Interview: Ted Johnson
Ted Johnson, 35, was a linebacker with the New England Patriots for 10 seasons, winning 3 Super Bowls. He retired in 2005. In the last three years of his career, he says he was getting an average of 3-5 concussions a week.
He spoke to the fifth estate about how it feels to get a concussion and the effects of post-concussion syndrome on his day-to-day life.
OKAY, SO WHEN DID YOU FIRST EXPERIENCE THE SYMPTOMS OF CONCUSSIONS?
Well, let’s see. I had two, I had two concussions back to back in the summer of ’02, one in a preseason game, one in a practice. And immediately I started having symptoms. Can’t remember the plays, didn’t know where to line up, the basic things.
Just, you know, if I had (unclear) to my side– my attention was terrible, you know, in the meetings. I couldn’t pay attention to the coach, I couldn’t you know, I had no energy.
You know, a huge part of it is there’s a lot of physical fatigue. But the problem was I didn’t know what it was. There was no name for what I was feeling, you know. So pretty much the half of the season of the ’02 season, I didn’t know which end up was, and then the symptoms slowly started to dissipate.
But the concussions increased for the last three years of my career. I would get on average 3 to 5 concussions a week, so.
WHAT DID YOUR CONCUSSIONS THEMSELVES, WHAT DID THEY ACTUALLY FEEL LIKE?
Well, you know, the concussion, I always thought it was defined as you had to be completely knocked out, okay, which isn’t true. You know, when you get a ding, when you get your bell rung, that’s a concussion. You know, you get disorientated.
Most of my concussions manifested in ways like I would get, I would hit somebody, get up, stumble and fall down. My vision was blurred. I’d had to ask another linebacker, because I was a signal caller, I’d have to look at the sideline and get my signals related to the defence.
Well I couldn’t even see my signal caller. He was – my vision was so bad, so I had another linebacker call it. And I would hope I had, before the next play started, my vision would correct itself, so you know, I could play some football.
But you know, that was – that was, that was what I called mini-concussions, but there is no level of concussion. It’s either a concussion or it’s not.
TELL ME THE, PARTICULARLY MINI-CONCUSSIONS, CAN YOU DESCRIBE JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THAT AND A CONCUSSION AND HOW DID YOU LEARN TO MANAGE THE MINI-CONCUSSIONS?
Well, like I said, I don’t know if there really is a definitive distinction between a mini-concussion. I mean you know, a concussion is a concussion, whether it’s a level one, a level three, a minor, a major. They’re, they’re all the same, especially when you start racking them up like I did.
You know, the cumulative effects of the concussions can be you know, life changing but you know, I’ve been knocked out before. I’ve been completely knocked out. In a college game, they had to come out, five minutes I was out. Didn’t know where I was.
Didn’t have one again for a while until I got into the NFL, and then I’d get these, where I’d hit somebody and my whole body would just, like a complete feeling of warmth would come over me.
And everything would be in slow motion, where like everybody was walking like really slow to me. And then as my seconds went past, everything sped up again. But everything slowed way down. And I was walking slow and talking slow.
And then all of a sudden, after a few seconds went by, I got back up to my normal speed.
WHEN YOU THINK BACK AT THAT TIME, WHAT DID YOU THINK THAT WAS?
Football. That’s just how you’re supposed to feel. Again, I wasn’t, had no idea what post-concussion was. I hadn’t even heard the term until long after I retired. Didn’t know what second impact syndrome was.
I remember when I was a kid and I was – not actually a kid, but I’m watching, you know, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and those guy had documented concussions, several, and I remember I’d watch TV and they’d say okay, Steve Young’s got his 8th concussion, Troy’s got his 9th concussion.
He’s – you got to be careful. Well what, why does he have to be careful? What, what is going to happen to him if he’s hit again? No one was explaining to you what the effects of those mounting concussions could have on those players.
No one – they didn’t talk about it, you know. For obvious reasons they don’t want players to know. I mean I know when I go into a football game, I could tear my knee and I had both my biceps torn, both shoulders reconstructed. That I understand.
I know what the risk is when I go in there for that. But I didn’t know what the risks were for repeated head trauma. I had no idea what that meant until after I retired.
