I wanted to continuously drink and drown myself. Then, I knew it was a problem. I was living with three offensive linemen as roommates, all big guys (put together, they were about 1000 lbs.) and I outdrank all of them until they were passed out on the ground. It hit me in the stomach when those guys told me I had a problem. I got mad.
I did make it through college and I don’t know how. My school had 36K students and at that time, it had a 13:1 ratio girls to guys. We were known for our big parties and I was happy to be part of them, and as many of them as I could. Sundays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, no excuse, there was always a party.
Being a football player with a full scholarship playing for the university was a huge blessing. But I took all my fear with me. I don’t know if I thought I could carry that clout around forever, or if it would kill me at that point. We won three games in four years. If you don’t know anything about sports, let me tell you: That’s not good! I was a punter. And the more times a punter is on the field, that’s not good either. For a usual punter, it’s okay to sit at the side, drink Gatorade and enter the field about three times a game. During my college time, I averaged 8.7 punts a game. Let me tell you again: That’s not good. Not many people showed up. And if you hear your dad’s voice right after the referee blows the whistle to get going, saying “Let’s go, Ken,” in a college game, that’s not good either.
So far, my life sounds like it was pretty manageable, right? Many of my roommates took drugs and smoked weed, a substance that just made me fall asleep. I had no further interest in drugs during those years. It was just the alcohol, and so far I was able to manage it well.
On December 26, 1997, I decided to move myself to Reno, Nevada from Ohio. I have no idea what drove me to that decision; I just did it. Once I was there, the loneliness hit. I was discontent, but there was nobody that could tell me I would not make it to the NFL. I got evicted from the hotel because I wasn’t gambling, so I stayed in my car in a nice shaded spot in a parking deck. I was sleeping in the back of my car, drinking every single night. Someone stole my antenna, so I did not even have a radio. I met others who lived like me; we got boxes as night stands and air mattresses.
I entered training again and the first successes in training made me slow down the drinking. One day, I packed my car and was ready to head back to Cleveland, Ohio, because some coaches invited me for a show-off. There were 35 of us there that day, and I finished first, by far. A coach shouted, “He might have been just lucky!” after a great shot and all my anger burst out and I turned around, kicked the ball again with all that anger, and did it even better. I turned around and walked away and all of the coaches were following me. I drove home.
When I arrived home, my mom gave me a list with all the calls that came in with her personal opinion like, “He was nice, you should call them,” or “he was rude, maybe not a good choice.” So my mom became my agent for a short time in my life. I called some, and the Carolina Panthers flew me out the same night. I did my thing, and got a contract. It was big for me and a great start to a new life.
When I started to play in Carolina, I had no idea what they were talking about with gross average, net average, etc. All I knew was I punted way too many times and kicked the ball as high and as far as I could. I learned a lot.
In my second year, I was hit by two guys that were substantially larger than I was. That dislocated my biceps and I found my new love, Percocet. That’s where it really started to take off for me. I found something that helped and that no one could smell. I entered a world in which I took up to 50 Percocet per day, 20-25 Soma per day, and a handful of Xanax. That became a regimen for me. It was my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, mixed with as much caffeine as I could drink. I had a problem; I knew I had a problem, and I didn’t think about getting help. In the NFL, they will not tell you to stop playing if you get an injury. It’s up to you to tell. If you do quit playing, you are liable to get cut. We, as athletes, go to any length to numb it, take whatever we can to get back out there on the field. I had over 15 concussions and seven surgeries in my nine years in the NFL. I had always that fear in me; it was a fear that killed me and a fear that drove me.
In my second year, my drugs became a real problem and even my wife asked me to start counseling and stop the alcohol. I did that and then I became angry at everyone that drank. My wife was very tough, but I was the guy who lied directly to her face. Now, every time I see my wife, it’s a constant reminder of how I used to have pills in my pocket and would sneak one by mouth by just turning around right in front of her. It is still a constant reminder how sick I was.
