Johnny Jolly does not believe his sobriety is dependent on football. But he’s definitely glad to have the game in his life again.
“I wouldn’t say that I need it, but I love the sport, so I want to play,” the Green Bay Packers defensive lineman said Sunday, following the first in-pads practice of training camp. “I’ve been through so much stuff, it’s made me a better person, a wiser person. There are things in life you just have to go through and learn from and I’m a better man from it now. I’m just going to keep rolling with it.”
Jolly, who missed the past three NFL seasons while suspended for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, is trying to become the same player and a different person all at the same time. Each is a day-in, day-out challenge that he believes he’ll be able to overcome, and as he seeks balance off the field life and shakes off the rust on it, Jolly believes he’s getting better at both.
“I let my team down before, I let my family down before, I let myself down before, and I’m just trying not to go back down that road,” Jolly said. “I’m just going to keep doing what I do. Practice hard, work hard. I’m one of 90 men (on the roster). I’m going to keep pushing to be here for the season.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Jolly indefinitely following the 2009 season after multiple arrests 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 March. The Packers, who never gave up his NFL rights during his suspension, then signed him to a restructured, minimum-salary deal that would pay him $715,.000 this season if he makes 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.
“You can tell that he’s still working out some kinks, but at the same time you can tell that he’s still got it,” said Packers right guard T.J. Lang, who has been facing Jolly in practice. “I think he’s just trying to still work through all that to get back to where he was. It definitely looks like he’s on pace to do that. I like having him back in this locker room.”
For the record, Jolly said Sunday that he does not have any sort of team-appointed handler. The Packers have not given him a babysitter, deciding instead to give him a support network while also putting the onus of responsibility on him to stay on the path to redemption.
“This is family here, (but) no one has to look after me like I was a child,” Jolly said. “I’m a grown man.”
But that doesn’t mean Jolly doesn’t have people looking out for him. At Lambeau Field, Jolly has his defensive linemates, whom he calls “brothers,” as well as coach Mike McCarthy, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and other teammates pulling for him. No one seems to know if Jolly will regain his pre-suspension form – he was the defensive line’s best player in 2009, when the Packers ranked No. 1 against the run in the 32-team NFL – but they love having him back in the fold and love the passion he brings to work each day.
“That’s my guy, so I’m rooting for him,” wide receiver James Jones said. “The presence that he brings over there to the defensive line, the swagger – you can tell. You could tell today how amped up they were, how physical they were. I think J.J. brings a lot of that. The last time we had a swagger like that (on defense) is when we had J.J. and Cullen (Jenkins). That’s when guys really felt like they couldn’t be blocked. That’s what I’m excited about. He brings that presence over there, that swagger. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
And at home, Jolly has his wife of six days, Voniecia, to help keep him on the path.
“Oh yeah,” Jolly said with a belly laugh. “She stays on my ass.”
The couple got married on Monday, before Jolly traveled to Green Bay in time for camp-opening physicals on Thursday morning. If he makes the team, Voniecia, whom he met in 2010, will move from Houston to Green Bay. Jolly also said he would consider making the smallest city in pro sports his year-round home, even though he blames himself – not Houston – for his problems.
But first, he has to earn a spot on the roster, which is no slam-dunk. Six linemen made the 53-man roster coming out of camp last year, and it would appear that at least four players – veterans Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, second-year man Mike Daniels and rookie first-round pick Datone Jones – are locks. Rookie fourth-round pick Josh Boyd is a good bet, too, as is unsung veteran C.J. Wilson, who’s played in 42 games over the past three seasons. There’s also Mike Neal, who has become a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid.
Pickett and Raji are the only ones who’ve played with Jolly, but his unselfish attitude has made an impression on his new teammates.
“Oh, my gosh, he cares. He’s a team-first guy. Definitely not selfish,” Daniels said. “You hear some things, you just don’t know what to think and then I meet him and (think), ‘Golly, it’s just so unfortunate for what happened to him.’ I’m just saying in a sense of when you get to know him. He’s such an awesome person.”
Jolly said he reported to camp at his prescribed weight, although he wouldn’t divulge what it was. (He is listed at 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds but was listed at 340 in 2009.) He admitted that he ballooned up while out of football, and while he worked to lose weight while in prison and after his release, he is still working his way into football shape. That’s what made Sunday’s practice so important, as Jolly put pads on for the first time since the team’s NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to Arizona on Jan. 10, 2010.
“It’s critical,” said McCarthy, who is keeping Jolly on a limited snap count in practice. “You can’t get in-line work at the place you work out at. You can’t simulate that. You can go to different workout places and wrestle and do all the other things, but the ability to get in a box situation with the pads on with the offensive linemen around you and seeing everything, it’s extremely valuable.
“With Johnny, that’s where he always thrived, as an inside player and his ability to get off blocks, his instincts. He just needs as much as he can. But we also have him on a rep count, too, because we have to be realistic about where he is.”
Jolly, meanwhile, says he is realistic about what’s most important. He said if football doesn’t work out, he’d like to return to school to finish his degree – he said he left Texas A&M roughly 20 credits shy of graduating – and he’d also like to work after football with at-risk kids battling addiction.
“I’d be willing to talk to kids that are kind of off track right now, because I know what it is to be off track and I know what it is to be on track,” Jolly said. “Sometimes you just need that person in your ear to let you know the good advice that has been down that road and can tell you, ‘That’s wrong’ or ‘That’s right.’ You’ll be amazed by how much it’ll help. If I had opened my mouth and said something to my teammates or coaches back then (about needing help), I probably wouldn’t have been in the position that I am. But God put me through it, and it made me a better person.
“I’m so happy. I mean, I don’t know many guys that get a second chance. But a second chance back to the same team that you were drafted to? Man, that’s a blessing from God. The whole time I was suspended, I had faith I would be back in this position, and I just kept trying to do the right thing. Not saying it was perfect, the way I’ve done it, but I’ve done most of the right things and I’m back in this situation. I thank God for that.”
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.