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BACK FROM
THE ABYSS
BY ANDREA KREMER
Johnny Jolly traveled a dark path, nearly losing his NFL career -- and more -- to drug addiction. His revival with the Green Bay Packers is a remarkable story.

 

Johnny Jolly had perhaps his best NFL season in 2009. The defensive lineman started every game. He made 39 tackles. He even had an interception. And his Green Bay Packers made the playoffs.

He did it all while abusing codeine.

"Our first game against Chicago, I used the night before the game, and for some strange reason, I had one of my best games of my career," Jolly told us in a 2012 interview. "And that one game turned into two games, the two games turned into three games and carried on.

"The night before the game, it would help me go to sleep. I never really studied the playbook until I was using codeine, and the night before the game, I studied our plays and that was crazy for me, but it worked."

Jolly appeared normal to the outside world, so he told no one -- no family members, teammates, coaches -- about his growing problem: "I was afraid of them looking at me like a drug addict."

Which he was. But he couldn't admit it to himself. And when the Packers reached the postseason, codeine was affecting Jolly's performance. He had two tackles in an overtime loss at Arizona.

"I think I drunk too much, and ... I don't want to say I didn't play good, but to me, I wasn't feeling like this is a playoff game," Jolly said. "I had a couple of mistakes. I wasn't feeling like Johnny Jolly on the field."

Six months later, Johnny Jolly wasn't on the field. He was suspended indefinitely by the NFL and on a downward spiral that led to tougher times, prison and -- eventually -- reinstatement and rebirth. Jolly shared his story during two exclusive interviews, one in a 2012 sit-down in prison and the other, remarkably, 21 months later at Lambeau Field.

 

"I think I drunk too much, and ... I don't want to say I didn't play good, but to me, I wasn't feeling like this is a playoff game."

 

Johnny Jolly was glad to be back in the NFL and participating in the Packers' bike-ride-to-practice tradition during training camp.
- photo courtesy of Matt Becker/Packers.com

Today, Jolly is one of the most popular and beloved players in the Packers' locker room. He's also a 30-year-old man battling a decade-old addiction.

"He's a good guy," said Ryan Pickett, a fellow defensive lineman and close friend. "He just had a bad problem."

That problem was Purple Drank. Or Lean. Or Sizzurp. Or Syrup. Whatever you call it, it's illegal and highly addictive. The drink combines codeine (an opiate like heroin) and promethazine (from cough syrup), with a soda like Sprite or Mountain Dew, and gained popularity in the southern United States, actually originating in Jolly's hometown of Houston.

Jolly said he first tried Purple Drank in high school, and while he liked the sweet taste, he didn't have the money to buy it. That changed when he came home from college and could afford it. He said he used it once a month while at Texas A&M, but when he left early to prepare for the NFL Scouting Combine, he started drinking it more.

"It affected me bad," Jolly said last year. "I stopped working out, every day I was weak, because I would oversleep. I didn't really understand the effects. I was still young, and I felt like it wouldn't bother me at all."

Johnny Jolly participated in the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine and, two months later, was drafted in the sixth round by the Packers.

Jolly fell to the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft, when the Packers selected him. He celebrated by drinking codeine. But he maintained that he wasn't yet addicted, drinking it maybe once a week during his rookie season. Then in May 2007, a woman whom Jolly referred to as his "godsister" was murdered, and he started drinking daily to dull the pain.

"That was like the only thing that would keep me from not worrying too much and actually talk without breaking down," Jolly said.

The drug also served as a replacement for the painkillers that Jolly needed to deal with his football injuries. He was self-medicating for emotional and physical reasons.

"I tore my rotator cuff in midseason 2007," he said. "I didn't use any of the pills. I just drunk codeine."

Legal trouble soon followed. Houston police arrested Jolly in July 2008 after they found cups containing codeine in his car in a parking lot outside a nightclub. That same year, he also failed his first NFL drug test. Jolly blamed it on the people hanging around him. The Packers cautioned Jolly, but he turned a deaf ear to their entreaties.

"I had a talk with Coach (Mike McCarthy) after I got caught, and he was like, 'Get yourself together, stop hanging with the wrong crowds, doing the wrong things,' " Jolly said. "That's cool, but it was also giving me a cover, so I never would come off and say that was my fault, I was in the wrong and take full responsibility for something you can't do, that's against the law."

