'I Was Going to Die Partying'

Going deep and getting real about what mental illness is really like with former NFL All-Pro RBs Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson

When former All-Pro NFL running back Larry Johnson walked into the condo on the 18th floor of a downtown Miami skyscraper, he saw fellow former All-Pro Clinton Portis for the first time in eight years. They were in Washington back then, where Johnson and Portis had been competing for playing time, only for Johnson to get released early in the season.

A dozen people filled the condo, which had been converted into a makeshift TV studio for the day. Two cameras and their lights were aimed at a gray marble table where Portis sat.

As Johnson greeted everyone, Portis barely glanced up and then went back to Solitaire on his iPhone.

Johnson—wearing a red bandana like a headband, blue slacks and a fitted blue henley unbuttoned down his chest—took a seat beside Portis, who wore a fitted pink polo shirt and light blue jeans. They dapped up. Johnson adjusted his seat and leaned over the table. A gold Buddha pendant on a chain fell out of his shirt and hung there.

To put it mildly, the two had beef, according to Johnson. Not just on the field, either; Johnson said there’d been a love-triangle situation back then involving a famous singer. But they’d squashed all that. After all, Portis didn’t have to be here—he flew in just for it. And though Johnson lives right up the road in Fort Lauderdale, he told me later, “I could’ve easily said, ‘F–k no, I’m not doing this s–t,'” Johnson said. “Or, ‘Pair me with somebody else.'” He shook his head. “This is bigger than that petty-ass s–t.”

“This” would begin with what was laid out on the table before them: a dozen pieces of paper, each one bearing a headline from or about their past. Ex-NFL player Larry Johnson arrested in Vegas. Learning from the sad story of former NFLer Clinton Portis. Clinton Portis drank Hennessywith Sean Taylor, Santana Moss before games. Johnson battles self-destructive impulses.

“There ain’t nothing but negativity in these headlines,” Portis said.

“That’s the idea,” a producer replied.

They were here to talk about their minds and their mental health, and the way the producers had decided to get into that was to get them talking about their darkest times. Show people what they went through and how they survived. The shoot is part of the NFLPA’s “Your Body, Your Mind, Your Health” campaign, a growing effort to highlight the resources the players’ union offers former players. Namely, the fact that whatever players need help with—from leaky roofs to mental illness—they can get it.

Later, Johnson will tell me he’s been pushing the NFLPA to do something like this for more than a year—”to get some real players talking about some real s–t.” He wants to talk mental health, but not just the usual stuff about concussions and CTE. And not even just how mental illness should be destigmatized, like how DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love and The Rockand so many others have done lately. He wants the conversation to go deeper, to get more raw. They want football players—and all people—with mental illness to not only be destigmatized but also understood.

Filming got underway, and that’s just what they talked about. They hit the expected beats about conquering shame, and getting help, and the different ways that people of different means can do so.

“People expect us to be like Teflon,” Portis said at one point, “but we’re just men.”

When Portis asked Johnson what he recommended for people who didn’t have immediate connections to the resources they did, what they could do, Johnson said simply, “Call someone. Anyone.”

But then, an hour in, Johnson abruptly left. “I gotta step out for a little bit,” he said. “I’m about to have an episode.”

He got up, unclipped his mic from his shirt and left it on the table. He moved past the half-dozen people and the cameras and left the room.

Lunch was delivered and consumed. Portis wasn’t feeling talkative. Other than some small talk about his kids and his nonprofit work in Haiti and the like, Portis spent most of the break on his phone.

Clearly, Portis was only here to talk with Johnson. I spoke with him for a few minutes here and there, and told him that I know he didn’t expect me to be there writing about this—but if he did want to talk with me, I’d write about it honestly.

He said, “Heard that before.” Then he glanced at the headlines spread across the table.

Meanwhile, some in the crew wondered if Johnson would even come back.

The way Johnson and Portis were acting could be misinterpreted in many negative ways, but understanding the mindset behind their actions can show people more about what they’re going through than anything the two men could say to those cameras.

They were both blindsided when they realized I was there: Talking about mental health is hard enough as it is, and it’s almost impossible to know who to trust. Though an NFLPA rep later told me that they’d both been told about me in an email, Portis and Johnson must have forgotten or overlooked it, because they clearly didn’t know I’d be there to watch them film this, let alone record it and write about it.

They had no clue who I was. So even though I stood in that room with them for some five hours or more, I’m barely going to use any of it. As a journalist I could, but as a human being it would feel wrong to go into detail about all they said in that room since, when they agreed to this, they didn’t know I’d be there to write about it.

Johnson met me for dinner later, though, and it was enlightening. Not just about him, or even about him and Portis, but about what’s going on within all men like them.

Continue reading at Bleacher Report.

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