He inches forward, with jets overhead and the ground 50 stories below. Larry Johnson can feel it happening: the arrival, he calls it, of the demons.
They push him toward the barrier of a rooftop deck of an apartment building where he sometimes comes to visit a friend and, in moments like these, there’s a strengthening urge — an almost overwhelming curiosity, he describes it — to jump.
“One is telling you to do it; one is telling you don’t,” says Johnson, a former NFL running back. “One is telling you it’d be fun.”
It is early November, less than two weeks before his 38th birthday. He played his last game in 2011, and he now believes he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disorder linked to more than 100 former football players. For now, CTE can be confirmed only after death, but Johnson says his symptoms — anxiety, paranoia, the occasional self-destructive impulse — are consistent with those of past victims.
On this afternoon, he shuffles closer to the ledge, past the drainage fixture a foot or so from the glass barrier. His body is tingling, he says; his thoughts are filled with static.
“They say when you die,” Johnson says, looking down toward Southeast 1st Avenue, “you feel that euphoric feeling.”
Closer now. He’s frightened, less of the fall than the direction of his own mind.
“What would it be like,” he says, “for this to be the day for people to find out you’re not here?”
Johnson helps his 7-year-old daughter, Jaylen, with homework in his Fort Lauderdale home. Their relationship is the only thing capable of pulling Johnson back from the edge, he says. (Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
At a red light back on terra firma, Johnson glances into the back seat. “Let me see the homework,” he tells Jaylen, his 7-year-old daughter. He flips through the stapled pages: math problems and reading comprehension about bicycles and roller coasters. The light changes, and Johnson hands the papers back and hits the gas on his Porsche SUV. For the next half-hour, Johnson — prone to fits of volatility, jarring mood swings, extreme periods of silence — will say almost nothing.
Johnson says father and daughter have many things in common, including a quiet personality and a running stride that made Johnson a 2002 Heisman Trophy finalist at Penn State and a two-time Pro Bowler. He was a rusher so durable and fierce that, while playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006, he set an NFL record with 416 carries. That same year, groundbreaking neurologist Bennet Omalu published additional concussion research that linked football-related head injuries with degenerative brain trauma, the beginning of an NFL crisis that still rages and one of the reasons Johnson’s carries record likely will never be broken.
Jaylen doesn’t know much about that part of her Papi’s life, in part because Johnson thinks his daughter is too young to understand how football brought him both glory and ruin. But it’s also because there are widening chunks of his career that he can’t remember: Two full NFL seasons have disappeared from his memory, he says, and even some of his most memorable plays have grown hazy.
Which is why, in the past few years, Johnson has begun making video compilations of his football highlights, in part as reminders to himself that he was involved in them — but also, when she’s ready, as a time capsule for Jaylen.
Johnson fears that, by the time he’s 50, he won’t remember his own name. If that proves to be the case, Johnson is taking steps for Jaylen to watch her Papi run, to learn who he was, to maybe understand why he was so unpredictable — even, on occasion, with her.
“If I can’t remember who I was, I’ve got YouTube; I’ve got music videos that I’m making for myself, so when I watch these things I can remember,” he says. “I’m trying to get these things in order so she knows who I am and what I came from.”
The project became urgent a few months ago, after a particularly severe case of CTE was discovered in the brain of Aaron Hernandez. The former New England Patriots tight end, with a history of erratic and explosive behavior, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2015 before hanging himself in his prison cell in April.
“I could be Aaron Hernandez,” Johnson says, and indeed he sees the former Patriots star as a kindred spirit as much as a cautionary tale.
Like Hernandez, Johnson has a history of erratic behavior and violence: He has been arrested six times, and several of the incidents involved Johnson physically assaulting women. The ex-running back says his decision to publicly describe his darkest thoughts is meant not as a way to excuse his past but rather a way to begin a conversation with other former players who Johnson suspects are experiencing many of the same symptoms.
“What would it be like for this to be the day for people to find out you’re not here?”
Johnson says he frequently gets brief but intense headaches, often triggered by bright lights or noise, and is increasingly jittery and forgetful. He has no idea how the Porsche’s passenger-side mirror got smashed, nor can he remember the full sequence that led to the cluster of dents in the vehicle’s rear hatch.
“Blank spots” are what Johnson calls the empty spaces in his memory, and there are seemingly more of them every year. But there’s another similarity with Hernandez that scares him most.
Johnson says he has considered violence toward others and himself, and perhaps the only reason he hasn’t acted on these impulses is sitting quietly in the back seat, looking out the window at the South Florida flatlands.
