The Green Bay Packers quarterback had just been asked about something he’d said repeatedly throughout training camp: That he liked the vibe of this year’s team, that he liked the feeling he got whenever he walked into the locker room this spring and summer. He had talked previously about the youth on the roster, about a hunger that he felt had been absent last season, about an edgier attitude that he believed had been lacking for awhile.
But instead of expounding on those thoughts when asked the question – Can you articulate exactly why you feel so good about this team? – Rodgers answered with the name of the person he believes personifies everything he’s been talking about.
“Johnny,” Rodgers replied, “Jolly.”
He offered nothing more, as if his answer was completely sufficient. Because in his mind, it was.
“No,” Rodgers said, seemingly annoyed that the listener might not believe him. “In all seriousness, that's a big part of it.”
John Lucas was not surprised in the least when told of Rodgers’ answer. The former NBA star and coach, who battled cocaine addiction and alcoholism in his own life before becoming a counselor himself, runs The Right Step rehabilitation clinic in Houston and has worked with a number of troubled athletes, including now-Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Matthieu after the Honey Badger ran afoul at LSU.
It was Jolly’s mother who reached out to Lucas as her son tried to put his life back together after receiving what would end up being a three-year suspension from the NFL for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. It wasn’t a quick fix, but it was a vital part of the process.
Jolly’s story has been told over and over, but it bears repeating simply to underscore what incredibly long odds he overcame to survive final cuts at the end of training camp to make the team’s 53-man roster entering Sunday’s regular-season opener at San Francisco.
“Everyone has their own story of overcoming adversity and overcoming some challenges. The fact is, he so worked hard and he earned his spot,” said Jolly’s fellow defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who was a rookie in 2009 when Jolly last played a regular-season down for the Packers. “I’m proud of him.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Jolly indefinitely following the 2009 season after multiple arrests – the first in July 2008 – for codeine possession in his native Houston. After missing the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons – he watched the Packers win Super Bowl XLV on television, later admitting he was high as he watched the telecast – he was finally reinstated in early March. The Packers, who never gave up his NFL rights during his suspension but debated whether to bring him back, then signed him to a restructured, minimum-salary deal worth $715,000 this season if he made the team.
After his final arrest, Jolly was given a six-year prison sentence that he began serving in November 2011. However, after just six months of incarceration, Jolly was released and put on “shock probation” for the next decade. He estimated he spent a total of “eight or nine months” in jail or prison because of his codeine addiction, and in May, he graduated from a court-ordered rehabilitation program and was allowed to join the team during the first week of June for the mandatory minicamp and final organized team activity practices.
Lucas was there when Jolly graduated from the program, and the two have stayed in twice-a-week contact since Jolly’s comeback began in earnest. Their relationship dates back to shortly after Jolly’s suspension was initially handed down.
“When his mother called me, I’d never heard of Johnny, and when she told me what was going on, he and I met at a barbecue spot in Houston,” Lucas recalled in a phone interview this week. “I jumped his hind end. He started with the program and he did really well, and then he struggled, and then he did very well (again), and then he struggled (again).
“The biggest thing with Johnny was that life is a bunch of struggles, and I told him he had to be willing to start over. And he was. Taking things away from people that love things is hard. &ou love to play football? Football was taken away from you, so you didn’t love it enough. If you love something, you have to show that love.
“But at the same time, football has to become secondary to your life. I used to stress to him, ‘If you’re doing this for football, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.’”
Jolly insists that he didn’t commit to his recovery solely so he could play football again, but it did provide fuel in his battle to stay sober.
“In my mind and in my heart I knew that I’d be back, but I didn’t know when I’d be back,” he explained. “I’ve thought deeply about like, ‘Man what happens if I don’t make it?’ I have it this time, I have to take advantage of it and don’t take nothing for granted.”
Jolly was the defensive line’s best player in 2009, when the Packers ranked No. 1 against the run in the 32-team NFL and he started all 16 games, finishing with 24 tackles, one sack and 10 passes defended. In total, Jolly started 39 games for Green Bay after being picked in the sixth round of the 2006 draft out of Texas A&M.
Asked if he ever finds himself wondering what might have been had his addiction not wiped out the prime of his football career, Jolly shook his head.
“I try not to think about that,” he said. “I might drive myself crazy thinking about how good I could’ve been, coming from 2009, which was a good season up until this point. If I worry about that, I won’t be able to focus on what I have going on now. I just focus on the things that are in front of me now and take care of that.”
The 30-year-old Jolly still has work to do, both on the field and off. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 340 pounds, but he won’t divulge his actual weight. He’s not in the shape he was in 2009, but he’s working toward it.
Off the field, Lucas says, Jolly’s battle is daily. Although he believes he has a good support system in place with his wife of six weeks, Voniecia, his mother, his teammates and coaches, and Lucas.
“He had to have his own breakthrough,” said Lucas, who put Jolly on a schedule that had the two men working out together twice a day and doing once-a-day counseling sessions five days a week. “I told him all the time, ‘Nothing changes if nothing changes.’
“What’s really good and really warms your heart is to see someone make it again. By no means is he out of the woods. It‘s just a great new beginning for Johnny. He’s been able to get on with his life. What he’s recovering from, and I stressed this to Johnny, he’s recovering from life. An addiction means you couldn’t live life on life’s terms. We get so many people, but what’s really good about Johnny is he’s a great example to those that think it’s over. It’s really good that you can see that you can have a bump in the road and keep going. That bump can take your life, put you in jail or you can overcome it. You don’t really know until you hit that bump.”
One of the main reasons Jolly got the chance to come back, general manager Ted Thompson said, was that multiple players came to him to lobby on Jolly’s behalf. Among them: Rodgers, who is now happy to explain why he believes Jolly is an integral part of the team’s locker room dynamic.
“He brings that confidence to the defense, some nasty to him, but at the same time I think if you really step back – especially those of us who have played with him – you really have an appreciation for not only what he has gone through, but how he has responded to adversity,” Rodgers explained. “I mean, he really is enjoying this opportunity and embracing the fact that this is such a privilege to play in the league, and I think his attitude and his approach has made an impact on a lot of guys, myself included.
“I think the hunger, realizing how great this opportunity is has kind of sparked up, and I think you've seen some really great things from that (defensive line) room. Some of the things that we've learned from Johnny this offseason have impacted some of the guys.”
Asked why he felt compelled to go to Thompson to plead Jolly’s case to him, Rodgers initially wouldn’t say. Then, he relented.
“I just feel like the more Johnny Jolly's you can have, guys who are genuinely passionate about football … you can't have enough guys who really love playing football,” Rodgers said. “For the common fan, you'd be thinking, 'What? There's people out there that don't love football?' It's surprising to me too. But you just can't have enough guys who really just love the game.
“Bringing Jolly back, you see how much it means to him. And it's infectious.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.