Ex-NFL player Charles Johnson claimed he had brain problems years ago, before his death in July – USA TODAY

  • September 29, 2022

Recently deceased former NFL wide receiver Charles Johnson claimed to have suffered from brain, head, spine and neck injuries from his nine years in the league from 1994 to 2003 and was considered permanently disabled from football, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Johnson, 50, was found dead in a hotel room near his home in North Carolina July 17, shocking the community where he was loved as a coach and assistant athletic director.
His suspected cause of death remains a public mystery. Authorities there have not released it because they said the investigation is ongoing. But police did say there were no signs of foul play, which raised questions among friends about whether Johnson instead had suffered from health problems that he mostly kept to himself.
The public records obtained by USA TODAY Sports state that he did, though it’s still not known if they are related to his demise at the Hampton Inn in Raleigh after his wife reported him missing the day before.
The records show that he had pursued a workers compensation case in California against the Pittsburgh Steelers, his former team, claiming he suffered an array of injuries, including problems with his hearing, sleep and “neuro/psyche.”
Johnson starred in college at Colorado before the Steelers selected him in the first round of the 1994 NFL draft. He initially filed the case in 2009, stating his injuries came from “playing and practicing professional football.”
The Steelers disputed his claims but agreed to pay him and his attorneys $150,000 to settle the case in 2013, according to the records. The records also note Johnson was permanently disabled based on findings by three independent medical doctors.
Some of his friends in North Carolina told USA TODAY Sports that Johnson didn’t exhibit or speak of any symptoms he might have had from head trauma in football. But another friend of Johnson’s from his high school days in San Bernardino, California, told USA TODAY Sports that Johnson had been seeing a medical specialist in the Los Angeles area at one point.
“It was the ringing in the head, maybe one too many hits,” said the friend, Doneka Buckner.
Buckner said Johnson told him this several years ago and that he suspected symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease which has been linked to head trauma in football. Buckner said he wasn’t sure about any recent health problems because he hadn’t talked to him in recent years.
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Johnson also had retained an attorney in California in 2020 to help him pursue another workers compensation case there, but there’s no evidence he pursued it after that, according to state records. The attorney didn’t return a message seeking comment.
According to the wishes of his family, there was no public memorial or funeral for Johnson, whose death still baffles the community of Heritage High School in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Johnson had been popular there with students and colleagues, having worked there with his friend, Pat Kennedy, the athletic director.
Kennedy told USA TODAY Sports earlier this month that Johnson didn’t show symptoms of mental health issues associated with CTE.
“I’m not a medical doctor, but it didn’t seem like he had any signs of stuff like that,” Kennedy said. “That’s not saying he didn’t, but he was just a very cheerful guy and very respectful to everybody he came across.”
Johnson was among many former NFL players who filed workers compensation cases in California even if they only played occasional games there and didn’t play for the state’s NFL teams. That’s because the law there made it favorable for them, especially with “cumulative” head injuries. That changed later in 2013, when the state passed a law restricting this practice among pro athletes from outside the state.
Johnson’s workers compensation claim form said he suffered the injuries at “various stadiums and practice facilities” during his career from July 1994 to August 2003. Other injuries he listed include those involving his shoulders, elbows, hands, legs, jaw, vision and “chronic pain.”
He played five seasons with the Steelers before moving to play in Philadelphia, New England and Buffalo.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]