Being a writer for Daily Norseman definitely has its perks. I get to share my opinions about my favorite team for a sizable audience of like-minded fans. I have been fortunate enough to cover drafts directly from Winter Park and training camps directly from the sidelines in Mankato. But I think my favorite part of my time with DN has been the opportunities I've had to interview current and former Vikings players. It's still a little surreal when a run-of-the-mill fan with a ho-hum day job like me gets to put a microphone in front of these guys and talk football. If I was able to go back and tell nine-year-old Me that 31-year-old Me would get to do this, he'd be totally psyched. (He'd also think that "The Internet" was probably some fancy Nintendo game from the future that you could update using Game Genie.)
One of the most memorable interviews I have done for this site was with former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson in August 2011. Johnson was candid, cordial, and a lot of fun to talk football with. What stood out most about my discussion with Johnson was the off the record thoughts he shared with me after the interview. If I could share his Brad Childress stories with you, I would in a heartbeat--they were outstanding.
During my interview with Johnson we discussed concussions (he was there promoting the PACE, or Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education, at the time) and how his body was holding up post-NFL. He explained that his body had taken quite a beating during his career but he was OK with how everything turned out:
I've put in my time. Seventeen years, that's a long time. You wish you could still play, but physically, you just can't play. My knees are shot. I mean, my knees are shot. So I got nothing left as far as that goes. I played as hard as I could, and I don't hold any regrets.
Johnson knew that football had beaten him up pretty good but he seemed to be moving around fine a little less than two years ago. If there was a hint of a limp in his walk, it was very faint. I remember thinking that Johnson seemed to be in pretty good shape for a guy that had played that long in the NFL.
But lately, that doesn't seem to be the case. Robert Klemko of USA Today Sports recently caught up with Johnson and his physical condition seems to be significantly worse these days. Johnson is happy with his life and keeps busy coaching and mentoring football players. His mind is in a great place. However, his body isn't. Here's a telling excerpt from the article:
"I go down one step at a time with two feet. One step. One step. One step," the 44-year-old former NFL quarterback says. "My 73-year-old dad was visiting and I told my son to help him get his suitcases up the steps. He walks slow and he's got a bad knee. He starts walking and my son turns to me and he says, 'Dad, he walks just like you.'
He's only 44. Having your gait compared to your elderly father has to be disconcerting. Klemko goes on to explain Johnson's heavy use of pain killers during his pro career, including the now-controversial drug Toradol:
Johnson's pain could be classified as chronic as early as 2002, when he says he started receiving injections of the painkiller Toradol before games.
Commonly used in operating rooms, Toradol is a non-narcotic approved by the FDA in 1989. The drug is not physically addictive, but it was the subject of a lawsuit filed in 2011 in which a group of players said NFL teams inappropriately administered the drug en masse before games while neglecting to tell players it could mask their ability to self-assess injuries, such as concussions.
Johnson says he needed the drug to numb pain from tendonitis in his throwing elbow and shoulder, as well as three major injuries.
While Johnson doesn't seem to be suffering from any long-term brain injuries (yet), I did find one part of the USA article a little troubling. From Klemko's article:
As more than 2,000 players fight a court battle with the league over head injuries, Johnson says he has never had a concussion, but he describes scenarios that say otherwise.
And here is a direct quote from Johnson during our interview in 2011:
I personally had two concussions. I had one when I was playing basketball at Florida State and one in the pros.
Perhaps Johnson was over-selling the PACE cause when I interviewed him, but I still find it odd that he would backtrack on admitting to concussions. Either way, it's disheartening to see yet another former football player battling with chronic pain at such a relatively young age.
Of course, this is basically what you sign up for when you play in the NFL--Johnson says as much in his USA Today interview. Professional football is a high risk/high reward endeavor. The money, fame, and glory often come with a steep price of pain, complications, and doctor bills. The NFL has made some important strides for former players suffering from neurological and cognitive diseases, but there still isn't much support available to former players with ailments like Johnson's.
Brad Johnson's story is a sobering reminder of what hundreds of young men are eager to sign up for during tomorrow night's NFL draft. All the best to the longtime Vikings great down the road.