Rob Johnson hadn’t heard the report. But 87 of 91 brains tested positive for CTE? That’ll get the former Buffalo Bills quarterback’s attention.
Johnson had his share of concussions during his Buffalo years, including one in his first game against Seattle and one scary one against Philadelphia he detailed in Sunday’s story. After the minor ones, he said it felt like he was wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses. After the major one, he blacked out and didn't snap out of it until he was on the bench.
A MRI also revealed white spots on his brain from head trauma. Considering Alzheimer's runs in his family --- his grandfather, granfather's brother, others --- Johnson is trying to be proactive with his health. Like Harry Carson, he spends time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
The AstroTurf was not kind — he hit his head off the Bills’ old surface often. And the pressure to play through pain was high then, especially for someone in a heated quarterback competition. He shot up before practice to get the reps and admits his play declined as the injuries mounted.
An assistant high school coach on his father's team at Mission Viejo (Calif.) today, Johnson hopes to head back to Buffalo with his family for a game this year.
Here are a few extra comments from Johnson…
On the pressure to play: “And mine was even more because me and Doug would go back and forth so much. It was worse with him because I’d shoot up just for practice because I didn’t want him to get reps.”
On shooting up before practice: “Like if I was hurt, I would take a shot just so I could practice and he wouldn’t get the reps. So, yeah, with concussions… with the big one I knew I was backing him up. So I didn’t need to get right back out there. And Mr. Wilson was super scared for me, so he sent me to specialist down in Florida. Mr. Wilson was awesome, the opposite of what you’d think with owners.”
On the hits: “Back then, helmet-to-helmet was encouraged. Driving the quarterback into the ground, all that stuff was legal and taught. So I think it’s definitely more safe now. ... They took me into a dark room (after a concussion) had me sit there and just let your brain calm down. What happens is your brain ricochets off your skull and it’s moving, so the best thing to do is lay down. And then the throwing up and the headaches afterward were pretty bad.”
On not thinking long term: “No, you never think long term until you’re older and you start having kids. When you’re young, you don’t even think about that. It’s a badge of honor in football. You feel like modern-day gladiators. We’re a bunch of alpha males all around each other and you want to prove how tough you are all the time. You didn’t talk about it; it was something you did. And if you weren’t tough, it was known. Nobody wanted to be labeled that.”
On the Alzheimer's in his family: "It’s pretty rampant. So, yeah, I don’t know. Besides cancer, that’s one of the worst things you can get. Just watching it. You don’t even know anything.”
On if he is worried about the future: “No, I don’t live that way. I’m pretty positive. And I wouldn’t change anything. I’m so proud of playing in the NFL and I loved the game. I hope they keep it the way it is—it’s physical and you can protect the guys who are defenseless like quarterbacks and receivers. But I don’t worry about it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
On if he’d do it all over again: “Oh, for sure. I coach it! I love it. It’s the ultimate team sport. It teaches you so much about character and hard work, the camaraderie, it’s a great sport. It’s physical. You can hit each other, it’s a good outlet for that. Everybody asks me, ‘Would you let your kids play?’ Gosh, yes. You can get hurt skateboarding, snowboarding, all that stuff. You can get hurt playing anything.”