Former Giant works to help others win fight against addiction

Dillon McCarthy of Waterford, a recovering heroin addict, speaks with former New York Giants wide receiver Bobby Johnson, also a recovering addict, at a rehabilitation center in Florida on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. (Submitted photo)
Dillon McCarthy of Waterford, a recovering heroin addict, speaks with former New York Giants wide receiver Bobby Johnson, also a recovering addict, at a rehabilitation center in Florida on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. (Submitted photo)

Community Speaks Out, the Groton-based group committed to fighting opioid addiction, added a new player to its roster last weekend: Former New York Giants wide receiver Bobby Johnson.

Johnson, 54, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., known for catching a season-changing pass from quarterback Phil Simms that helped propel the team to a Super Bowl win in 1987, recently took possession, once again, of the Super Bowl XXI ring that he had sold in the throes of a crack cocaine addiction that ended his NFL career after only three years. He has been sober for 14 years, and his former coach, Bill Parcells, arranged to buy the ring back and give it to Johnson during a team reunion in August.

"To be honest, I never thought I would ever see it again, on my finger, anyway," Johnson said during a phone interview Monday.

Lisa Cote Johns of Montville, co-founder of Community Speaks Out, saw a follow-up interview with Johnson and Parcells on ESPN on Oct. 3. She said she immediately looked for Johnson on Facebook and sent him a message. He responded, and they started talking. Johns, whose son Christopher died of a heroin overdose in October 2014, said she decided to recruit Johnson to tell his story and help prevent more deaths.

"He's an amazing guy," Johns said. "He's got a lot to tell."

Johns and Community Speaks Out member Kelley Magee McCarthy of Waterford met the former Giant in person last weekend in Florida. Johns was by his side when he spoke about his addiction experience to a group of 90 people in treatment at The Recovery Village in Maitland, Fla. Community Speaks Out has four local residents placed at rehabilitation centers in Florida, including McCarthy's sons, Dillon and Collin McCarthy. 

Johnson said he had never considered telling his story in that kind of setting, but that he got "a lot of pats on the back" and hopes he reached some of the young people.

"Nobody wants to be on drugs," he said. "Nobody wants to be addicted. Nobody wants to be in recovery. I told them, 'Give it 100 percent, like you did when you were doing drugs.' I tried to talk to each of them. I tried to hug all of them, and I gave them all my phone number."

Johnson kicked his own drug habit "cold turkey," by locking himself in a room at his mother's house. Back when he played with the Giants, he said Parcells was willing to help him, but he wasn't ready.

His drug use took everything from him, Johnson said. He didn't see his son for years. He was homeless for a period of time. He got shot at once, but he kept using. He said every day was like rock bottom, and he never thought he'd be clean.

One time, he said, he had his leg over the railing of a bridge and was getting ready to jump.

"What pulled me back, I have no clue," he said.

Johnson lost three fingers on his right hand when it got pulled into a machine while he was working at a manufacturing company in 1994. He isn't dwelling on his bad luck. He said he lives a "normal everyday life" with his girlfriend and her son. He works in shipping and receiving for a company that makes seating for cars. 

Johnson says he doesn't talk much about his football past and that he's "just Bobby." But not everybody finds themselves, like Johnson did during the Florida trip, being interviewed in the penthouse suite of the Palm Beach Resort & Spa with a legendary football coach. Johns accompanied Johnson to the hotel, where he and Parcells did follow-up interviews with ESPN, and to a nearby beach, where a film crew shot additional footage.

Johns said the spot will air at 6 p.m. Monday on "Monday Night Countdown," and that everyone is welcome to join her and other members of Community Speaks Out as they watch the show at Flanagan's Restaurant in Groton. Later that night, the Giants are playing the Cincinnati Bengals at MetLife Stadium.

Johnson said he would continue to work with Community Speaks Out and is looking forward to being the guest speaker at the group's Black Tie Gala on April 8, 2017, at the Port 'N Starboard Restaurant at Ocean Beach in New London.

"If it's in God's plans, I'm willing to do it," he said.

Johns said she is hoping to get Johnson more practice at speaking before the gala. She has been bringing audiences to tears with her own story and said she coached him while they were driving to the interview.

"I told him, 'Tell them you know what they're going through, and that you're an example of what they can do,'" Johns said. "He knocked it out of the park. Or should I say kicked a field goal? Or wait, he was a wide receiver, so he caught a touchdown pass."

Johns said one young man who heard Johnson talk said he had been in treatment for five days and, before he heard Johnson, was thinking of walking out.

Johnson also spent time with Dillon McCarthy, who remains in treatment in Florida, and with another young man from the area.

"It brought Dillon to tears when Lisa and Bobby were talking," said Dillon's mom, Kelley McCarthy. "He was never a crier."

Dillon, 19, was able to give the NFL veteran a couple of tips.

"He was telling Bobby, 'It's best if you just speak from your heart,'" McCarthy said. "He (Johnson) was extremely nervous. It was his first time. I hope this is therapeutic for him, speaking to these kids."

k.florin@theday.com

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