Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis Tackle Mental Health Issues

Brandon Sneed@@brandonsneedWriter-at-Large, B/R MagJune 13, 2018


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,'" Johnson said. "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.

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"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 done 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

Clearly, Portis was only here to talk with Johnson. I spoke with him for a few minutes here and there, and told him that I know he didn't expect me to be there writing about this—but if he did want to talk with me, 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 show people more about what they're going through than anything the two men could say to those cameras.

They were both 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 to trust. Though an NFLPA rep later told me that they'd both been told about me in an email, Portis and Johnson must have forgotten or overlooked it, because they clearly didn't know I'd be there to watch them film this, let alone record it and write about it.

They had no clue who I was. So even though I stood in that room with them for some five hours or more, I'm barely going to use any of it. As a journalist I could, but as a human being it would feel wrong to go into detail about all they said in that room since, when they agreed to this, they didn't know I'd be there to write about it.

Johnson met me for dinner later, though, and it was enlightening. Not just about him, or even about him and Portis, but about what's going on within all men like them.

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 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."

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."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

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.

"Wherever you are, you are looking to find the best," Portis said. "Therefore, you create this hunger for yourself that you can't really turn off. You're constantly looking for more, and nothing is ever going to be enough. It becomes a sickness of wanting more and of not being able to appreciate what you already have." 

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."

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. "This is some s--t neither one of us had control over," he said. "I don't like pitting athletes against athletes and stuff like that."

Portis grinned. "S--t," he said. "I was just gonna tell you I kicked your ass in D.C."

The room filled with 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—not with any kind of judgment, but with understanding, grace and compassion. "He's where I was about two or three years ago."

On camera, though, Portis came alive.

John Amis/Associated Press

And he preached. Forget all these old headlines, he said. "All these headlines, these were a kid," he said.

He said he doesn't know if people just wanted to see him fail or make him lower his head. "But you're not gonna get me there," he said. "You're not. The darkest moment of my life, I've come through. I've moved forward. So I walk around with my head up high, knowing I'm a standup guy. Knowing I didn't give up. That's the story. I'm not giving up."

He went on, "You can't look at 'Oh, well that's what he used to be.' Look at who I am now. You can't make me shy away or hold my head down. I'm gonna hold my head up high, because I came through all these headlines. When you wanted to see me fail, when you wanted to tear me down, when you wanted to count me out—now I'm here, to tell my story. No matter how you twist this story, I'm here. And you can't take me away. I'm here to stay. I'm here to last. And I have the determination to succeed past everything you have seen in the headlines."

Johnson asked Portis, "Where do you see yourself now, after coming from those headlines when you were younger?"

Portis replied, "Free."

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