There were days on the field where I was in a game and checked my sock and would be in shock to find out that I only had pills that last me about to halftime. I had more in the locker room to wait. Other times, I was tempted and thought about how I could get to the locker room during a game to get to more pills. I was so sick and I have no idea how I made it through my career so long.
I went from the Carolina Panthers to the New England Patriots– success was coming. I had a spiritual problem; I felt as if I was God himself. I won two Super Bowls. I was on the front of every newspaper. I had huge money, big contracts, and still didn’t like the guy I was. I didn’t like how I walked, I didn’t like the guy I saw on the film, playing. I was right handed and left footed; it all looked funny, but the outcome was great. It was from repetition, from adapting, from doing it so many times in my life.
Imagine if you spent most days waiting to play a Monday night game, and you are sitting in your room somewhere in Dallas or elsewhere with nothing on TV, popping pills, but trying not to get too tired. I had to have it, my body needed it to hide that pain, fear, and anxiety, but I couldn’t take too much and render myself unable to play.
I retired in 2007/2008, which began the next chapter of my abuse. I was not on good terms with my wife. She about had it. She knew something is going on, but my hiding places were good. I could walk around the house and hide drugs in all four corners, so I was always able to grab one. One weekend day, I was scorekeeping my son’s baseball game (he was 12 at that time). We came home in the dark, down the dark, windy roads of North Carolina and all of a sudden the ditch grabbed the steering wheel out of my hand and we rolled four times. I was on the top and my son was underneath me when we came to a stop. That was the punch in the stomach.
The big fear that I had my whole life came out that night. I heard my son talking to me and the second voice I heard was a guy saying he is a pastor and if I didn’t mind, he would like to pray for us. I don’t remember the prayer, but I remember it let all my fear out. I knew at that moment that I couldn’t live with that fear any longer and I couldn’t hide from the fear, either. I knew I needed help.
The ambulance came and took my son out of the car first. I rocked the car and remembered that there were pills all over in that car. I started to crawl around amongst the broken glass and fill my pockets; pills were scattered around everywhere. I entered the ambulance and on my way to the hospital I asked for a ginger ale or something; reached in my pocket and took a muscle relaxer. I asked the doctor at the hospital to just give me Percocet and said that I would be good.
My wife picked us up and I asked her to stop at a fast food place and I ate three hamburgers. My wife said, “Something is really not right. After this severe situation, you have nothing to say and you are just hungry?” The next day, she asked me to leave. I realized that she was sick and tired of me. I was about to lose it all.
I moved to an empty condo we had and bought an air mattress. I attended 12-step meetings until suddenly, I heard people telling my story. I heard me. I knew I was in the right place. My wife threatened me again to encourage me to get a sponsor. So I did ask a friend, and told my wife, “I have a sponsor now; it’s Phil.” She said, “Well, Phil is not an alcoholic.” I knew so little; I learned from scratch to go somewhere, shut up, and listen.
I did get a sponsor and first thing he told me was, “you know what… you have a real big ego!” and I only thought, “I will kick your butt!!” After he and I talked for about a good hour, and I wasn’t hurting him, we came to the million-dollar-question if he would be my sponsor. I was asking him about the monthly charge. How we do this? Contract? Paperwork? I had no idea. That night, I unloaded everything out of my pockets and discarded all “friends” out of my phone. All of those people were not friends; they only got me what I thought I needed.
With all the threats from my beautiful wife, I spent the next two months sleeping on an air mattress that had a leak. In those two months away from my family I learned a lot– much more than just blowing up the air mattress in the middle of every night. I went to about 120 meetings in 90 days. I went to an IOP (intensive outpatient program). I learned about the disease of addiction and what it had done to me, which I liked. I was the guy that had all money, all the different cars, and set the bar high, but I had no idea about this disease and how to get into recovery.
It can get better, if you go to the meetings. It got better for me. I needed people that had done it before me, who could show me how to do it, and show me how to apply it to my life. I have an accountability partner, a strong family, and a strong group of friends behind me today. My friends today are a group of solid people that share the same passions as I, and that is the love for recovery.
One day at a time.