Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of self-harm, domestic violence and drug and alcohol use.
VANCE JOHNSON LEANS in real close, right up against his Zoom screen, and yanks his left sleeve up. His shirt says “Own Your Sobriety,” and he is owning his sobriety right now. “Can you see this?” he asks.
The former Broncos receiver, part of the famed “Three Amigos” of the John Elway-era Denver teams, is holding up his forearm, where there’s a horrific scar in the shape of a “C.” He says he carved it into his arm with a knife one night when he was in yet another haze of drugs and alcohol. That night, he was in agony, again, and he just felt like he couldn’t deal with another day. He’d hurt himself badly enough that he ended up in a coma, and awoke two weeks later to find he’d barely survived. Doctors had to transplant parts of his thigh to repair the deep damage he’d done to his arm.
He holds it up now as a symbol of all the pain — the pain he caused himself, the pain he caused to others. There was a lot to go around. He has been divorced eight times, had more affairs than he can remember, admitted to domestic violence in the past and is still working his way back into the lives of his six children. “I was a horrible man,” he says.
He struggled for years to stand near a football field because of all the promise that drugs and booze sucked out of him. He’d grown up in a troubled house in New Jersey with one unifying principle of everybody in the home: Get Vance to the NFL. He’d been a second-round pick of the Broncos in 1985 with a dazzling skill set, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound former running back who’d recently won a Pan-Am Games gold medal in the long jump. Someday, the 23-year-old thought, the Broncos would retire his uniform number, 82.
After a rough first month, though, Johnson didn’t know whether he’d make it out of the preseason. Following a critical punt muff during one preseason game, he thought he might get cut the next day. It was then, for the first time in his life, he picked up alcohol. A few sips in, he felt like he’d arrived. “I’d found my way to cope,” he says.
Over his nine seasons in the league, he went to three Super Bowls, amassed 5,695 yards and caught 37 touchdowns, teaming with fellow Amigos Ricky Nattiel and Mark Jackson. But he fell apart early, and quickly. His addiction wasn’t the kind that crept up on him over a long period of time; from his first drink, he couldn’t control it, and substance abuse made his life rapidly deteriorate. As a Bronco, he says he tried to kill himself three times and was routinely drunk or high during games, to the point where teammates would make him do pushups between possessions to try to burn off the booze faster. “By halftime, I had run it out,” Johnson says now.
He says he has been sober since the fall of 2013. It’s been a grind, for sure, but Johnson detoxed, starting working 12-step programs and says he hasn’t picked up a drink or drug since. He opened up a treatment facility in Las Vegas, home to both his worst exploits and the subsequent cleanup the past seven years, and he debuted March 15 as a counselor on A&E’s new season of the show “Intervention.” He’s the lead interventionist in the next episode, premiering Monday at 10 p.m. ET.
Since he got sober, Johnson has become a fan of interventions. He says he’s had lots of success over the years joining forces with struggling families to sit down with a loved one and offer help. But he’d never done it with cameras before.
“It’s a program I 100 percent believe in, offering hope to people out there struggling with addiction,” Johnson says of the show. “The help doesn’t just stop when the person goes through treatment, either. We want to be there to make sure there is a next level of care, for the rest of your life.”
“Intervention” has been a staple of A&E programming since it launched in 2005. Those struggling with substance abuse sign up for a documentary about active addiction, but the reality within the reality show is that family members and interventionists are planning to confront the person about getting help. In 2013, A&E said 156 of 243 interventions had led to people being sober eight years after the show launched. In a recent statement to ESPN, the network said, “Since 2005, we have produced 256 episodes of the Emmy-award winning series. A total of 312 people were offered treatment and only five featured subjects declined. Of those who said yes, 80 percent successfully completed treatment.”
But putting active addicts or newly sober people on TV isn’t without risk. Does the high level of care and attention improve an addict’s chances? Does it benefit 100 Matts watching the show but maybe not the Matt in the show?
“It is a squishy area of recovery,” says William Moyers, a VP at the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic and a recovering addict. “You have to wrestle with educating the public versus shaming the individual on the show.”
That’s the thing: It’s hard to see an active heroin addict and think, “Geez, you know what might help this guy? A couple of camera crews and a national TV audience.” It’s a show that puts someone’s lowest moments on TV for us to digest in our living rooms. It’s a show that captures the torture of loved ones in that orbit, and it’s a show that puts the final intensely personal collision, between addicts and their wreckage, forward for the world to observe. It can be hard to watch and hard to look away, sometimes in the same episode.
