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Vance Johnson
Vance Johnson

My father was an alcoholic New Jersey gang-banger who got into a lot of trouble in the 1950s. To avoid jail time, he went into the army and was stationed at Ft. Huachuca in southern Arizona. The Army straightened him out, and he put aside his old ways – at least for a while.

Vance Johnson
Vance Johnson

One night at a party, he met a young lady. He was 21; she was 15. He visited her in Marana, Arizona, where she picked cotton for 16 cents a day. A romance soon blossomed. He asked her to marry him in her sophomore year. Her father gave his blessing. When he got out of the service a few years later, they moved back to New Jersey. I was born in 1963 and spent my childhood in Trenton.

Shortly after the move, my father went back to his old ways and began abusing my mother. They separated, and she brought me back to Arizona, leaving my dad in New Jersey. He followed sometime later, and convinced her to move back to the East Coast. My sister was born shortly thereafter.

The abuse continued. Our family was deeply traumatized by the horrors of domestic violence. The beatings were bad: lots of screaming, crying and bedlam. My beautiful, saintly mother suffered terribly.

I ran. It was a high for me. Somedays I ran so much that I would pass out; I was just a young kid running from what he was experiencing. I would disappear into my own head. It was my escape.

I started getting involved in more sports so I wouldn’t have to be at home. The chaos seemed less when I was winning, when I was the hero. Sports became everything to me. I’d play and practice from 10 AM to 11 PM; I even had a key to the gym. I was doing really well, often placing at the top in the state and even the country.

I didn’t have a good relationship with my father and feared I might grow up to be like him, an abusive, womanizing addict. I didn’t want to be like him, but I didn’t know how to be any other way in a relationship, so I stayed away from girls. At 15, I decided to avoid any kind of relationship with sex and women. I just didn’t want it. When I got big enough and strong enough to stand up to my father, I threatened him, telling him that if he hurt Mom again, I’d kill him. I did end up kicking his ass, but his behavior didn’t change.

In 1976, Mom left him for good and we moved to Tucson, Arizona, where I attended high school and continued to excel in sports, particularly football and track. My father moved there after a while, but he couldn’t persuade my mom to live with him again.

In my senior year, at the urging of my coach, I accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Arizona. This gave me the chance to go to college and play sports while staying close to home. The following spring, I won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) long jump competition. I excelled in football in my senior year and was one of the collegiate athletic conference top receivers. Through high school and college, I never smoked weed, drank or took drugs. Sports were my high.

After graduating in 1984, I went to the Olympic Trials in track and was selected as an alternate. I could have gone to the next Olympics, but instead I decided to try out for professional football. I wanted to make some money! I entered the 1985 National Football League (NFL) draft and was picked up by the Denver Broncos in the second round. The stress was tremendous.

My first year in the NFL, I started dating a woman. We had been dating for a short time when, after a bad game where I dropped a punt, she told me she was pregnant. The next day, on the way to practice with some teammates, we stopped at a liquor store. My friends bought tequila, and I decided to try it. That tequila led to daily drinking mixed with the pills I took for anxiety.

My girlfriend and I got married in Vegas. At practice sometime later, I overheard the guys talking smack about my wife. I ran home screaming and yelling and pushed her into a closet door. She hit her head and fell down unconscious; I thought she was dead. I carried her into the bathroom and splashed water on her face. Even after she came to, I was still angry and began punching the walls, just like my father used to do. Our marriage ended not long thereafter.

By this time, I was getting high and using whatever I could to cope, but was careful not to get caught. I’d sober up on my way to the weekend games. Sometimes I’d get pulled over, but I’d offer the cops tickets to the games and managed to skate by without an arrest. But, my life was a wreck and getting worse.

My domestic problems were always related to drugs. Through the years, I was married and divorced several times. I was an absentee father to my children. My finances were a mess; I was bouncing checks and falling behind on child support. I also went to jail after crashing into one wife’s car. Through all this I called myself a believer, but I sure didn’t act like one. Somehow, no one realized I was an addict, including me.

In 1996, a year after my career in football was over, I tried to commit suicide. There I was, driving down a highway, crazy high and hallucinating. By then I was using drugs to manage all the craziness in my head, but it wasn’t working. When I got home, I pulled off all my clothes and lay naked in my garage, paranoid and banging my head on the ground as I cut my wrists. I called my attorney for help and told him I was losing my mind. I was desperate; to this day, I don’t know how I survived.