Jolly said he stopped using codeine about one month before training camp in 2008. He became violently ill, turning weak and vomiting as his body detoxed from the drug. He once had to ask his mother to take him to the hospital and told her he must have gotten food poisoning. He continued to lie to himself and others, but he said he could control his usage.

Until 2009, when he began using during the season.

Jolly began to believe he wouldn't play well without codeine. Not only had it become part of his night-before-the-game ritual, but his body grew accustomed to the drug, so he had to use more to maintain his high.

Then came the reduced production, the NFL suspension and the loneliness.

 

"I was hurt. I wanted to get away," Jolly said of his reaction to being suspended. "I didn't call no one, I didn't talk to no one for maybe a week. But I was drinking.

"I didn't know how to take that. (Playing football) was something I had been doing since I was 6 years old. And now I'm not going to be able to do it for a whole year. And the Packers' organization, the coaches were like father figures, the teammates were like brothers. I never grew up with a father. I had a father, but he was never in my life. You get taken away from all of that and you can't make no contact, you can't call, can't talk to them. It's like losing family members. It's painful."

Jolly's drug use only worsened after he was cut off from the team. "Every weekend when the games come on, the only way I watched was while drinking," Jolly said. "I couldn't sit up sober. I couldn't do it. It hurt. It hurt bad."

"I didn't want to use. I would pray at night, 'Lord, make me stop drinking, just please don't let me die.' But the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is drink."

 

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers raised the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions on Feb. 6, 2011. That day, Johnny Jolly sat in a Dallas-area hotel room doing drugs.

While Jolly descended into the abyss of his addiction, the Packers soared to the heights of the NFL, reaching Super Bowl XLV. Jolly still had no contact with anyone on the team, but he went to Dallas, thinking he could attend the game. As a suspended player, he was prohibited from doing so. So on Super Bowl Sunday, Jolly got high in his hotel room.

"Sitting in a room by myself drinking," he said. "That's the ultimate goal in the NFL -- to win a ring -- and I sat out and watched my team win a ring."

"I know he was in a dark place," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "It must have been very difficult to be separated from the thing that you love to do and you're passionate about and to see your buddies, your friends, your brothers achieve the ultimate goal in our sport. I think part of that has got to drive Johnny now, to have that feeling with his teammates and brothers that he missed out on."

While Jolly was out of sight, he was not out of mind in Green Bay, according to Rodgers.

"I think those who knew and loved Johnny, it definitely (occurred to us) at different times throughout (the) 2010, '11 and '12 seasons," Rodgers said. "What would it be like to see Johnny? What's Johnny doing? I wonder how Johnny's doing?"

Johnny was spiraling out of control. His second arrest came in March 2011, when police said they found a bottle containing 600 grams of codeine under a passenger seat and another bottle containing an unidentified substance during a traffic stop. One month later, Jolly pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge and was sentenced to five years' probation after striking a deal that spared him any prison time unless he stumbled again.

It didn't take long. Jolly started using codeine as soon as he got out of rehab.

"I didn't want to use," he said. "I would pray at night, 'Lord, make me stop drinking, just please don't let me die.' But the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is drink. I was gaining a lot of weight, I wasn't feeling right. I wasn't myself physically. I was numb to everything. It wasn't like it used to be; it was an entirely different feeling. It was a disaster."

Jolly estimated that he was drinking a 16-ounce bottle per day, at a cost of $600 to $800 each time. But reality hit in October 2011 with his third arrest in three years for possession of codeine and tampering with evidence. This time, the judge didn't cut Jolly any slack, sentencing him to a six-year prison term for violating the terms of probation. "When I was sentenced, actually I was peaceful," he said. "It was like, 'Thank God this is over with. There's things in place for me to help get myself together.'"

Jolly had reached the first step in his road to recovery. He admitted to himself that he was an addict. He lost his career, his multimillion-dollar contract, the structure and comfort zone of his team. Packers No. 97 was replaced by inmate No. 01753057.

 

"I needed this time to discipline myself ... When I was suspended, I didn't have no discipline -- doing whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it."

 

In the NFL, Jolly hid his addiction from his teammates. In prison, he opened up to fellow inmates who had struggled with and overcome it. Jolly said they mentored him and made sure he went to church and his support and drug education classes.

Jolly's first job at the James H. Byrd Unit, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison in Huntsville, came in the lunch room. Then he worked in the laundry room folding clothes. He described a stark and humbling existence when we visited him in prison in 2012.

"Here, you got an 8-by-8 section for your little room, you have a 2-inch mat," Jolly said.

