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FILE -- This is a Sept. 20, 2009, file photo showing Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Chiefs have released troubled running back Larry Johnson. A two-paragraph statement from the team Monday, Nov. 9, 2009, simply listed Johnson's statistics and announced his release. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)


When former All-Pro NFL running back Larry Johnson walked into the condo on the 18th floor of a downtown Miami skyscraper, he saw fellow former All-Pro Clinton Portis for the first time in eight years. They were in Washington back then, where Johnson and Portis had been competing for playing time, only for Johnson to get released early in the season.

A dozen people filled the condo, which had been converted into a makeshift TV studio for the day. Two cameras and their lights were aimed at a gray marble table where Portis sat.

As Johnson greeted everyone, Portis barely glanced up and then went back to Solitaire on his iPhone.

Johnson—wearing a red bandana like a headband, blue slacks and a fitted blue henley unbuttoned down his chest—took a seat beside Portis, who wore a fitted pink polo shirt and light blue jeans. They dapped up. Johnson adjusted his seat and leaned over the table. A gold Buddha pendant on a chain fell out of his shirt and hung there.

To put it mildly—the two had beef, according to Johnson. Not just on the field, either—Johnson said there’d been a love-triangle situation back then involving a famous singer. But they’d squashed all that. After all, Portis didn’t have to be here—he flew in just for it. And though Johnson lives right up the road in Fort Lauderdale, he told me later, “I could’ve easily said, ‘F–k no, I’m not doing this s–t.’ Or, ‘Pair me with somebody else.'” He shook his head. “This is bigger than that petty-ass s–t.”

“This” would begin with what was laid out on the table before them: a dozen pieces of paper, each one bearing a headline from or about their past. Ex-NFL player Larry Johnson arrested in Vegas. Learning from the sad story of former NFLer Clinton Portis. Clinton Portis drank Hennessy with Sean Taylor, Santana Moss before games. Johnson battles self-destructive impulses.

“There ain’t nothing but negativity in these headlines,” Portis said.

“That’s the idea,” a producer replied.

They were here to talk about their minds and their mental health, and the way the producers had decided to get into that was to get them talking about their darkest times. Show people what they went through and how they survived. The shoot is part of the NFLPA’s “Your Body, Your Mind, Your Health” campaign, a growing effort to highlight the resources the players’ union offers former players. Namely, the fact that whatever players need help with—from leaky roofs to mental illness—they can get it.

Luis Gonzalez/NFLPA

Later, Johnson will tell me he’s been pushing the NFLPA to do something like this for more than a year—”to get some real players talking about some real s–t.” He wants to talk mental health, but not just the usual stuff about concussions and CTE. And not even just how mental illness should be destigmatized, like how DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love and The Rock and so many others have lately. He wants the conversation to go deeper, to get more raw. They want football players—and all people—with mental illness to not only be destigmatized but also understood.

Filming got underway, and that’s just what they talked about. They hit the expected beats about conquering shame, and getting help, and the different ways that people of different means can do so.

“People expect us to be like Teflon,” Portis said at one point, “but we’re just men.”

When Portis asked Johnson what he recommended for people who didn’t have immediate connections to the resources they did, what they could do, Johnson said simply, “Call someone. Anyone.”

But then, an hour in, Johnson abruptly left. “I gotta step out for a little bit,” he said. “I’m about to have an episode.”

He got up, unclipped his mic from his shirt and left it on the table. He moved past the half-dozen people and the cameras and left the room.

Lunch was delivered and consumed. Portis wasn’t feeling talkative. Other than some small talk about his kids and his nonprofit work in Haiti and the like, Portis spent most of the break on his phone.

PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 3: Clinton Portis #26 of the Washington Redskins watches the action against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on October 3, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

I told Portis that I knew he didn’t expect me to be there, and that if he didn’t want to talk with me, that was fine. He and Johnson both had been blindsided when they realized I was there: Talking about mental health is hard enough as it is, and it’s almost impossible to know who they can trust. Clearly Portis was only here to talk with Johnson. But if he did want to talk with me, I told Portis I’d write about it honestly.

He said, “Heard that before.” Then he glanced at the headlines spread across the table.

Meanwhile, some in the crew wondered if Johnson would even come back.

The way Johnson and Portis were acting could be misinterpreted in many negative ways, but understanding the mindset behind their actions can actually show people more about what they’re going through than anything the two men could say to those cameras.

Sometimes it’s a makeshift TV studio in Miami. Sometimes it’s sitting at home with friends and family. But Johnson just gets overwhelmed—by boredom, by bright lights, by too many sounds—and he’ll feel rage begin to rise. He knows it’s irrational even as it happens, but he also can’t make it go away. “It just comes,” he told me over pizza that night at Louie Bossi’s, a restaurant near his home in Fort Lauderdale. “There’s times I’m sitting there like, Why the f–k do I feel like this right now?

Which leads to the next natural question: Why the f–k do I do what I do?

That’s what Johnson wants people to understand. Not just that mental illness is a thing to be destigmatized and treated, but also why it becomes a thing in the first place. Maybe if people can understand the why they’ll stop being so shocked—and outraged—when people like him act the way they do. Maybe then young guys can get help before he did.

