The same year neurologist Bennet Omalu linked football-related head injuries with degenerative brain trauma, former NFL running back Larry Johnson set the all-time NFL record for rushing attempts in a season.
Now, Johnson told The Washington Post he believes the toll of an unmatched workload and years of high-impact collisions has caused anxiety, memory loss, and suicidal thoughts — symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Johnson, a former Heisman Trophy finalist in 2002 and All-Pro running back, says he can’t even remember two full seasons of his career, so he puts together video compilations of his achievements in case he one day forgets them all. Johnson, who played with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins, last played in the NFL in 2011.
He compares himself to deceased former NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder and killed himself in prison before a study of his brain revealed the most severe brain trauma ever recorded in a man his age.
Johnson himself has been arrested for a number of violent incidents including several involving women.
He calls the dangerous impulses he has “demons,” which sometimes urge him to harm others and sometimes goad him to jump off a building to his death. Sometimes, he says, only his 7-year-old daughter keeps him from giving in.
Concussions from childhood
Johnson said he was never diagnosed with a concussion in his entire career. But he believes his first concussion occurred at 9 years old.
Emblematic of the football culture of toughness, Johnson said even as a child he felt he had let his team down and looked soft for getting knocked out of a game.
A troubling possibility
Doctors still cannot diagnose CTE in living people, so Johnson’s belief that he has the brain disease is unconfirmed.
“Do I think he’s a special breed? Yes,” his brother, Tony Johnson, said. “Do I think he might have CTE? I just can’t say.”
As medical knowledge of the subject progresses, however, the NFL, and football at all levels, must continue to grapple with the possibility that the sport is creating generations of men who could be a danger to themselves and those around them.