What he did get in prison more than made up for what he didn't have.

"I needed this time to discipline myself again," Jolly recalled then. "When I was suspended, I didn't have no discipline -- doing whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it."

Above all, Jolly said his driving force to get clean and sober was his family. When he was abusing, his loyalty was to the drugs, not his loved ones.

Phyllis Jolly collapses as her son, Johnny, is sentenced to six years in prison in 2011. Johnny's time behind bars made him better appreciate his family.

"Back then, it was just, 'It's my life, I'm going to do what I want to do.' And I'm not thinking about my family," Jolly said. "Now I'm thinking about my mother, grandmother, the ones who were there daily for me. My wife (his then-girlfriend) came to see me every week, every Saturday, answered every phone call that I called home to. ...

"With all of that, it just motivated me to do better. It was just, 'Prove everybody wrong. They all thought I wasn't going to make it.' "

Jolly made it back in front of the judge who had sentenced him and presented his case for "shock probation," a Texas program in which a convicted criminal sentenced to prison says he has been "scared straight" and reformed by his six months in prison. In May 2012, Harris County Judge Denise Bradley granted Jolly's request and re-sentenced him to 10 years of probation, along with 200 hours of community service.

"I wanted to show her that if she gave me the opportunity to get out, I was going to do everything right to get where I needed to be," Jolly said. "And it wasn't perfect. But I attacked the shock probation like I attacked football. I took it that serious."

Jolly took outpatient classes, urinalysis tests four times per week, and had meetings with the judge and his probation officer. But the next step was a second chance in the NFL.

On Feb. 25, 2013, Jolly's mother called to tell him the letter he had long awaited finally arrived: The NFL had reinstated him after denying several previous applications.

"I went to my house, and when I opened the door, my mother, who's almost 50 years old, I swear she almost jumped up into the ceiling," Jolly said. "That's what it looked like to me anyhow. It was a great feeling. I called my grandmother, my uncle, a couple more of my family members, and I told them I got another chance and I'm going to take advantage of it."

Jolly's next milestone was his graduation from a court-mandated drug rehab program. Judge Bradley told Jolly: "I know I've seen a change, and I know your family has seen a change, and we are just so darn proud of you today just for the progress that you've made. I didn't know if we would see this day happen."

 

"I just laid it out on the line. I had no other choice but to tell the truth. ... That's one thing I could say I owed to them is honesty."

 

One huge hurdle remained: Would the Packers give Jolly the same second chance the court system did?

Jolly needed a strong voice to advocate for him. He found it in veteran agent Jack Bechta. Jolly initially was introduced to Bechta by Al Harris, his close friend, mentor and former Packers teammate. (Bechta represented Harris throughout his 14-year playing career.) Harris, who played for other NFL teams in 2010 and 2011, stayed in touch with Jolly throughout his suspension, and they constantly text each other to this day.

"You have all the friends in the world when things are going good," Harris said. "When things aren't, you're looking around. I really felt for him; he's a good kid. And there are some things only players would understand. Like financial responsibilities."

Harris helped Jolly and his mother keep their house by loaning them money for living expenses and the mortgage. Had it not been for Harris, Jolly's mother most likely would have been evicted. Harris also asked Bechta to help Jolly get back in the NFL. Harris also convinced Bechta to stay with Jolly, even through his arrests and incarceration.


"Please be sensitive to the fact that my window of opportunity to ever play again is closing quickly. I promise you that I won't let you down and (will) become a positive story for my family and the NFL."
-- Jolly in an Oct. 5, 2012 letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and exec Adolpho Birch


Bechta sought out Packers general manager Ted Thompson at the East-West Shrine Game, one month before Jolly's reinstatement. Thompson told Bechta that Jolly's focus should be on getting his life straight. Bechta argued Jolly never hurt anyone except himself and that he had a disease, an addiction. Jolly could be insulated but not isolated in "Titletown." Thompson and McCarthy met with Jolly before re-signing him for the veteran minimum of $715,000. (He would have made $2.52 million in the last year of his previous contract.)

"I was always rooting for Johnny in the back of my mind," McCarthy said. "When he walked through the door, I couldn't help but hug him. There's a personal side to this that you say, 'Don't let it cloud your vision or your decision-making,' and that's definitely something you always have to deal with but also always taking hold of my professional responsibility of making sure we picked the best 53.

