Ten years ago Brad Johnson led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title.
Now the 44-year-old has trouble walking down the stairs at his home in Athens, Ga.
"I go down one step at a time with two feet. One step. One step. One step," Johnson told USA Today's Robert Klemko. "My 73-year-old dad was visiting and I told my son to help him get his suitcases up the steps. He walks slow and he's got a bad knee. He starts walking and my son turns to me and he says, 'Dad, he walks just like you.' I never thought it would be like this."
At one point, Johnson was known as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL. He started 125 games during his career, throwing for at least 3,000 yards in five different seasons. Former Tampa Bay offensive lineman Roman Oben blocked for Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and several other quarterbacks, but he says Johnson was his favorite.
"This is a tough guy who could step into the huddle and you knew things were going to work out," Omen told Klemko.
The injuries Johnson suffered throughout his 15-year career read like a laundry list of pain. While with the Minnesota Vikings in 1997, Johnson felt his neck stiffen up. It got so bad that he had trouble driving and couldn't palm a football. As it turned out, he would need surgery to correct nerve damage in his spine between the C4 and C5 vertebrae.
Then, within a span of four years Johnson broke his right ankle, had surgery to correct microfractures in his left knee, and cracked the transverse processes in his vertebra. Johnson's pain became so bad that in 2002 he joined many of his teammates in taking injections of the controversial painkiller Toradol before games. While Toradol helps relieve aches, some players allege that it is so strong that it makes it difficult for them to judge the significance of injuries.
"Deacon Jones said you have to give your body to the game," Johnson said. "You look at him and his fingers are crooked. His eyes are probably crooked, too. But he's right -- you have to give your body."
Johnson wasn't sure what he would do after retiring from the NFL in 2008, but he has enjoyed coaching youth football and basketball players. Johnson and his wife, Nikki, have two sons, who are 10 and 12. And while the game hobbled Johnson, Nikki knows she can't stop her sons from playing football.
"I would never want to discourage them from doing something they would love," she said. "You want your child to follow their dreams and you want to give them as much wisdom as you can about it, and make their own decisions."
Johnson has earned disability payments from the NFL, but like many former players (including ex-Packers quarterback Don Majkowski), he is still seeking worker's compensation from the league.
To read Klemko's full story, see here.