HOW MUCH ROLE WOULD YOU SAY THAT INTIMIDATION FROM COACHES, TRAINERS, TEAM OFFICIALS, HOW MUCH DID THAT FACTOR INTO THE GAME?
Oh it’s a huge part, you know. I mean we’re, football players are just you know hired mercenaries, you know. That’s really what, that’s really what they are. We are, we’re a means to an end for these teams and when they’re done with you, they’re done with you.
So they’re not going to educate you on this issue, okay. They don’t want you to know what the potential effects are. But is there pressure? Without a question. Because I’ll tell you why. It’s really, it really is the invisible injury, you know.
With a knee, you, the MRI can show it. MRI doesn’t show it, show what a concussion is. So they have to take your word for it, and that’s the hardest part is they have to believe what you’re saying is true, what your symptoms are is true.
But in my case, you could turn on the film and you could actually see what was wrong with me. You actually knew that something wasn’t right by how I was playing. And you know, but is there pressure? Absolutely. And there’s pressure, believe it or not, from the players themselves too.
I mean it’s, you know, you’re a gladiator, you know. They’re, they’re overcoming stuff, you know, pain issues and stuff. They expect you to do the same thing. So there’s, there’s – sometimes it’s, it’s you know nonverbal but there’s pressure from everybody.
HOW FRUSTRATING IS IT THAT THERE’S NO TEST THAT CAN CONFIRM THE CONDITION THAT YOU HAVE?
THE MRI CAN’T PICK IT UP.
There’s, there’s a new technology called SPEC scan that I’ve done. And it’s a more accurate diagnosis, in the sense that if you get an MRI, it’s kind of taking a picture of your brain. It’s almost like if it was taking a picture of a frame of a house, okay.
It can give you some information but not everything . With a SPEC scan, it actually is like taking a picture of the plumbing of a house, so it can see where your, your blood flow is or the lack of blood flow throughout your brain, and so they could diagnose different mental disorders, you know, OCD, bipolar.
When I got tested it showed that I had a mood disorder. It showed that I had lack of blood flow in the front lobe. Well, your frontal lobe affects your cognitive, decision making, your, you know, your mental capacity, your behavioural, decisions you make.
Well heck, that’s – that’s a lot right there. And it showsthat I had a really poor blood flow in my frontal lobe. Well that’s not surprising because that’s where I did all my hitting. This was, this was my weapon and this is – I used that as a battering ram and to my advantage, so it’s not surprising that it showed up that I had, you know, sever – you know, severe damage to that part of my brain.
THERE WAS A TEAM OFFICIAL THAT I READ WHO WAS QUOTED SAYING, YOU CAN’T BLAME ALL OF YOUR BEHAVIOUR ON CONCUSSIONS WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THAT?
Well, see that’s the hardest part is how do you quantify how much is it the concussions versus you know, I was addicted to a medication that, called adderall. It was, it helped me feel better but unfortunately I abused that drug. So it’s hard to say how much of it was retiring from football, going through a divorced, being addicted to you know amphetamines, and then how much of it was the post-concussion syndrome?
So that’s fair but it’s also unfair to say that it has zero effects because it certainly has had a huge effect.
IN THE LAST THREE SEASONS YOU HAD HALF A DOZEN CONCUSSIONS, BUT THEY ONLY REPORTED ONE. WHY IS THAT?
Well, when – you have, you don’t have guaranteed contracts in NFL, that’s the major, that’s the huge difference between football and the other three major sports. So you are, you get paid for you know every game you play. They cut you, you get no money.
And I always laughed, it’s not a contract, you know. But it is to your advantage not to report them. If I was to report them I’d have to sit out, you miss games. When you go to renegotiate, they will inevitably say well you only played x amount of games, so we can’t justify paying you more than, than maybe what you think your market value is.
So they use that against you... So that tells you right there, it is to your advantage to, to not say anything. And so – and teams aren’t signing guys now because they have a history of concussions, you know. So it’s, it’s really – you know, it’s really too bad, but that’s just how the game, that’s the brutality of that game, you know.
JUST GOING BACK TO THAT EXHIBITION GAME IN 2002. YOU SORT OF SAY THAT WAS THE START FOR YOU, RIGHT?
SO HOW DO YOU KNOW?