Also: It’s a show that helped save my life.
AT MY BOTTOM, I would eat 60 painkillers during the day, come home to my wife and two young kids, drink a bunch of beer and collapse on the couch. On many of those nights, I would be barely conscious when my wife would turn on the TV. We’d often settle on a show we both liked: “Intervention.”
It’s a powerful show. You see some miracles happen. Sometimes you see whatever the opposite of miracles is, happen. It is good TV, and we were drawn to it. In my case, though, I was gutted watching it. The entire show was me, my secrets right there for the world to see — I didn’t know these people, but I knew these people.
There’s no single reason why I went to rehab in November 2008. More like 10 different things that added up to me either dying or asking for help. I asked for help, and “Intervention” was one of the reasons. It gave me hope, and my sobriety date remains Nov. 10, 2008.
Moyers had had a different reaction when he first saw “Intervention.” He’d been the subject of a non-televised intervention 10 years earlier, when sheriffs knocked on the door of a crackhouse that he’d been holed up in. When he walked out of the house, he found his dad, legendary PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers, sitting in the sheriff’s car. They all told him he needed help, and he agreed. He’s not sure rolling cameras would have made him run, or made him want recovery even more.
We’ve seen people get sober using 1,000 different formulas. We’ve seen people we thought had no chance to get sober celebrate five years, and people who were sobriety wunderkinds … disappear forever a month later. You just don’t know. It’s heartbreaking — I want recovery to be math, where you add up things on one side and then it equals the gift of recovery. It doesn’t work that way.
“When the show started, I was adamantly opposed to it,” Moyers says. “But I suppose I have softened my stance. I’ve met people who got sober, who are alive today, because they saw hope on that show. So for me, I say, to each his own.”
Johnson says he’s one of those people. He’d watched the show for years and secretly hoped some loved one would care enough to stage an intervention, on TV or otherwise. The truth of his bottom is ugly, though: He says most of his family didn’t care if he lived or died.
When he overdosed in the fall of 2013, he spent 28 days in a coma. He’d spent the previous few years in a downward spiral after his son Vaughn died in 2007 in a motorcycle accident that Johnson blames himself for. He had missed a call from Vaughn, who was asking for a ride through a treacherous stretch of road in the mountains of suburban Denver. But Johnson says he’d been “cheating on my wife at the time” and didn’t answer the phone. So his son took his motorcycle, instead, and was struck and killed by another driver. “It was my fault,” Johnson says now.
On Day 24 of the coma, doctors informed his family that they were pulling the life-support plug. Johnson’s sister came to the hospital to take one last picture of him, laying there about to die. He woke up four days later. He still wasn’t done with drugs and alcohol, but he’d gotten a few exits closer to the off ramp.
That officially came later in 2013. His seventh wife had packed up her kids and left. He had been served divorce papers, and shortly after received a stunning phone call: She cared enough about Johnson, saw enough light still burning deep down in the pit of his active addiction, that she’d contacted the NFL and said he needed help. Johnson says he then got a call from former Bucs player Randy Grimes, in recovery himself and working with the NFL, who pushed him to go to rehab. Johnson said he would do it, and he did, flying to a treatment facility soon thereafter.
But when he checked in, he kept to himself. He thought maybe he’d put together a few weeks, clean up for a bit, reset, and maybe start using again with a better ability to manage it.
I had that exact same thought when I went to rehab in 2008, and then I had the same epiphany that Johnson had listening to some of the sober people around him. These people were doing it. They were laughing and eating normal food and their kids hugged them. They’d broken the spell. How could that be? The moment when an addict can identify with someone who pulled out of the incomprehensible suffering of the very end … that’s the ultimate mind-altering substance.
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Johnson, who says he is a devout Christian, was meandering through the parking lot one afternoon at rehab, trying to avoid another group discussion about sober strategies, when he saw a cross on a building and heard a voice that said, Go back in and listen. He went back inside, he says, and the message started to spread. Maybe he could get sober, after all.
