Bobby Johnson won the 1987 Super Bowl with the New York Giants before a crack cocaine addiction ended his career, left him homeless and nearly drove him to suicide. Today, Bobby has been sober for more than 14 years and uses his story to show others that addiction is not a fatal diagnosis and there is life in recovery.
There is something calming about Bobby Johnson. His firm handshake accompanies a gentle and kind demeanor. He wears a sizable cross on a modest necklace and is definitely an athlete — hovering at about six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds. It is no surprise when he says he used to play wide receiver for the New York Giants.
Talking to Bobby today, you would never guess he was addicted to crack cocaine for nearly 20 years.
Bobby was born in Shelbyville, Tennessee, in 1961. Bobby’s father was in the Air Force, and his family moved around frequently when Bobby was a child.
His parents never abused alcohol or drugs, and he was never interested in getting high or drunk either. He was too focused on his passion: football.
Football was always a big part of Bobby’s life. The former NFL champion played in his first football game at the age of five in Pensacola, Florida, when his dad was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base.
“Other kids wanted to be doctors, lawyers, dentists, chiropractors; I wanted to be a football player,” Bobby said, speaking to a crowd at Next Step Village in Maitland, Florida.
When Bobby was 10 years old, his father retired from the Air Force and his parents divorced. His family settled In East St. Louis, Illinois. Bobby remained there until he graduated from high school in 1980.
Throughout his high school football career, Bobby played running back and quarterback. It was not until he went to college at the University of Kansas that he became wide receiver, the position he would play for the rest of his football career.
“Other kids wanted to be doctors, lawyers, dentists, chiropractors; I wanted to be a football player.”
Bobby played three seasons at the University of Kansas, improving with every season.
His first playing year was in 1981. He played in all 11 games and averaged 16.2 yards per catch.
After a coaching change in his second season as a Jayhawk, Bobby’s game started to take off. He had 428 yards receiving on 18 receptions in 1982 before exploding in the 1983 season.
That year, Bobby had 1,154 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 58 receptions.
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College was also where Bobby first experimented with drugs and alcohol, though he says it was not a big part of his life then.
“I never used a drug in my life until I got to the University of Kansas,” said Bobby. “There, I smoked a little weed, drank a little beer. Never did anything hard.”
After college, Bobby eyed the NFL.
Getting to the NFL was not a sure thing for Bobby. Despite having a solid playing career at Kansas, Bobby did not garner the attention of NFL scouts.
“My journey was a little different from most players; most players are drafted,” Bobby told DrugRehab.com. “I was an undrafted player, and I had a choice to go to New York, Dallas or Atlanta. Why I chose New York I have no clue, but I ended up in New York and actually made the team.”
Bobby joined the New York Giants in 1984. At the time, the Giants were an up-and-coming team with a first-time head coach who was working to turn the franchise around. That coach was Bill Parcells.
“I loved Parcells,” Bobby told New York Daily News in 2007. “He took me to another level.”
In 1984 as a rookie, Bobby saw immediate success. He led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns — going for 795 yards and 7 touchdowns on 48 receptions. He ranked in the top 25 in the NFL for receiving yards and was tied for 11th in the league for touchdown receptions.
Bobby followed up his rookie campaign with a strong second season in 1985. He had eight touchdowns, tied for 8th most in the league and averaged 16.2 yards per catch.
“I started every game I was there up until the end of the 1986 season,” said Bobby.
He was at the start of what looked like a very successful NFL career. He was not the biggest or fastest wide receiver, but he performed well under pressure.
In less than a year crack cocaine would end his career.
Partying is almost a rite of passage for NFL players. When Bobby entered the NFL, his social life revolved around money, women and drinking.
During the 1985 season, Bobby and another teammate invited some women to his apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey. One of the women brought cocaine to the apartment.
“I had never seen it before in my life, cocaine or crack,” said Bobby.
“I tried it, and for the next twenty-something years I was addicted because after that night I was chasing that same high for years.”
Bobby snorted a couple lines of cocaine. He immediately liked it, and the group continued to party throughout the night.
