What to Know
Johnson says he’s living with CTE and is battling bi-polar disorder
The 38-year-old says he has no memory of his 2007 and 2008 NFL seasons
The ex-NFL player credits his 7-year-old daughter with saving his life
Former NFL star Larry Johnson, Jr. says he fights self-destructive impulses, mood swings and fits of rage, all symptoms of past victims diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Though the degenerative brain disorder, linked to more than 100 former NFL players, can be confirmed only after death, Johnson says he is sure he suffers from CTE.
“I didn’t grow up with mental issues, being bi-polar or anything being wrong with me. I was a shy kid,” Johnson told NBC 6 anchor Jawan Strader. He added that once he started playing football at age 9, he noticed changes in his character.
“Once you bang your head against other helmets and you’re hitting [it] all the time in practice and all the time in summer camp, you understand that your personality starts to change,” Johnson said.
Johnston's football career spanned over two decades. He was a 2002 Heisman Trophy finalist at Penn State and a two-time Pro Bowler. While playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006, Johnson set an NFL record with 416 carries.
That same year, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the famed forensic pathologist portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 movie "Concussion," published his second research reporting another case of autopsy-confirmed CTE linked to football-related head injuries. Omalu's findings triggered a crisis within the NFL that continues to haunt the league today.
Johnson was never diagnosed with a concussion during his tenure as an NFL player. He spent six years with the Chiefs before signing with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009. He also played for the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphis.
Since Johnson playing his last game in 2011, the league has changed standards for detecting and dealing with concussions. The 38-year-old believes he may have suffered a concussion years before his professional career, dating back to his time playing pee-wee football.
“You take four days of practice, four days of hitting at 9-years-old, you elevate that to 10 years of the same thing,” Johnson explained, highlighting the repeated blows his young body endured. “There’s a lot of us walking around with brain issues and they’re not saying anything.”
Johnston racked up six arrests during what he calls his darkest times, with several of the incidents involving domestic violence. The former running back said his "toxic masculinity" worsened his condition as he moved on from college football to the NFL.
“All I want[ed] to do is go through rages,” Johnson explained. “I covered up my toxic masculinity with drinking, going out, plunging myself in toxic relationships with people I know I had no business being with. But, that’s who I was at the time …. I had to divorce football. It was a painful divorce.”
Johnson also says he has bipolar disorder and that his memory has deteriorated over the years.
“It became a point where I couldn’t remember 2007, 2008 season. I could not remember that,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t remember where I put my keys. I could have my car remote in my hand and try to open the car with the TV remote. I would pick up my daughter, knowing that I’m not supposed to have her on that day, and act like everything is fine.”
He said he could have ended up like former New England Patriots Aaron Hernandez. Johnson thanks his relationship with his father for steering him away from the path Hernandez took.
“That could have been me. I felt what he felt,” Johnson revealed to Strader.
Johnson’s 7-year-old daughter, Jaylen, also helped him change his self-destructive ways. “I don’t know where I would’ve been if I didn’t have a child in my life.” He said Jaylen grounds him and adds purpose to his life.
“I need support from her just as much as she needs support from me.”
The former Chiefs player said that therapy and being in solitude has also aided in his evolution. He explained that he can now identify the things that will trigger his violent impulses.
“It’s a feeling of un-comfortability. You don’t feel right. It’s just something in your heart. It’s a gut feeling that you know something’s not right,” Johnson explained. “I know how to excuse myself and leave a situation.”
“Now, I’m just more sensitive to things. I prefer to be alone a lot of the times because I know I’m at peace with myself,” Johnson said.
Nowadays, when Johnson isn’t spending time with his daughter, he’s working with the nonprofit organization, Motivational Edge. The retired NFL star serves on the board. The group works with youth in underserved communities by exposing them to culturally relevant arts to inspire them toward academic achievement.
Johnson said the organization allows him to speak truth to his struggle and help at-risk students get on the right path.