“Chicken, steak or spaghetti?” Johnson asks, and Jaylen chooses spaghetti. Her voice is soft as a whisper. Her father believes it's also the only one, when the demons push him to the edge, strong enough to pull him back.
‘Sometimes he was the reason’
Almost three decades ago, on a youth field in Oxon Hill, a 9-year-old kick returner caught the ball and sped toward the sideline.
Hoping he’d be tackled quickly and painlessly, young Larry kept running and tried to get out of bounds — but then an opponent crashed into him from the side, spinning his helmet sideways.
The boy got up, dizzy and with no idea where he was, and spent the rest of the game on the sideline with a headache. Though it was never diagnosed as a concussion — Johnson says, in 23 years of football, he was never diagnosed with one — he now suspects this was his first of many.
But more than the impact, he now says, he felt then that he had let his father down. Larry Johnson Sr., at the time a well-known high school coach in Maryland, was in the bleachers, and the boy felt he had shown everyone that the coach’s son was soft.
“I didn’t know how to redeem myself,” Johnson says, though soon he was going into the family’s basement for extra blocking drills, studying footage of prodigious NFL hitters Ronnie Lott and Mike Singletary, looking for any chance to prove his toughness.
Johnson’s Porsche SUV has a broken side mirror, and he says he has no idea how it got smashed. (Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
He grew, and by middle school he was researching which opponents came from broken homes; those were the kids he’d taunt before plays and, for an extra psychological advantage, the ones he’d tackle from behind. If Johnson was benched, he’d blow up at coaches; if an opponent or teammate challenged him, Johnson wasn’t above the cheap shot.
Then he’d look to the bleachers.
“I’d be like: ‘Dad, you saw that?’ It was a point of pride,” he says now, and he came to believe, in an era that glamorized masculinity and intimidation, that “this is what tough means.”
Larry Johnson Sr., now an assistant head coach at Ohio State, says that wasn’t exactly the intention.
“He ran with rage, and it was just his way of saying, ‘I’m not going to let this opportunity get away,’ ” the coach says. “It might have taken him to places he didn’t think he would go.”
Some of those places, as Johnson became a college player and eventually a pro, included the backs of police cars or disciplinary meetings with coaches. He says he began experiencing symptoms of depression in college, and he sought to prove his toughness in nightclubs and fights with women. He tried to numb himself with alcohol, which took him deeper into the shadows.
Months after Kansas City selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft, Johnson was arrested for aggravated assault and domestic battery for an incident involving a woman. A misunderstanding, Johnson would say. Less than two years later, he was arrested again for shoving a different woman to the floor of a bar. An overly aggressive local law, he’d say.
“There’s always a reason” for Johnson’s mistakes, says Tony Johnson, the ex-player’s brother and his day-to-day manager during his NFL career. “And sometimes he was the reason.”
Johnson could be cheerful and social at times, sullen and isolated at others. He collected slights and bad habits, to say nothing of the guns he kept strapped to his shoulders at high-end restaurants or under the seat of his white Bentley. Some nights he’d fire rounds into strangers’ lawns or palm a pistol at a gas station, he says, hoping someone would challenge him for a late-night lesson in toughness.
“Me against everybody,” he says, and on and off the field that became his code, driving him to rush for a combined 3,539 yards in 2005 and ’06 . His dominance and persona made him an A-list celebrity and opened doors to a friendship with Jay-Z and dates with R&B singer Mýa.
Whether it was brain injuries, immaturity, celebrity or some combination, Johnson says aggression became “a switch I couldn’t shut off,” and after a while Jay-Z cut him off via email for being arrested so often, Johnson says, and Mýa once stopped him from jumping from a window.
After two more arrests and a suspension, the Chiefs released Johnson in 2009 after he insulted his head coach on Twitter and for using gay slurs toward a fan and reporters. Years after trying to adapt his personality to an unforgiving game, Johnson found himself too volatile for the NFL. Over his final two seasons, with Washington and Miami, he carried the ball six times.
“Those two combinations, of being angry and not being able to shut that switch off, started to disrupt who I really was,” he says. “And it was just waiting to eat me up.”
Sound and fury
They’re in the living room now, Papi and Jaylen, surrounded by walls undecorated but for the blotchy spackling compound behind them. That’s where, a few years ago, Johnson punched through the drywall.
Jaylen was there, and Johnson says he sent her upstairs before making the hole. The way he describes it, the best he can do sometimes is to shield her view.