Later in the evening, one of the women made crack rocks by boiling cocaine with baking soda and water in a spoon. She implored Bobby to try it.
“I tried it, and for the next twenty-something years I was addicted because after that night I was chasing that same high for years,” said Bobby.
Crack was rampant in New York in the 1980s.
“It was on every street corner,” Bobby said. “Everybody knew it, knew where it was at or could get it for you and being an athlete, people would offer it to you.”
Bobby was now regularly smoking crack. He loved the feeling it gave him. He loved how he acted when using crack.
“The high was euphoric,” he said. “It made you feel like you could do anything, say anything. You just feel on top of the world.”
By the time the 1986 season rolled around, his primary focus was getting high. Playing football and using crack became a balancing act.
Bobby’s sleep habits had become irregular. He began showing up late to practice and was often exhausted from being up all night smoking crack.
“I would go to practice and as soon as practice was over I was looking for somewhere to get high,” he said. “Your focus is on just getting high, that’s it.”
Although his teammates and coaches started to take notice of Bobby’s problems off the field, he was still producing on the field.
Crack was taking over Bobby’s life.
After a play known as “4th and 17,” a play that should have been the start of a long, successful career, his addiction spiraled out of control.
When he was not playing football, he was getting high. When he was not using crack, he was thinking about using crack.
“When you’re coming down, you want to look for more,” said Bobby. “You don’t feel good at all; your main concern is trying to find more.”
Bobby was losing his ability to keep up with his responsibilities. His teammates and coaches knew something was wrong, but Bobby never told them about his drug use.
Bobby says that during that time, crack was so new that people did not know how to help those addicted to it. He looks back now and says that he should have asked the team for help.
“Nobody knew what to do or how to help me, and I didn’t even know, being on the drug I didn’t know how to get off of it or what to do,” said Bobby. “If [the team] would have known, I promise you they would have helped me.”
“When you’re coming down, you want to look for more. You don’t feel good at all; your main concern is trying to find more.”
Bobby continued to struggle to meet his obligations for the Giants. On top of being late to practice, he was beginning to miss team meetings and events.
Still, the Giants were riding high with a 14-2 record going into the playoffs. At the same time, Bobby’s struggles off the field were beginning to affect his performance on the field.
During the divisional round of the playoffs when the Giants beat the San Francisco 49ers 49-3, Bobby registered just one catch for 15 yards.
The tipping point came on the day of the NFC Championship game. Bobby spent the night before at a hotel and returned to his home in the early morning to smoke crack. After getting high, Bobby fell asleep.
When he woke up, he was already late for warmups for the game. He tried to get to the stadium as quickly as he could, but game-day traffic slowed him down as he frantically drove to the stadium.
When he arrived in the locker room, Jim Burt and Lawrence Taylor scolded and shamed him.
Bobby finished the game without a reception, but it didn’t matter; the Giants were going to the Super Bowl.
“As a kid you dream about it, and to actually walk out there and be playing in the [Super Bowl], there’s no better feeling,” said Bobby. “No better feeling in the world.”
The Giants coasted their way to a 39-20 Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos. Phil Simms had one of the best performances in Super Bowl history, completing 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
Bobby played in the game but never caught a pass. He finished the playoffs that year with one reception for 15 yards.
“I didn’t have a catch in that game, regret it to this day,” said Bobby. “I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve to even be on the team.”
Bobby knew his time with the Giants was running short. His frequent drug-induced tardiness and erratic behavior was not going to be tolerated into the next season.
As the clock ran down to the final seconds in the game, Bobby sat on the bench and cried. He sobbed as he told teammate Tony Galbreath “I’m gone, man.”
Bobby had achieved a dream he’d had since he was a kid: to become a Super Bowl champion. It was the last game he would ever play in the NFL.
“The reason I only played three years and the Super Bowl was my last game was because I put drugs in front my career and my teammates,” said Bobby.
The Super Bowl was over and the Giants management was preparing for the next season.
In the 1987 draft, the Giants selected three wide receivers in the first four rounds. To Bobby, that was the final confirmation that he was on his way out.
