Seven years ago, Ethan Johnson was the rated as the best high school football player in the state of Oregon, and the second-best defensive end in the entire United States. During his sophomore and junior seasons, he registered a combined 24 sacks, led Portland’s Lincoln High School to a 21-3 record, then won a scholastic-league shot put title almost as an afterthought.
Naturally, the recruiters came calling, representing powerhouse programs like USC and Michigan. Johnson accepted a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, and started four games as a freshman. By his senior season, he was the Irish’s active leader in sacks, and the question wasn’t if he’d play in the National Football League, but where he’d be drafted.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Because this weekend, as the NFL kicks off its 95th season, Johnson won’t be in uniform. Instead, he’ll be preparing for another week at Lincoln, where he works as a student support specialist. At 24, his dreams of playing professional football are more than likely over, thanks a concussion he suffered two years ago as an undrafted rookie trying to make the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster.
The injury ended his pro career before he’d ever played a single down, and would eventually land him in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. The physical pain has long since subsided. But Johnson still hurts.
“Getting fired from my first job because of a concussion still leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” he says. “I went to Kansas City’s camp and I felt like I was doing alright and then I got injured. I was concussed. I was technically still concussed and still under doctor’s care when they released me. The GM and the coach said they hadn’t seen enough to keep me.”
Clean-cut and burly, Johnson still looks like a pro football player. But his life is far removed from that now. His mission is not move mountainous guards or sack pass-happy quarterbacks. His job is to make sure students that fall behind in their coursework get back on track to graduate. He tutors and counsels the students at his alma mater. But often, his mind wanders back to that practice on July 31, 2012.
There he was, wearing the number 70 red, gold and white jersey at Spratt Stadium, the Chiefs’ summer training facility at Missouri Western State University. Camp was grueling, but the game’s gladiatorial heritage doesn’t allow for throttling back. Ethan, like every other player on the field, partly believed that he was made of iron, that he couldn’t be felled. But with one violent hit, that fallacy of invulnerability came to an abrupt end.
“It was a punt drill, one-on-one and I just took a hit to the helmet and got knocked on my butt,” he says. “I didn’t get knocked out. A lot of people think you have to get knocked out to get a concussion. Not true. I was just dazed and my head hurt.”
Initially, his concussion seemed mild, and coaches assured him he’d be back on the practice field soon. But the team’s medical staff kept him out longer than expected, and Johnson lingered in a professional purgatory. Until August 12, 2012, when the Chiefs cut him.
It was all over, and after rehabbing in Florida, he found himself back home in the Pacific Northwest. He needed to make money, so he took a job at Lincoln, and soon, Johnson was logging hours next to the very same teachers that molded him into a man they’d all hoped would go out and tackle the world.
Ethan’s time at Notre Dame was a cautionary tale of adaptability. In his four seasons, he played for four different position coaches and three different defensive coordinators. His best game was the 2010 season-opener against Purdue. It was Brian Kelly’s first as the new head coach, and under the watchful eye of “Touchdown Jesus,” the renowned mural on the soaring mosaic wall of the Hesburgh Library, Johnson registered two sacks on the Boilermakers’ fleet-footed quarterback Robert Marve. The Irish won, 23-12, kicking off a season they’d eventually wrap as Sun Bowl champions.
That was his junior year. His senior year was marred with injuries and family issues. A high ankle sprain forced him to miss four games, and with such a small sample-size of games for pro scouts to evaluate, it was imperative for Johnson to showcase his talents at Notre Dame’s Senior Day.
But while nine of his teammates participated in combine-esque drills for NFL teams, Johnson was 2,200 miles away, caring for his father, Daniel, an Iraq War vet who had been exposed to chemicals during his time in country, and was rapidly slipping away.