“Did you think it was something that you did?” Johnson recalls asking Jaylen afterward, and the girl nodded. “I had to explain it: It’s never your fault.”
But her little mind is expanding quickly, and he worries that these will be some of her earliest memories. And so he tries. It might not seem like it, he admits, but he tries.
On this afternoon, father and daughter play a racing game on Xbox — bright colors, loud sound effects, rapid movement — and after a few minutes, Johnson pauses the game and walks onto his balcony. He stands alone for a minute or two, hands clasped behind his head; he’ll say later he felt the onset of a headache and needed to step away.
He returns, and now it’s homework time. Johnson has high expectations for Jaylen, and he believes the universe was making a point when it gave him a daughter. How better to punish him for shoving or choking women than to assign him a girl to shepherd through a world filled with Larry Johnsons?
“My greatest fear is my daughter falling in love with somebody who’s me,” he’ll say, and he believes if he’s honest and tough with Jaylen, she’ll never accept anyone treating her the way her father treated women.
With the sun filtering between the blinds, Johnson plays with her curly hair as she slides a finger across her sentences.
“All people,” Jaylen reads aloud, and her father interrupts.
“No,” he says. “Why would it say ‘all people?’ It . . .”
He stops, sighs and presses two fingers into his eyelids. She looks back at him, and he tells her to keep reading. He rubs his hands, massages his forehead, checks his watch. He’ll say he sometimes forgets she’s only in second grade.
They move on to her page of math problems: twenty-seven plus seven.
“How many tens?” he asks her.
“And how many ones?”
Johnson had many brushes with law enforcement during his playing days and a few since they ended. When it comes to his mistakes, “there’s always a reason,” his brother, Tony, says. “And sometimes he was the reason.” (Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
“No,” he says, visibly frustrated until Jaylen reaches the answer. Next: fifty-seven plus seven. She stares at the page.
“So count,” he says. “Count!”
Thirteen plus eight. Again staring at the numbers. Johnson’s worst subject was math, another trait Jaylen inherited. But his empathy is sometimes drowned out by more dominant emotions.
“You start at thirteen and count eight ones,” he tells her, and in the kitchen, a watch alarm begins to beep. Jaylen counts her fingers.
“No,” her dad tells her, again rubbing his face. The beeping continues in the next room. “No!”
Abruptly, he stands and stomps out of the room without saying anything. Jaylen’s eyes follow him, eyebrows raised, and listens as her father swipes the beeping watch from a table, swings open the back door and throws it into the courtyard.
In the minds of both father and daughter, it is impossible to know what’s happening. Will she remember this, or has Johnson shielded her from something worse? Is he managing his impulses as well as he can, and even if he is, will Jaylen someday come to view moments like these as emotional milestones?
For now, when her Papi returns, Jaylen’s eyes dart back to the page.
“So what’s the answer?” he says.
‘A bittersweet thing’
Nighttime now, and Johnson takes a pull off his Stella longneck and hits play on the remote.
There he is, or more precisely there he was: a wrecking ball in Penn State blue, highlights of Johnson overpowering defenders interspersed with pictures of Jaylen. The background music, which he selected, is the Imagine Dragons song “I’m So Sorry.”
“This is who I really am,” he says is the intended message of his self-produced video. “I can’t change who I am, regardless of who you are.”
He points the remote again, and next is a video of some of his best moments in the NFL: cheers and chants and line-of-scrimmage assaults that, in this era of increased awareness, are both exciting and devastating. The background song is “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath.
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning.
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds.
Johnson lifts the remote again. “This may . . .” he says, choking up. “I get emotional.”
He hits play.
“I did this for her,” he says, and a moment later the piano begins.
A few years ago, Johnson woke into a hangover and felt drawn to his computer, spending hours navigating a video-editing program. What emerged was more than a gift for Jaylen’s second birthday, Johnson says; these next 5 minutes 17 seconds were meant to say goodbye.
Back then, the demons could be overpowering. Johnson, drifting in the months and years after his NFL career ended, went searching for a new identity. He was arrested again for an incident with an ex-girlfriend, and he cycled among peddling bootleg makeup kits on South Beach, being turned down for a job stocking shelves, researching how to join the military. Usually it was just easier to go to a nightclub and chase salvation down the neck of a tequila bottle.
Trying to spend his way into new friends or purpose, Johnson says he sometimes dropped $50,000 in a night, torching his savings. In 2007, he signed a contract with the Chiefs that included $19 million in guaranteed money, but now, he says, he has enough for Jaylen’s college and for himself to get by, and not much more.