In the middle of a training camp practice in August 1987, Bobby was traded to the San Diego Chargers. His move to the Chargers meant he would have to pass a physical and a drug test.
“Before I even got off the plane [to San Diego], I was cut,” he said. “I took a drug test and it was dirty.”
Bobby was officially out of the league. He would never play in the NFL again.
Bobby now had no income, no job and no one to hold him accountable for his actions. Crack became his only joy in life. He smoked it all day, every day.
He moved back to Nashville shortly after that. From 1987 to 1988, he smoked crack every day.
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He worked sporadically, always using the money he earned to buy crack. He was burning through all the money he made during his football career as well.
His life spiraled out of control. He lost his car and his home. With no income, he was forced to live on the riverfront in Nashville. He was homeless for two years.
If he could beat others to the mission, Bobby would sleep in a bed indoors. When he could not get in, he would go down to Riverfront Park in downtown Nashville to claim a park bench for the night. He would not close his eyes until the sun came up the next morning to make sure he was aware of his surroundings and could protect himself.
While on the streets, Bobby was desperate for money to feed his addiction. During that time, he did the unthinkable in order to buy crack: he pawned his Super Bowl ring.
“I pawned it for $250 at a pawnshop in Nashville, Tennessee,” said Bobby. “I was thinking I was going to get it back. You have to pay so much a month or week to keep it. But I was using that money to get high, so it wasn’t on my mind. Just getting high was on my mind at that time.”
Bobby was firmly in the grasps of addiction. He had lost everything he’d worked so hard for to crack. Still, he had not reached the point that could motivate him to get sober.
Today, Bobby will tell you about three events that changed his life, three events that caused him to get sober.
Today, Bobby attributes his recovery to three events that sparked his desire to change. The first came during a visit to his mother’s house in 1989.
“When I walked into my mother’s house one day, she was like ‘You look disgusting. I’m embarrassed that you’re my son,’” said Bobby. “I was looking like I was half-dead — ashy, grey, dehydrated, hungry, tired, disheveled — looking ridiculous.”
Bobby weighed a mere 145 pounds at that time. His crack addiction had taken such a physical toll on his body, he was almost unrecognizable.
The second event that prompted Bobby’s recovery almost cost him his life.
“I was homeless on the river front. I had some drugs,” he said. “Somebody was trying to take my drugs from me, pulled a gun on me, actually shot and missed before I took off running.”
The decision to commit suicide in 2002 was his third life-changing event and Bobby’s turning point.
“I had my leg over a bridge one night getting ready to end it all,” he said. “I was like ‘I give up.’”
Depressed and straddling the rail of the bridge, Bobby stopped.
“Somebody, someone said ‘nah, you can’t go out like this,” he said. “I pulled my leg back over and I’ve been clean ever since. Never touched another piece of crack in my life.”
Bobby has no doubt that it was divine intervention that pulled him back over that ledge.
“It had to be a heavenly power bigger than me, way bigger than me,” said Bobby. “At that time, I knew God was in my life, but I didn’t accept him and didn’t have the faith that I have now in him. But if he didn’t pull my leg back over, I would have jumped. No problem, I would have jumped.”
To get sober, Bobby needed help. He did not take the traditional route of treatment centers and sober living houses. Bobby relied on his family to get him through his addiction.
“I just locked myself in my mother’s house and, one day at a time, hung around my family,” said Bobby.
Bobby thinks about how great it would have been for him if the NFL’s substance abuse program was as comprehensive as it is today. He says he gladly would have taken a four-game suspension and drug abuse counseling, the typical protocol for players who violate the league’s substance abuse policy today, if it could have helped him overcome his addiction and save his career.
Bobby also says he wishes he knew about rehabilitation facilities in the 1980s.
“If I could have found [rehab treatment] when I was playing football it would have made a difference back in the 80s,” said Bobby. “If I could have found [treatment], my life might be totally different.”
Recovery has not been easy for Bobby. He’s battled homelessness and poverty for much of the time that he has been sober. He had to rely on his friends and family for shelter while he worked through his demons.