Oh it was easy because – well I’d never felt, I got my first concussion in a preseason game, okay, and then four days later we were full pads. The very – I was not to have physical contact and that and doctor’s orders that I was supposed to – it’s standard protocol when somebody has a concussion, you sit out of physical contact for about a week.
Well the coach presented an opportunity for me to get back into practice against doctor’s orders and, and so my life kind of flashed before me. I was like, do I put on a – my blue jersey which signifies I’m live contact or don’t I? And then when I’m healthy again, you get cut right away.
So I was stubborn on my very first play and then a 9 on 7 drill, the most physical drill in football. I hit the fullback, boom, I got another concussion. And that whole practice, I couldn’t remember where to line up, couldn’t remember my most basic symptoms. I was staring off into space.
And that, that carried on for at least more than half of the ’02 season where I couldn’t, I really was a liability out there at times because I couldn’t get our defense lined up, right and I couldn’t make the most basic checks and adjustments.
IN TERMS OF OTHER PLAYERS, FELLOW PLAYERS THAT ARE SUFFERING FROM BRAIN –
Post-concussion syndrome, traumatic brain injury.
…YOU CALL IT. DO THEY TALK ABOUT IT LIKE IN THE WAY THAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT IT?
A lot of guys won’t because there’s a stigma attached to it. The feeling I get is guys don’t want to speak about it because it’s for future employment opportunities. They’re going to be perceived as damaged goods, that they’re not gonna have the capability to, you know, to do whatever it is they need to do.
So that’s the sad part, that it’s not gonna – you know guys that, you know, you’d hope and should be talking about it aren’t because they’re embarrassed by it, and they shouldn’t be embarrassed by it. But, but they are for, for you know, reasons I can – I just suggested. You know, it’s just, it’s just a stigma a lot of guys don’t want hanging over their head.
TELL ME SOME OF THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE IT’S HAD TO YOUR PERSONAL LIFE, DAY TO DAY LIFE OUTSIDE FOOTBALL.
Well it, it was a huge stress on the family. You know, my kids didn’t know why Dad was in bed all day. Why I had – I was short tempered and why I was depressed all the time and why I couldn’t play with them, you know, the physical fatigue.
And the mental fatigue was just mounting and – but you know, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And so they, you know, they didn’t understand it. They were too young to understand it and it puts a toll on you, you know.
So unfortunately there’s a divorce from that. Some potential great opportunities for, for work and jobs went to the wayside because at that moment, I was not able to function at a high level and do the, do what was needed to do those jobs.
So you know, those are – those are two major things. And then to be honest with you, your – your relationships with your friends and family, you know, you uh – you kind of just hide out. You isolate. That’s a huge problem with guys that have this is they don’t want to be around people.
And me, I never had social anxiety in my life, but I all of a sudden developed it. I wouldn’t come out of my house for days, if not weeks. I hired an assistant to bring food to me, just so I didn’t have to leave the house.
And so you know, your, some of your friendships, that suffers from that and you know, you just lost time. You know, the last four years I’ve lost a lot of – lot of time to do some things that you know, I maybe wanted to do and couldn’t.
STILL TODAY YOU HAVE GOOD DAYS, RIGHT, AND YOU STILL HAVE BAD DAYS?
The bad days aren’t severe. I finally – finally on a right treatment plan. You know, I’ve been clean of you know, of the uh – you know prescribed meds. And so I’m on the right treatment plan there. I’m doing the things I need to do to avoid the stress.
You know, there’s a lot of strategies that you can, that the right people can teach you on how to have a more efficient life. And something I’ve learned is that it’s really, it’s just better to get up and have a bad day than to never get up at all because problem was I just didn’t want anybody to see me like that.
I’d stay in bed all day, you know, if I felt a headache coming on and you know, I was you know, your sleep’s off. You know, my nights were days and days were nights, you know. It was all backwards. But that is – that is in the last couple of months that has really subsided because I finally found some help and I’m on the right track now.
DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU GET INTO YOUR 50’S, MAYBE THE NEURO-PHYSICAL CONDITIONS THAT DETERIORATE MORE, YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THAT, ALZHEIMER’S?