Then, he says, he sometimes began evenings with the intention of starting trouble. Other times, he could feel himself losing control — an approaching cloud, he says, impossible to stop. Alcohol and noise were kerosene on his smoldering patience, and friends became used to Johnson turning into, as one friend put it, the Incredible Hulk.
“You could see the mood swings, and they were drastic,” says Chantel Cohen, who has known Johnson for most of the past decade. “He could be super happy one moment, and an hour later, he’s just ready to blow up. You’re like: What just went wrong?”
Once, Johnson says, he sat with a group at a crowded table, and a man he’d just met was being loud. Johnson says he asked, profanely, for the man to shut up; a second later they both stood, and Johnson says he experienced one of his blank spots.
“When I came to, he was already on the ground, like, leaned over, and I’m kind of like: ‘Damn, I must have did that,’ ” he says. As Johnson tried to get away, the man went after him with a chair, and that’s where the dents in the back of his Porsche came from.
“When you’re that down deep in it, you don’t want to be talked out of it.”
He would call his parents at all hours, cursing and making strange accusations. Tony Johnson woke to so many worried texts from his brother’s friends that he stopped checking his phone in the morning and made peace with how his brother’s story might end.
And so did Johnson himself. Working on that video for Jaylen years ago, he was aware he was about to go destroy himself. Like the time he punched through the wall, he explains, he could delay the explosion, but he couldn’t avoid it.
Now re-watching the video in his living room, he says he wasn’t exactly considering suicide but that he was preparing to go away to stay. Prison was a possibility, and so were a few others, considering he’d decided that if he did something to get himself arrested, he wasn’t planning on going quietly.
There was, he recalls, something calming about it.
“A bittersweet thing: I’m going to be free of everything that’s holding me down,” Johnson says now, and he wonders whether Hernandez experienced similarly intense feelings in his final days. “The same way Aaron thought: I’m going to be gone from this world, but I’m still going to be able to take care of my child, because that’s all I care about.”
A moment later, he continues. His voice cracks.
Johnson walks down a hallway at Jackson Senior High in Miami. He works with a nonprofit after-school organization called The Motivational Edge, and here he’s heading to a session of its Lyrical Expression program, which helps students express their concerns through music. (Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
“When you’re that down deep in it,” he says, “you don’t want to be talked out of it.”
And so that day a few years ago, he worked on the video until it was perfect, the music and images and sequence just right. A text banner — “I will always Love you,” it reads — flutters past near the beginning, and with the Christina Perri song “A Thousand Years” in the background, it closes with a photograph of Johnson kissing Jaylen. It pans out before fading.
Then he posted the video on Instagram before loading his pockets with painkillers and ecstasy, he says, and set off into the space beneath a dropping curtain.
‘He definitely has something’
A few weekends ago, friends invited Johnson to join them at a bar, have a few drinks, meet a woman he might like.
He agreed, and indeed he was drawn to her. They talked, and so did the friends — a little too much, maybe — and after a while Johnson could feel the shadow falling. The Hulk was coming, so at one point he excused himself and, without explanation, just left.
Distrustful of his own mind, Johnson says now that he wasn’t just annoyed by his chatty friends. He noticed himself staring at one of them, feeling a growing urge to punch him. Almost in a heartbeat, Johnson went from sociable and joyful to deeply angry and potentially violent — frightening, at least this time, only himself.
“Something so easily dismissed,” he says. “But it’s just — once I get in that mood, I can’t stop it. And it comes out of nowhere.”
Even so, is this truly a look at CTE’s corrosive effects in real time? Or has Johnson, with his history of blame deflection and self-validating reasons, simply found an unimpeachable — and unprovable — excuse?
“Certain things happen in your life that you just can’t come back from.”
“Do I think he’s a special breed? Yes,” says Tony Johnson, who suggests the family will consider donating Larry’s brain for study after his death. “Do I think he might have CTE? I just can’t say.”
Others, who point out the brain’s frontal lobe is the portion that regulates judgment and behavior — and the region most under attack during on-field collisions — see it more Johnson’s way.
“I’m pretty sure that he definitely has something going on,” says longtime friend Cohen, who claims she knew Junior Seau, the Hall of Fame linebacker who in 2012 shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied; indeed, CTE was discovered in Seau’s brain. Cohen sees some similarities in the behavior of Johnson and Seau.