The longer Johnson has been sober, the more he has fully realized the damage he did, especially in relationships. He was a terrible husband who couldn’t be faithful and will not be getting married again, he says now. He says he grew up around domestic violence, and vowed to never repeat the physical violence he saw at home. And yet he did.
Police were called to his house at least five times. Johnson admits to verbally and physically abusing his partners, including one time when he says he pushed his wife to the ground and knocked her unconscious. He also was arrested for writing bad checks, not paying child support and multiple drunken driving incidents. “The truth is that I was abusive,” he says. “You don’t just have to put your hands on someone to abuse them, either. You can abuse them emotionally, verbally, cheating, all different kinds of ways. I had to work on every single thing you can imagine.”
Johnson even went on an episode of “Oprah” in the late 1990s alongside one of his ex-wives, apologizing to her for his abuse over the years. She didn’t accept his apology then. “I don’t blame her,” Johnson says now.
I reached out to two of Johnson’s ex-wives who had said in the past that he was abusive. One did not respond, and another declined to comment. “That is such a removed part of my past,” she said. “I would have absolutely nothing positive to contribute. I am not at all interested in revisiting that part of my life.”
Johnson’s horrid treatment of spouses spilled over to the rest of his family, too. He is in Year 8 of trying to be a dad for the first time to his six adult kids. He tears up talking about how he blew it as a father. He threw away years, decades even, of connecting with his kids during their formative years. He tells all of his kids, “Whatever you do, don’t be like your dad.”
At one point in our Zoom conversation, we start talking about fatherhood, and the things Johnson did or missed that he can never get back. As Johnson speaks, it hits me harder than I thought it would.
I’ve been sober since my three daughters were all very little, so I’ve never been drunk at a parent-teacher conference or gymnastics class. My youngest daughter is in kindergarten now, and I realized about a year ago that what I had always thought to be a God-awful, annoying task — lugging a kid around the mall or to an amusement park — was quickly evaporating. She was getting bigger, and if my older daughters are any indication, I’m a year or so away from being frozen out of hugs, too. So on that rare occasion over the past year when she skins a knee and asks me to pick her up, I dive to scoop her into my arms.
As Johnson talked, it hit me hard how lucky I am to have gotten out when I did — and also emphasized how I need to press hard every day to not drink or drug again.
When I am sober, I’m present in a way that Johnson says he never was. He has to try to be a grandfather to his five grandkids in the way he wasn’t able to be a dad. I have that chance right now. In fact, since 2011, I have kept a journal just about my kids, and I write down silly stuff that happens — there’s a Father’s Day entry from last June where the girls got me a “The Dadalorian” T-shirt that I loved. But in the journal at the time, I mention that it feels a little embarrassing to wear the shirt. I didn’t want to think of myself as someone in the Dad Joke Shirt stage of life. I thought I was too cool still for that.
But I also write down more poignant things, like how every time my youngest asks me to pick her up, and the circumstances. Then I wonder whether that might be the last time. It’s always a sad notion to take notes on, but I feel so grateful that I can savor it.
These are the moments Johnson missed entirely. He gets animated and says, “I’ll never get to be this kind of dad,” and he waves his hands around into various positions, mimicking what a parent might do with little kids. He hangs both his hands near one shoulder, like a dad picking up a 6-month-old and pressing the baby to his chest. Then he mimics an imaginary kid on his shoulders. “The piggyback rides, that kind of dad … I’ll never get to be that to them,” he says.
The whole time he goes through the motions of his lost dadhood, I can’t help but notice that big “C” scar, still sticking out of his sobriety shirt.
BEFORE THIS SEASON’S debut episode of “Intervention,” I reached out to about 10 sober friends for their impressions of the show. Most shared my mixed feelings about the concepts of interventions in general, and sobriety on TV. But most also came down where Moyers did: That the miracle of when someone takes their last drink or drug is beyond what any one of us knows or should pretend to know. One friend told me, “Having five loved ones confront me about my drinking wouldn’t have helped me, because I already had five loved ones confronting me every day about my drinking. But the people I’ve seen on the show are at the very, very bottom, and the bottom is a desperate place to be. So who am I — and who are you — to know if that’s the Hail Mary attempt that finally works?”
So I tuned into the season premiere on March 15 with something close to an open mind. I still think the next time a hardcore Oxycontin addict or case-of-beer-every-day alcoholic calls me for help, I will not be organizing an intervention with their family, or booking a local camera crew to come out and capture it.