He remembers NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking him years ago, “Is this a pattern for you? You always get in trouble like this?”

“No,” Johnson replied. “But I certainly won’t be the last.”

Goodell looked confused and surprised.

“Yeah,” Johnson went on. “Guys out here are really like this. Not all guys are like me, but most guys are really impulsive, and they don’t think right or wrong.”

Johnson’s parents would get phone calls at all hours to come get him from bars or jail cells, where pills like Ecstasy and painkillers were falling out of his pockets and he was punching holes in walls. He was arrested for violence of all stripes, including against women. And when his career fizzled out in 2011 here in Miami, Johnson said, “I was like, ‘I’m going to the clubs. I’m taking private jets.’ I was going to die partying.”

His parents took control of his finances. “If I didn’t have my parents,” Johnson said, “I probably would be either in jail or dead.”

He knew that the way he behaved scared and confused people. Johnson was often usually as confused—and frightened—by his own behavior as anybody watching him. All he really knew was that if he didn’t go out those violent nights, he was more scared of what he might do at home. And when he considered ending his life, it was out of the same sort of fear.

“That’s what mental illness is,” Johnson said. “It has you thinking about s–t you don’t want to be thinking about, but it tries to convince you that this is your only way out—because you don’t want to hurt anybody else.”

Getty Images

Getty ImagesED ZURGA/Associated Press

Johnson said there’s a truth deeper than people want to see: “We’re trying to save you from what we could do.”

Johnson has been searching for truth—for the true source of his pain. He’s pretty sure he has CTE—the brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, which can only be definitively diagnosed until after someone has died. It is known to produce the type of behavior that has caused Johnson and so many like him so many problems.

But he also thinks there’s more to this than just CTE.

“When it’s 3rd-and-1,” Johnson said, “and they put the ball in your hands, it creates an impulse. It creates a stress state. Once you make that play, everybody is cheering—you feel that emotion.”

Johnson never felt more alive than that. Making that play—”It’s a high.”

As a child, Johnson says his parents basically only permitted talk of school and sports—no talk of girls, dating or partying—and when he inevitably resisted, he was told to read his Bible more so the devil and his demons wouldn’t get him. When he saw the old Steve Sabol NFL Films tapes showing highlights of Jim Brown and Walter Payton running through other men, he became—well, now the word he uses is “brainwashed.” He says, “That’s where it started from. Me wanting to be like those guys. And I would watch the films every single day before every game.”

Also, “Being a shy kid,” Johnson said, “I didn’t charm nobody. I couldn’t do s–t. The only way I could show you my emotion was, if I get you on a football field, and then I run you over.”

Of course, that was his gift and curse—he was a Heisman finalist, an All-Pro in the NFL, all that—but along the way, he says, all of life came to feel like an endless quest for the next 3rd-and-1. “You try to duplicate those emotions so that that’s how you feel. So like, how many shots can you take? Five shots of 151? And then you feel. It’s not the act of doing it—you feel the buildup to it. The act of doing that—after, you feel that old emotion.”

It’s always “3rd-and-inches,” he said. “I loooove the challenge of it, if I do or don’t get it. Because if I don’t get it, then I have to go even harder the next time.”

In other words: “It’s competition.”

And without that pressure, and the chance to conquer it, he forgot how to function. “You have to be able to duplicate it,” Johnson said. “Or you don’t feel alive.”

So life becomes football.

“You don’t appreciate what you already have, and it creates this hunger,” Portis said. “That becomes, like, this sickness of wanting more.”

There are still hard days. A couple of days prior to this sit-down with Portis, Johnson returned from a trip to Jamaica with his daughter. He dropped her off with her mother and then went home and drank a bottle of Jamaican rum he’d brought back with him. “My impulses are too much for me,” Johnson said. “Sometimes my demons win, sometimes they don’t. There are days I still get f–ked up. But I stay in the house doing it.”

He’s not proud of it, but he’s not ashamed anymore, either. “I wasn’t drinking it then, like, Oh my God, I gotta go to the strip club. Let me just go wild!” he says. “Nah. I don’t really do all that. I drank Jamaican rum, went to sleep, passed out, and that was it.”

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Johnson did return to the studio, about an hour after leaving. He and Portis dapped up again and then talked for about three more hours.

Johnson noticed one headline about Washington choosing Portis over him. He crumpled up that piece of paper and tossed it. “We’re not gonna talk about that, man,” he said. “That was them just trying to play us against each other.”

Portis lit up. “It’s all good, bruh,” he said. “I was just about to say I kicked your ass in Washington anyway.”

The room filled with light laughter.

During filming breaks, Portis kept to himself most of the day, and as soon as they were finished, he was out of there. “He’s just now starting to come around on all this,” Johnson said with a large serving of grace and compassion. “He’s where I was about two or three years ago.”

On camera, though, Portis came alive. And he preached. Forget all these old headlines, he said. “The darkest days of my life, I’ve been through them now,” he said. “Now, I’m going forward. That’s the story, no matter how you twist it. I’m here. All that was water under this bridge over here. Don’t look at who I used to be. Look at who I am now.”

Johnson asked Portis, “Where do you see yourself now compared to where you’ve been?”

Portis replied, “Free.”

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