Johnson says years ago he was diagnosed him with type-1 bipolar disorder, a condition he blames on head injuries. Though this cannot be confirmed in Johnson's case, brain injury experts have found possible links between bipolar symptoms and mid-life behavior issues and CTE.
“Certain things happen in your life,” he says, “that you just can’t come back from.”
After making the video for Jaylen a few years back, Johnson says he spent the next 72 hours cycling from one party to the next, daring bar patrons or police or even death to bring him down. When nothing did, he kept going.
At one point he sat on a sidewalk, exhausted and struggling to breathe, and thought of his daughter. She was living with her mother at the time; Jaylen’s parents now share custody.
Johnson picks up Jaylen at the end of the school day. When she gets a little older, Johnson hopes to share his whole story with her. (Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
Johnson went home, slept it off, and not long afterward, he says, he sold his ownership stake in a club on South Beach and reduced his intake of hard liquor. He still found trouble sometimes, including a 2014 arrest for aggravated battery involving another man, and Johnson says he has since made more changes.
He moved out of a trendy high-rise in Miami and into a quiet townhouse in Fort Lauderdale, got rid of his guns, took a job with a nonprofit that uses the arts to mentor disadvantaged children. Johnson also quit therapy and refused to take his prescribed medication; he says it’s because he’s better equipped to manage his impulses himself. All these years later, it’s still Johnson against everybody — even himself.
He has, more recently, filled his bookshelf not with reminders of his playing career but with photographs of Jaylen and her paintings. If friends invite him out, more and more he turns them down.
“You kind of create your own prison,” Johnson says. “I’ve kind of barricaded myself in my surroundings [with] certain things that I can handle. That’s kind of how I beat it.”
That’s easy when his daughter is here — Jaylen spends most weekends with her father and weekdays with her mother in a nearby town — and a challenge when she’s not. On the nights he’s alone, Johnson is more likely to sulk or drink or venture into the depths of his restless mind. If she’s here, bedtime is at 8:30, and they play games or watch television or draw.
“She’s, like, a good distraction I have,” he says. “She sees something in me that most people will never see.”
Occasionally they watch football together, Jaylen in her Penn State or Kansas City jersey, and she asks why the announcers sometimes say his name. He explains some of it, and very carefully he has begun to explain some of the rest.
“Papi,” he says he tells her, “used to be really bad.”
He doesn’t offer much more, and though he’s uncertain what the future will bring, Johnson says he wants to tell her his whole story eventually.
“She sees something in me that most people will never see.”
—Larry Johnson, about his daughter Jaylen
Johnson figures that in seven more years, or when she’s 14 or so, Jaylen will be old enough to absorb the paradoxical nature of her father: the life of the party and the introvert, a man capable of violence and tenderness, the person he actually is and the one he wants to be.
He wants his mind to hang out at least that long. Jaylen might not like what she learns, but he wants to be present for those conversations.
His biggest fear, if he were to disappear now, is that Jaylen wouldn’t remember him; his second-biggest is that she would.
“That scares me more than anything,” he says. “Sometimes it scares me to tears.”
Back to the unknown
He’s driving again, steering the Porsche south on a highway not long after sunrise. Jaylen, who like her Papi is not a morning person, is dozing off in the back seat.
Earlier, the vehicle’s back latch wouldn’t close, and in the 20 or so minutes since, Johnson hasn’t said a word. He weaves through traffic, occasionally touching 90 mph, and a radio commercial plays a doorbell sound. The tone repeats again. And again. Johnson jabs his finger into the preset button to change the station.
He cracks his knuckles, sighs loudly, checks his phone.
He looks behind him occasionally, Jaylen napping or drawing imaginary circles on the glass. She’s spending the next few days with her mother, and Johnson is already nervous about the upcoming time by himself. What if friends call and ask him to go drinking? Or if someone crosses him at the wrong moment?
How will he react this time if the demons come?
For now, she’s with him a few more minutes, so Johnson parks the Porsche and lifts her from the back seat. He carries her toward the elementary school and kisses her cheek as they cross the driveway and fall into a line of students.
The line starts moving, and he tucks in her shirt and kisses her again. “I’ll see you this weekend, okay?” he says, and then he turns toward the crosswalk.
He’s alone again, left to face the next few days — and whichever emotions and impulses are waiting — with his mind as his only company. He looks behind him to see Jaylen toddling toward the entrance, and with little more than uncertainty ahead, Johnson stands on the curb and waits for her to drift out of sight before stepping, finally, off the edge.