How Brain Trauma Can Cause Addiction - Page 3

By Adam K. Raymond 06/13/12

Lethal drug addiction is disturbingly common among pro athletes, like boxer Johnny Tapia and a long roster of NFL players, who suffer head trauma and chronic pain. Sadly, the more we know, the less anyone seems to care.

Tapia throws a left hook

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Ted Johnson is still alive, so he doesn’t know if he has CTE. However, given the 30 or so concussions he suffered over his NFL career, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn he does. What Johnson knows for certain is that his brain doesn’t work like it used to. In 2007 the then-34-year-old’s neurologist sad the longtime Patriot was “show[ing] the minor cognitive impairment that is characteristic of early Alzheimer's disease.”

In his playing days Johnson was a notoriously hard hitting linebacker with a head the size of a three-year-old. As he’d learn, large doesn’t mean indestructible. In a four-day span during the summer of 2002 Johnson suffered two concussions, one in a pre-season game and the other in practice. Throughout the subsequent season he felt listless and cloudy. The effects lingered and in 2004 he received his first prescription for Adderall to help focus. It worked and in 2005, his first and only season while taking the amphetamine, Johnson had a career year. But in the offseason the thought of that warm, gooey haze that so often accompanies a hard tackle made him physically sick. He retired but things got worse. 

Johnson began to relay on Adderall more after leaving football. Off it he was tired and dizzy. On it he could function. Soon Johnson was visiting five doctors, telling each a different story that ended with him describing ADHD symptoms. “I became a pretty effective liar,” Johnson told 5280 magazine. “I just had to remember what story I told to what doctor; who was giving me 50 milligrams, who was giving me 75. As long as I kept the stories straight....”

Johnson went public with his addiction in 2007, a few months after the suicide of hard-hitting Eagles safety Andre Waters, who was diagnosed with CTE. “Every day there is a new study linking concussions to depression, as well as early onset of Alzheimer's disease,” Johnson told the Boston Globe. “It doesn't have to happen. It shouldn't happen. I don't want anyone to end up like me.”

There are already many others like Johnson. Some of them make up a group of 2000 players who’ve joined together to sue the NFL. They’re alleging that the league failed to act on knowledge of long-term neurological risks associated with football and willfully withheld information from players about the risks posed by concussions. The mega-suit combines more than 80 pending lawsuits against the NFL and asks the league to take responsibility for the care of players afflicted with neurological disorders. 

Of course, it’s important to note that thousands of people have played competitive contact sports without experiencing neurological issues. Among the unlucky who have, only a fraction developed a drug problem. And even within the group of former athletes who experienced concussions and addiction, other risk factors could have contributed to their drug dependence. Johnny Tapia, for example, grew up poor, lived with emotional trauma and was bipolar. Derek Boogaard coped with depression and countless bodily injuries. Ted Johnson and Tom McHale turned their joints to dust on the football field.

But if we’re willing to allow that those factors contributed to their addictions, shouldn't we also consider the brain-bouncing hits each took as his frontal lobe was reduced to an inferior version of its former self? Absolutely, because head trauma doesn’t have to cause addiction to help it on its way. 


Adam K. Raymond is a frequent contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Daily, Vulture and He lives in Indiana. But not for long.


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Adam K. Raymond covers politics and sports for New York Magazine. Visit Adam's website and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.