“His nervous system was deteriorating and I knew it was coming to a point of no return, so I wanted to go back home and take care of him,” Johnson says. “When I left for college, he was being very optimistic, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll be better, I’ll be fine,’ so I didn’t think much of it. But when I’d come home, he’d gotten worse. So I chose not to do my Pro Day.”
His decision to skip the workouts, coupled with his limited playing time as a senior at Notre Dame, meant that Johnson wasn’t taken in the 2012 NFL Draft. But the man who had recruited him, former coach Charlie Weis, managed to alert the Chiefs to his potential, and eventually, he signed a league-minimum deal with the team.
Like all undrafted free agents, Johnson lived in fear of being cut, though with his lingering ankle injury behind him, he was determined to show the NFL what they’d missed out on. But in May, he lost his father, and he headed to Chiefs camp with a heavy heart. And, according to some, the grief over the death of his dad only exasperated his concussion trauma.
“If you already have a somewhat dysfunctional brain before you injury it, the same injury is going to create a worse problem than if you have a brain that did not have any deficits previously,” Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the nation’s leading experts on repetitive brain trauma, says. “People who have depression, anxiety or panic disorder before they get a concussion take longer to recover than people who don’t have those underlying problems.”
Dr. Cantu, who also serves as a senior advisor to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, points out that “roughly 60-70 percent” of all blows to the head occur during practices, a fact that compelled the NFL Players Association to push for less full-contact sessions in the collective bargaining agreement two years ago.
While the new practice policy is a step in the right direction, Dr. Cantu warns that it won’t stop the onslaught of concussions and sub-concussions. That, he says, will require the league to downgrade from its current brand of reckless collision football.
“The new practice regulations will only reduce the total number of hits to the head and not concussions,” Dr. Cantu says. “Most concussions occur in game play because game play is much more intense than practice. But the NFL has really taken the lead by reducing the number of times you have your brain violently shaken whether you’ve had a recognized concussion or not.”
That’s of little solace to Johnson now. Instead, he’s looking for compensation from the NFL as part of a class-action lawsuit that alleges the league “concealed information about football-related brain injuries” (a claim the NFL denies). The suit made headlines in June thanks to a bizarre set of circumstances involving Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who first joined as a plaintiff, then withdrew his name, saying he was unaware he’d even been included in the first place.
Johnson’s complaint was one of more than 240 filed by former players, all of which have been consolidated into a single class-action suit. Last year, the NFL and representatives for the plaintiffs reached a tentative $765 million settlement to compensate an estimated 20,000 retired players and pay for concussion-related medical exams and research. A federal judge gave preliminary approval to revised version of the suit in June, with a decision on final approval set for November.
All former NFL players retired as of that preliminary approval will be eligible for benefits of the settlement – not just the ex-players who joined in suits. Though, once again, that puts Johnson in a difficult spot, since he’s yet to actually retire.
“It was my worker’s compensation lawyer that suggested I join the lawsuit,” Johnson admits. “He said, ‘Well, you have a concussion and right now you’re still injured, so it’s in your best interests to sign on.’ So that’s what I did. I just took him at his word and I signed on.”
Johnson didn’t know the lawsuit was only for retired players, and he’s embarrassed by his own naïveté. He’s currently seeking legal advice about what his next step should be, though he realizes his dream of once again playing pro ball may ultimately force him to withdraw from the suit. He could still receive settlement money, but he’d need to take a battery of tests outlined in the lawsuit to show he’s suffering from a concussion-related disability. And Johnson says he feels fine…and ready to play once again.
Yet it’s been two years since he’s been on an NFL football field, and the odds of a comeback grow longer with each passing day.
Though perhaps this is his true destiny: to eschew a life in the trenches for one of enlightenment. Johnson’s still struggling with a lifetime of loss, but he’s never considered himself a victim. His father would have wanted him to carry on, and so, he will.
“My dad was really big in my life,” Johnson says. “I was going really hard in camp, as best as I could. I wasn’t able to help my Dad, so I set out to do my best, to make the most of everything, to make him proud.”