It was clear I needed a fresh start, so I moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, leaving my kids with their various moms. In 2007, after my fifth divorce, I remarried and tried to settle down with my new wife and my three now-teenaged sons. Running from my addictions, I scaled down the drinking, opened a couple of businesses and started attending church with my family. Although I had already damaged so many lives, I continued womanizing, smoking weed, drinking and taking pills.

My oldest son, Vaughn, who would always say, “I want to be like you, Dad,” was attending college in Grand Junction. Having blown the engine in his car, he was working for me to earn money for the repairs. One morning, he decided to take his motorcycle up to Ft. Collins to visit his grandfather.

I was in the bar drinking Patrón at my restaurant when my ex-wife called me. “I’m broken,” she said. “Our son is dead.” Vaughn had been hit and killed by a drunk driver who ran a stop sign. I fell to my knees. I drank the whole bottle of tequila, then another, and walked through the restaurant and out the front door. My father threatened to kill me because I was acting so crazy, so I threw him on the ground outside the restaurant. Life as I knew it was over. I was never again the same person.

I used to think I would get through it, but now I don’t want to!

I blamed my dad. I blamed myself for not fixing the car that Vaughn should have been driving. Over the following two years, I drank, smoked, took pills and had relations with anyone who wanted to be with me. Slowly, but surely, I was killing myself.

When 2012 rolled around, I was going through yet another divorce and hurting emotionally and physically. My bloodwork was off, so my mom took me to the hospital where I fell into a coma. I remained in a drug induced coma for 26 days. My pastor prayed over me, my daughter and sister said their goodbyes. No one thought I would make it.

There I was, 50 years old, tied to a hospital bed. During rare moments of clarity, I wondered if this was how it was all going to end. As I lay in that bed, I had visions of dark shadows walking in the room as if to take me with them when I passed from this world. They came every day, but they never took me.

When I was finally released from the hospital, I thought I could go back and work like I did when I was young. I tried this for a while. Things began to turn around again.

One day, I went golfing with some friends and decided I could have a drink. From that moment, everything went downhill fast. I quickly graduated to weed, more alcohol, and pills to help me not drink so much. Before long, I was peeing in glasses and on myself; puking blood; and even drinking from glasses of pee, which I mistook for whiskey in my drunkenness.

In early 2014, I was drunk and driving down the road, crying and screaming to God to help me. I had no money, no kids, no relationships, nothing to leave behind. I reached out to the NFL. They called Randy Grimes, a former center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Randy had turned his life around and was working as an interventionist in North Palm Beach, Florida.

The NFL sent me to treatment. When I got there, I was surrounded by losers. I had assumed I’d be on a beach with other athletes talking about old times. It wasn’t like that.

One day, a voice in my head told me that I was sick, but I could get sober if I accepted the help being offered to me. I began seeing my peers in a different light. As they talked, I listened and began to understand my own underlying issues. I attended church and got into the Scriptures. I walked in His light and understood that I needed to become “sober-minded.”

My journey was not just about becoming sober. I knew that I could not maintain my sobriety if I didn’t continue to learn about the disease and about my own spirit. When I left rehab, I stayed away from fame, the Broncos and everything that had destroyed my previous life. I went to meetings and really listened.

A treatment program offered me a job for $200 per week and a bus pass. At the same time, the Broncos offered me $2,000 per week to represent them around the country. I called my mother. “I’m not worried,” she said. “You’ll do the right thing.” I did. I got on the plane to Tampa for the $200 per week paycheck.

God gave me my true self back. I found my son Vaughn’s grave and promised him that I’d never allow another young man to lose his life like I did. Today, I speak around the country. I talk about my life, my children, what happened to me, and how things changed for me when I learned about my addiction. I tell people that they can change their lives, too.

Today, I am married, and love my wife. We have amazing children, a twelve-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. My wife comes first, then all my kids, then my job. God encapsulates all of it. Though sometimes things are tough, I never stop the journey. I attend meetings where there are newcomers. I’m involved in recovery every day – it’s my daily lifestyle. I hope you will walk with me in this battle to end addiction.

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