Despite everything he has had to overcome, Bobby is nothing but positive and remains upbeat. Recovery has given him a new life.
After 14 years of sobriety, his redemption finally arrived in 2016 with some help from his former coach.
His days of addiction were behind Bobby. He had overcome crack and was rebuilding his life. He became closer to God and his family. He was not chasing a high anymore; he was simply living a fulfilling and honest life.
Bobby, who spent years embarrassed and hiding from his family, friends and former teammates and coaches, was ready to reconnect with the people who had been important in his life.
In 2011, the Giants hosted a celebration to honor the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Super Bowl team. For the first time in 25 years, Bobby joined his teammates and coaches and was proud of who he was and what he was doing with his life.
“He was different,” Parcells told ESPN. “He was good. He came right up to me, he gave me a big hug, told me the dark days were over. You could just tell that things were a lot better for him.”
Bobby had been sharing his story of overcoming addiction. It had a profound impact those who heard it.
Bobby’s story particularly resonated with a close friend of Parcells named Lee Einsidler. Upon hearing Bobby’s story, Einsidler — who had never met Bobby before — called Parcells immediately.
“Right after that aired, Lee called me and he said, ‘You know, Bill, we need to try and get this guy his ring back,’” Parcells told ESPN. “And I said, ‘Well, Lee, I would like to assist you in doing that, if you would be gracious enough to let me.’ Which he was.”
Tales of Bobby’s journey and the campaign to get his ring back reached ESPN in 2016. The sports channel sent reporters out to chronicle Bobby’s story for a piece that aired before the Giants-Vikings Monday Night Football game earlier this season.
Meanwhile, Einsidler tracked Bobby’s Super Bowl ring to a memorabilia dealer in Long Island. He and Parcells split the cost to purchase the ring.
“Once you get clean and sober, good things start happening to you.”
On Sunday, October 3, 2016, the Giants honored 75 team alumni, including Bobby, at MetLife Stadium during a pregame ceremony.
Before the ceremony, Giants Senior Vice President Chris Mara pulled Bobby into a private room. Mara told Bobby that he, Parcells and Einsidler had found his ring.
“Through the efforts of some very good people, we were able to recover your ring after all these years. We want to present it to you today.” Mara said as he handed Bobby his ring.
Bobby, in disbelief and overjoyed, started crying. He thanked Mara and called Parcells.
Bobby said that, during the phone call, Parcells told him to put the ring on, to never take it off and not to lose it again. Bobby promised he never would.
To him, the ring was not a symbolic memory of a life he lost to addiction; it was the reward for everything he’d overcome.
“It just proves that dreams come true,” said Bobby. “Once you get clean and sober, good things start happening to you.”
Bobby has found a new life path in recovery. He spends much more time with his family than he did while he was using crack.
He says that support from his family is what has gotten him to where he is today.
He’s also been able to reconnect with someone he thought he would never have a relationship with: his son.
When Bobby was in college, his girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy. He wasn’t there for his son, who is now 31 years old, while he was using crack. Sobriety has given Bobby a second chance at a relationship with him.
“Me and my son are just now getting back in contact,” said Bobby.
Bobby has also begun speaking to others about his journey in hopes it can help others who may be struggling with similar challenges. He even traveled to Florida recently to talk to a group of individuals who are in treatment for substance use disorders.
He hopes to continue to share his story as a motivational speaker.
“It just proves that dreams come true. Once you get clean and sober, good things start happening to you.”
“I just hope that I can help somebody,” he said.
He also wants to be an advocate for eliminating the stigma that comes with drug addiction. He wants the world to know that people with drug addictions do not have moral deficiencies.
“We’re all good people; we just made the wrong choices in our life at a certain time,” he said. “We’re all human beings, we’re all good people. We bleed, we cry. We just happen to be addicted to bad things.”
For people fighting addiction, Bobby has a message:
“You can get cured, but you can’t give up. You might relapse 10, 20, 100 times, but you cannot give up. There’s a reason why you [tried to reach recovery] the first time. You’re trying. Just keep trying.”
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