Sure, yeah. You know, that’s – that’s one of the things they’re finding out in their research is that you know, when they open the brains of these guys and see that they have advanced Alzheimer’s at the age of 40, 45 years old, they have the brain of an 85-year-old man when they’re in their mid-40’s.
Sure, that take, you know, it makes you pause and think about the future. But you know – I’ve already wasted a lot of time you know, being in bed and not being able to get up and be a functioning adult. So I can’t worry about that, I really can’t.
You know, when I read – you know, and I’ve kind of come to grips with what might happen. I read somewhere when you learn how to die, you learn how to live, and that’s kind of – what’s kind of helped me just you know, when you come at peace with that and potentially what’s out there, then it makes the moment more precious and more significant, I think.
YOU’RE DONATING YOUR BRAIN, RIGHT?
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THAT?
Well you know, I figure well you know, there’s just – it’s just that this is kind of a groundbreaking issue right now and they’re just at the beginning of trying to figure out what, you know, what needs to be done, how to treat it, how to perhaps prevent it.
And so I’m just doing my part, you know. I felt compelled, when I was asked, I felt it was an instant, you know – no pun intended, no-brainer for me, you know, to do that. Because if I can you know help somebody else, that makes you know, life worth it, you know.
So that I just want to help, help the you know doctors and researchers find, find ways to help guys that are, that are suffering this. So you know, I’m not gonna need it when I’m dead and gone anyway, so might as well put it to good use.
NOW WHEN AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GO PUBLIC, TO SHARE YOUR STORY?
It was very simple. It was – it was probably, it was in February of ’06, right before the Super Bowl. There was a story that came out in the New York Times on former safety for the Eagles, Andre Waters, who committed suicide, took a gun to his head and blew his brains out.
And Chris Nowinski, who has written books on this and who introduced post-concussion syndrome to me, asked the family to do an autopsy on his brain cause he had a hunch that perhaps Andre, who had a long history of concussions, maybe that led to his wanting to kill himself.
And sure, sure enough, Dr. Omalu I believe was the doctor who did the autopsy on Andre and found that he had a ravaged brain with, with – advanced, advanced Alzheimer. And Andre was 42 years old and you know, a brain that looked like somebody who was maybe in his mid-80’s to early 90’s.
For me, that was – enough was enough. I don’t want anybody else taking a gun to their head. And part of it, I know, a piece of why Andre did it is because he didn’t know what it was. It’s, you know, if you have – God forbid, you have cancer or you have some ailment that, that’s – people know about, there’s ways to treat it.
I mean not everyone – not everything, but if you know what it is the heck you’re trying to fight, you know, there’s, there’s a higher chance of finding a, you know, a solution to it. But when you don’t even know what it is that’s making you feel like that, I mean that’s, that’s a terrifying feeling.
And my guess is Andre, before he put that bullet in his head, had no idea and just gave up because he wasn’t finding any answers.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT PEOPLE, DOCTORS (UNCLEAR) PEOPLE WHO STILL BELIEVE THAT THESE ARE SYMPTOMS OF LIKE POST-RETIREMENT, YOU KNOW, POST-RETIREMENT BLUES AS OPPOSED TO ANY KIND OF CONNECTION.
Well that makes it, yeah. Yeah, that doesn’t sit well with me. You know, to hear – to hear – you know, people and you know in the position of power who say things like that, it’s just, it’s just too convenient. It’s too cliché, you know.
I’m just a, I’m a foregone conclusion. I’m just a – I’m like everybody else, you know, who can’t you know, find his way, who has no identity. All his identity was wrapped up in football. All he could do was play football.
And so now, you know, now he’s – you know, he’s a bitter athlete and he’s trying to you know stir the pot. That’s crap. That’s complete crap, you know. These doctors, and I’ll take any of them toe to toe on this issue because none of them ever had multiple concussions. None of them played ten years at linebacker in the NFL.
And quite honestly, when I sit in a room with doctors and with all due respect, you know, neurologists who are at the top of their field in this stuff, I know a hell of a lot more about it than they do because I’ve lived it. Hell, I’ve gone through it.
I know what it feels like and I know what happens to your family and to your life. And so if anybody wants to say that, I’d love to talk to them because it’s – they’re uninformed, they’re in denial and they’re hiding something. And so I don’t have a lot of respect or time for people like that.