Broken knees, broken ankles, cracked vertebrae, nerve damage, the works. Brad Johnson is proof-positive you don't need brain trauma to suffer from your NFL career for the rest of your life.
Robert Klemko of USA Today (and soon of Peter King's new football site) catches up with Johnson, who retired in 2008 after a 17-year career, with his most notable stints in Minnesota and Tampa. Johnson wasn't a lineman—he didn't crash headfirst into opponents on every play. He claims he never suffered a concussion (though a teammate says otherwise). Yet his post-playing days are filled with pain, discomfort, and it's only going to get worse.
"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.'
Johnson was suffering chronic pain back by 2002, when he was among the masses of players that received regular injections of the painkiller Toradol. It doesn't treat pain; it masks it, and former players have alleged in lawsuits that it left them unable to realize when they were too injured to play.
Johnson doesn't blame Toradol, and he doesn't blame football. "You have to give your body to the game," he says.
But his situation illuminates a major hole in the NFL's commitment to the well-being of its former players. Johnson received five years of health insurance upon retirement; that will expire this year. There are additional benefits available, but only for players who suffer neuro-cognitive disorders. The banal, continuous pain he suffers from the bumps and bruises and breaks of a normal football career don't qualify him for any more care.
Johnson says he'd like to see all former players receive health insurance for life, something the NFL has deemed a non-starter.
"I do think the league has done a better job as far as providing better benefits. I don't know if they can backtrack for all the guys who played. But for the future players, I wish they would extend those benefits."
Johnson's coaching now, and he sounds happy. He can manage. But as his wife says,"think about what it will be like 10, 20 years from now." By then maybe it'll be accepted that lifelong pain isn't a risk of playing football, but the price.