At the very beginning, the counselors pop up on screen, including a brief appearance from Vance Johnson, who’s listed as an interventionist and recovery ambassador for this season. Then we meet Susan, the addict at the center of the first episode. For the next two hours, I teared up multiple times and felt my stomach tense up multiple other times. It’s very hard for somebody like me to see Susan suffer the way she did — there were so many “yets” on the episode, stuff that I hadn’t done but could be capable of if I picked up drugs and alcohol again.
She had lost custody to her son and moved back in with her parents. She sat on her mom’s bed most of the day, smoking black tar heroin off a piece of foil and then nodding off. Her mom enabled it all, handing her the drugs every few hours to get her high again.
About halfway through the show, there was a major curveball: When her mom laid on the bed beside Susan and handed her heroin, she would then light up a meth pipe for herself at the same time. Then we see two other family members holed up in separate rooms in the basement, both in the throes of ugly addictions themselves. Susan was only one member of a house of addiction horrors.
By the final 15 minutes, I was rooting for the whole family in an existential way. I needed them all to accept treatment. Please. Go. Get. Better.
At the end of the show, we see that Susan did go to rehab, where she looks healthy and happy, with a credit blurb saying as of the airing, she’d been sober since Sept. 1, 2020, and is talking to her son every day.
I went upstairs after the episode and grabbed my diary about the kids. I flipped through it a bit, and found one passage from a Friday night about a year and a half ago that I had forgotten about.
The entry described how I’d made the decision to tell one of my older daughters that I was an alcoholic and an addict and that’s why I went to the meetings and had all of those books in my closet. I had come up with a conversation in my head where I would say I was sorry for some of my actions when she was really little, that I wanted to spend every day making it up to her, that I did some really selfish things, that I would be happy to answer any questions she may have. In my head, it was a scary, complicated hour-long heart-to-heart in which I would begin to ask for forgiveness.
But there may be nothing harder in recovery than the forgiveness process. In my recovery network, we often stress that we cannot regret the past … while also not shutting the door on it. What that means is, we must acknowledge the bad things we’ve done and work hard to not repeat them, but also not allow them to be anchors we can never move on from. I have found that to be the hardest landing to stick. Vance Johnson can say he is sorry, but people are most certainly entitled to react the way some family members have when they say, essentially, “Thanks, but I’ve moved on and don’t want to hear from you again.” The only part of the forgiveness process any of us can truly control is that we do everything possible, every single day, one day at a time, to not do unforgivable things again.
Every week, I correspond with inmates who have a desire to get and stay sober. It’s remarkable how little they ever write about whether their attorney was bad, or the judge was corrupt, or even whether they’re innocent or guilty. We spend our time trying to live a life in which we are accountable for harmful, wrong things we did — and also for doing the next right thing.
That was my goal when I walked into my daughter’s room 18 months ago. But as I soon realized, forgiveness cannot be calculated and game-planned.
I had that idea of how our conversation would go. Here’s how it actually went:
Daughter: “Come in.”
Me: (walking slowly, serious face on): “Hey, I just wanted to let you know something about me. You know how you always ask me why I hugged that rando at the grocery store, and how you have asked me about the meetings I go to on a lot of nights? Well, I just wanted to explain all of that …”
Daughter: “It’s because you’re an alcoholic, right?”
Me: “Uhhh, yes. How did you know that?”
Daughter: “I could tell. I’ve never seen you drink, and you’ve never gotten drunk and thrown up or anything, like they show on TV.”
Me: “Yeah, I work very hard to not go back to that lifestyle. Do you have any concerns or questions or anything? I really wasn’t a great dad back then and I am happy to talk more about that.”
Daughter: “You’re doing fine, Dad. But can you leave? I’m doing Roblox.”
She turned back to her laptop, and I slinked out of the room both heartened and also feeling a little silly because of my overthinking. I must have gone right back to my room and journaled the whole convo.
I reread the entry, then put the book down and got ready for bed. I like to lay out my clothes for the next day, so I grabbed a pair of jeans and ruffled through my shirts until I found the perfect one for tomorrow. The Dadalorian was ready for the weekend.
Go to SAMHSA.gov or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP for free, confidential help. If you are the victim of domestic violence or want more information, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or log onto thehotline.org. You’re worth it.