"It wasn't really about just giving Johnny a chance because we personally cared about him," McCarthy continued. "That's what initiated it, but we also wanted to make sure he had a chance to be successful. We didn't want to put Johnny in a situation where he wasn't ready for it. There's a lot of pressure and anxiety that goes into an NFL player's daily life, and that's something I think that goes unnoticed sometimes."

Said Jolly: "I just laid it out on the line. I had no other choice but to tell the truth. I mean, I feel like if they know everything about me, where I'm coming from, they would understand my situation and we could go from there. That's one thing I could say I owed to them is honesty."

Johnny Jolly's straightforward approach with Packers brass led to him rejoining the team before the 2013 season.

"He was upfront and honest, straight shooter like he's always been," McCarthy said. "It's not what he said, it's how he said it. Looked you in the eye, was remorseful about what happened, couldn't believe that he was going to be given this opportunity."

Ten defensive linemen were vying for roster spots in Packers camp. Jolly was 30 years old and hadn't played a snap since that playoff game in January 2010.

"I never questioned, can I do this? It was always, how am I going to get this done?" he said. "What am I going to do to take this step to put me on the better level with these guys."

"There's only a few people that can do it: Take three years off football and pick up right where they left off," Pickett said. "And Johnny is one of them. He's just a special player, a special guy, a special talent. It's pretty remarkable how fast he got back on the field and picked up where he left off. And he's our vocal leader on the D-line."

 

 

Conditioning-wise, Jolly was working his way back. During a preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, he had an interception that led to near hysteria on the Packers' sideline. But he still had to make it to the final 53-man roster.

"Cutdown day was a bunch of sitting around, checking the Internet, hoping I don't get a call but hoping I do get a call saying I made it," Jolly said. "It was a tough time, like walking on nails all day."

He made it.

"He earned it, trust me," McCarthy said. "He earned his position on this team."

Said Jolly: "Our D-line coach (Mike Trgovac) called me that night congratulating me and said, 'Way to work.' But when I came in to practice the next day, it was like chaos. The players congratulating me, 'You made it, man. We're glad to have you here.'"

His teammates' support speaks to Jolly's popularity and the care and concern for him in Green Bay's locker room. And that pre-dated Jolly's return. Pickett kept in contact with Jolly's mother while Jolly was in prison. Linemate B.J. Raji even offered to help Jolly financially after he was reinstated. Jolly put his pride aside and gratefully accepted Raji's help.

"There's been a few of us that have definitely come around Johnny and made sure he knows that he had our support back then and he has our support now," Rodgers said. "We're going to walk him through this process of getting his life back together."

 

"He is loved and cared about, but there's an expectation that this is a second opportunity and he needs to make the most of it."
- Aaron Rodgers

 

J olly said he has been clean and sober since Oct. 1, 2011. He married his girlfriend, Voniecia, before training camp this year, so he has strong support at home. His teammates also understand the daily challenges facing a recovering addict. Whether it's a postgame celebration or just the defensive linemen hanging out, the players have Jolly's back and said they don't drink alcohol around him.

"We would never want to put that kind of temptation on him or anything like that," Pickett said. "We know, and we're aware. So we just do other things that are fun. You don't have to go out and have a drink to have fun. Do all these other things. Hang out, play cards, have food, wings, pizza and laugh, so that's what we do. Jolly will never turn down food!"

Johnny Jolly says he's been drug-free for two years, and teammates and fans have seen a changed man.

Said Rodgers: "He is loved and cared about, but there's an expectation that this is a second opportunity and he needs to make the most of it."

Jolly said he's not scared of relapsing, but he's cautious about anything that could trigger a yearning for codeine. After years of self-medicating and using codeine as a painkiller, he said he now takes Ibuprofen instead.

Jolly is on his last chance with the NFL. One more misstep -- a failed test, a missed test or failure to comply with his treatment -- will result in his banishment from league. He must undergo regular drug tests, attend counseling three times per week and meet with his probation officer in Houston at least once a month.

Jolly said he used to sit in his prison cell and fantasize about making plays for the Packers. This season, he has played in all four of their games, starting two. But he doesn't want to hear that he has arrived. His dream is a reality, yet it's still a cautionary tale.

"At the rate I was going, I could've been dead," Jolly said. "So I don't take nothing for granted right now. I was out of the game three years, I got reinstated, back with the team that I was drafted to, same jersey number. Same locker. The same feeling amongst the teammates. I can't do nothing to let those guys down, let my family down. It'll be like stabbing them in the back. I can't do that."

Andrea Kremer is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @Andrea_Kremer.

 

 

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