During his three years away from the game, Johnny Jolly knew where he belonged – and where he didn’t. He also knew why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and whose fault it was. So as he returned Tuesday to that place – the Green Bay Packers’ locker room – Jolly was filled again with that sense of belonging, and sincere appreciation.
“I'm blessed,” the veteran defensive end said after taking part on a limited basis in Tuesday’s minicamp practice. “I'm at a loss for words about it. But I'm happy to be back.
“To be honest, from the day that I got suspended, I always knew I would get back. But I never knew when. I never thought it would be three years. It was a long drought from between the time. But I just stayed praying to God, ask(ing) him to get (me) back. This is where I need to be.”
Jolly hadn’t been in the Packers’ locker room since the 2010 offseason, just before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy with his multiple arrests for codeine possession in his native Houston. After missing the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, he was finally reinstated in March.
Last month, Jolly graduated from his court-ordered drug-rehabilitation program in Houston, where Packers director of player programs Rob Davis and personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith were in attendance for the ceremony. Jolly said Tuesday that he hasn’t had codeine “in almost two years, about 19 months. My body feels great. I feel good.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday that Jolly had come back to Green Bay “about a month back” to meet with him, general manager Ted Thompson and other team personnel, and that there was no hesitation – “None whatsoever,” he said – about giving Jolly a second chance. While the odds after a three-year layoff are long, the Packers appear willing to let him work his way back into shape and compete for a spot on the 53-man roster during training camp and the preseason.
“Our locker room is ready to embrace him and make sure that he has the support he needs,” McCarthy said. “The football part, I’m not really worried about. I just want to make sure that he gets into a routine. Regularity is important to everybody, especially a professional athlete. We just want to get him back into the regularity, the rhythm and the every-day procedures and get back on the horse and start riding again. Once again, he’s a football player competing for a job at the end of the day. You want to get him on that path.
“If an individual can do it, I believe Johnny Jolly is that man. He has the toughness, the drive, the passion. I don’t know offhand how many players are in our locker room that were teammates with Johnny. He’s definitely someone that you know can do it. But this is more of a question about life and second chances. We feel that he’s gone through the necessary rehabilitation and training to get to this spot. I’m excited to give him this opportunity.”
Jolly had been one of the Packers' best defensive linemen before multiple arrests for possession of codeine earned him 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 during that time, he came across fellow inmates who recognized him from his NFL career – and provided him with motivation.
“What they're in there for, I didn't judge them when I found out. And they did the same with me,” Jolly said, adding that his time was spent at a “real prison,” where he came across convicted murderers and other violent criminals. “When I got there, a lot of guys knew me. From Day 1, they (were) motivation. They were like, ‘Man, you don't belong here. Get back out of here and go to the field. Get yourself together.’
“We’d have free time, we can go work out. They would come out and work out with me and just be there (saying), ‘Stay focused. Don't get in no trouble while you're in here, just do what you’re supposed to do and everything will work out for you.’”
While his newfound inmate friends were motivating him inside, his old teammates were keeping in touch from the outside. Veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, the oldest player on the Packers’ roster and a big-brother figure to all of the defensive linemen, stayed in the closest contact. Defensive end B.J. Raji, who was a rookie during Jolly’s last season, also kept in touch, as did quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who also lashed out at the NFL in support of Jolly, saying on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com in 2011 that the NFL “deserves some of the blame” for how Jolly’s situation played out.
“(It’s) hard to think about one guy I was more excited about seeing back in here than Johnny Jolly. (He’s) been through a lot, (we’ve) missed his presence in the locker room the past few years and (we’re) excited that he got reinstated. He’s getting his life together and it’s fun having him back,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “He’s an exciting player and a great teammate and we’re really fortunate to have him back.
“The interesting thing is that not many guys, crazy enough, were here (in 2009) and knew him. Not as many as you might think. I actually played with Johnny, but to many guys, he’s a new player. But I had actually been in touch with him for a while. I’ve made comments about how I was disappointed at times in the process. I thought he should be surrounded by his team and his support system up here (and took issue with) the fact that he didn’t get his case heard for a while. But that’s all behind us. We’re excited he’s back with us
“It’s been fun to see him around the locker room. I’m sure those guys are enjoying his presence in the defensive line meeting room – not that they need another character in there, but they got one.”
Added Pickett: “Just talking to him on the phone and stuff while he was gone, I always told him to just stay focused and he’ll have his chance again one day. I always believed he’d be back – and he did too.”
As excited as Jolly was to be back in the locker room – he actually spent time there Monday after taking his physical – he was even more excited about taking part in practice inside the Don Hutson Center. Even though McCarthy had him on a limited snap count, Jolly’s exuberance was obvious. (Jolly said his arrival for offseason practices was delayed by “paperwork” for his probation, which caused him to miss the first two weeks of OTA practices.)
While he looked heavy – Jolly said he weighed in at 340 pounds, roughly 10 pounds over his 2009 playing weight – he said he believes he’ll be in shape for training camp.
“It was excellent. It was excellent,” Jolly said. “I'm out there laughing and joking with the guys – it just felt like I never left. It was just like, ‘Man, this is a relief. Oh my God, I'm back on the field, practicing with the dudes I love to play ball with.’ It was great.”
“Everything's going to be a process. Me being out three years, I remember a lot of stuff so my routine is pretty much the same. It's just me learning the new plays that we have. There's not too many, but there's a couple of plays I need to learn.
“This is my first day. I’ll learn my plays better, I'll be more comfortable with the system.”
At the same time, Jolly will continue working on his sobriety and on becoming the person he needs to be in order to be the player he wants to be.
“I was a bad man,” Jolly admitted. “I mean, it was crazy because I knew I needed to chill, but it was like I was getting a thrill out of what I was doing so I was just doing it. In my heart, I was like, ‘I need to chill. I'm a football player and I need to take care of myself.’
“But sometimes you lose focus. You can't get yourself back on track, so God sits you down and puts you back on track and that's what happened to me. I hate that I had to go through that, but it was a lesson learned.
“The lowest point? When I caught that last case. It was like, ‘Oh my God. I know I didn't do this again.’ It happened, so I had to deal with it. I’ve done everything I needed to do and I'm back here. I ain't going to say I was perfect, but I've done everything I was supposed to do the best way I could, and God blessed me to be back in this situation.”
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.