If you happened to see Vance Johnson’s Facebook page on a particular afternoon this past February, you would’ve learned that the former NFL wide receiver had just $200 in his bank account and a big smile on his face. “I don’t owe anybody anything,” he posted.
Johnson had just written the final check on the million dollars he owed to various creditors as a result of a tumultuous multi-decade span of substance abuse, failed marriages, child-support payments, domestic abuse and other personal issues. A man who’d played in three Super Bowls had descended to a frightening level of despair prompted by dysfunctional relationships, financial ruin and near death.
Johnson is still working to repair—or at least mitigate the damage to—the lives he’s affected. It’s a complicated story, and there’s still no end in sight. On this day, however, Johnson is experiencing some of the blue skies and daylight he once experienced as a wide receiver outracing defenders on Sunday. “I was doing what was right for myself, and that leads to death,” says Johnson. “I died to myself. I learned that it’s about everybody else. That’s when you’re fulfilled.”
Johnson has been through treatment. He’s reached out to those he’s hurt—and there are a lot of them—to express his remorse. He’s working to help others racked by addiction and inner pain to find better ways. He’s married, for the ninth time, living in Malvern and working to gain some financial stability.
Mostly, Johnson is trying to learn how to move forward. His explosive past has brought him to this time and place, and he has no choice but to focus on the here and now. Johnson has embraced the opportunity to help others. But with so much collateral trauma in his wake, it’s quite possible that some see his positive outlook as selfish. He’s feeling good, but what about them? Johnson understands this. “Most of the people in my past hate me,” he says, without a hint of melodrama. “Now that I’m sober, I’ll do anything I can to forgive me.”
Johnson has seven biological children, plus two he adopted through his recent marriage to Michelle. One of his sons tried to kill himself, the toll of addiction and other difficulties too much for him without his dad in his life. Johnson went to his hospital room in Port St. Lucie, Fla., to offer support and love. “My son forgave me,” Johnson says.
Johnson estimates he does 70 speaking engagements a year and works to help addicts find treatment, just as the NFL helped him several years ago. He understands that the process of recovery is not easy—and it’s certainly not finite. “I’m going to meet people where they are,” he says. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get them into treatment so they can be free of the bondage. I want to lead people. There’s no walking off into the sunset for me.”
Though the average NFL career is less than four years long, Johnson was convinced he’d be the exception. He grew up in Trenton, N.J., and played college ball at the University of Arizona, not earning a degree. He spent 10 seasons with the Denver Broncos
as one of the Three Amigos, a triumvirate of receivers who competed against each other for quarterback John Elway’s passes.
Johnson caught 415 balls and scored 37 touchdowns during his career. But while he was thriving on the field, he was in big trouble elsewhere. “During the off-season, I was getting ready for the next season and the next divorce,” Johnson says. “I was trying to find enough money to survive and looking for the money that was stolen by my agent. I had a lot of things going on.”
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During that time, Johnson took pills and drank to cope with injuries. He didn’t see a problem developing, and he hadn’t come to terms with his abuse of women. He had no mind for the future, no money and no marketable skills beyond the field. After the 1995 season, the NFL no longer had a spot for him. “When the lights went off, I had no identity,” he says. “The only way I could cope was with more relationships with women and more substance abuse. I took pills to get up in the morning and go to sleep at night. I had several years of full-blown addiction.”
The lowest point came in 2007, when his son, Vaughn, died in a motorcycle accident. His car wasn’t running, and he needed his father’s help. Johnson didn’t answer the call, so he hopped on his bike. His death sent Johnson into an even deeper spiral. Over the next two years, he drank and abused pills until he was comatose. Eventually, “one of [his] ex-wives” called the NFL and helped him get into a 28-day program in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was forced to confront his addiction, understand what he’d done to others and craft a plan.
Like many recovering addicts, Johnson has found strength in his faith. “I went to church and watched my mom read the Bible and pray, but what I had wasn’t true faith,” says Johnson. “It wasn’t until I was in treatment that I found out that doing what I thought was good for myself leads to death.”
One of the steps in the recovery program directs addicts to make amends. As Johnson tries to do that, he continues to encounter anger. He knows the damage he’s done. And in many ways, that negative balance is a lot more difficult to satisfy than any monetary debts. But he’s trying—and his eyes are fixed squarely ahead these days. “Happiness goes away, but I have joy,” says Johnson. “I also have sadness, and I cry a lot. I hurt people.”