GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For most NFL veterans, minicamps are uneventful, maybe even tedious. It's one more practice in a career filled with hundreds of them.
For Johnny Jolly, however, the first day of the Green Bay Packers minicamp was what he'd imagined for the past three years. Those days he spent in prison and in rehab? It was the hope of stepping back onto the field that helped keep him going.
"It was excellent. It was excellent," Jolly said Tuesday, a grin spreading across his face. "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."
The defensive lineman was suspended indefinitely by the NFL before the 2010 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Two years earlier, in April 2008, he'd been arrested outside a club in his hometown of Houston for possession of codeine, a controlled substance. He pleaded guilty and was given probation, with the understanding that another misstep would mean significant jail time.
In October 2010, he was arrested again.
"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," Jolly said. "In my heart, I was like, 'I need to chill. I'm a football player and I need to take care of myself the other way.' 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," he added, "but it was a lesson learned."
Sentenced to six years for violating his probation, Jolly found himself behind bars. A man whose job only a few months earlier was to play football and work out now had to find ways to stay in shape in the short free time he was allotted. His teammates had been replaced by murderers, thieves and other convicted felons.
"From Day 1, they was motivation," Jolly said. "They were like, 'Man, you don't belong here. Get back out of here and go to the field. Get yourself together.' They would come out and work out with me and just be there, [help me] stay focused. [They'd say], '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.' "
Jolly was released after serving six months, and given 10 years of "shock probation." Last month, he completed a court-ordered drug-rehabilitation program.
All the while, Jolly hoped he'd get another chance to play football.
A sixth-round pick out of Texas A&M in 2006, he'd become an integral part of Green Bay's defensive line. He started all 16 games in 2009 and seemed to be a perfect fit in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, finishing the year with 24 tackles, one sack and 10 passes defended.
But three years is a long time to be gone from any job, let alone one as physically demanding as pro football. A career of three years is more likely than a hiatus of that length.
"You've got to have faith," Jolly said. "The whole time I had faith that God was going to bring me back to playing football. I didn't know what team -- I know where I wanted to be, which was Green Bay."
Though Jolly knew the coaches and the system in Green Bay, it was the entire Packers organization that he wanted to be a part of again.
While many teams would have given up on a player in his situation, the Packers never did. Fellow defensive tackle Ryan Pickett called Jolly's mother to see how he was doing and keep tabs on him, and B.J. Raji also reached out. Aaron Rodgers was outspoken in his support.
And when Jolly finished his rehab, Packers director of player programs Rob Davis and personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith were there for his graduation.
"It's unexplainable," Jolly said of what the support meant. "For me to be in the situation that I'm in and they're still worried about me while they're working and doing what they're supposed to do, I can't explain it."
Jolly was reinstated in March. Though he said he never met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he did sit down with Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy.
A conversation to lay all your sins bare may sound uncomfortable but, for Jolly, it was the only way to go.
"I had to lay it on the table and let them know where I was and how I felt," he said. "It's best for me and it's best for them. For me to get it off my chest, and for them to hear me speak and knowing that it's true and coming from my heart. I think that was part of the thing for them signing me back, to know that I'm telling the truth."
His restructured contract will pay him the veteran minimum of $715,000 if he makes the team. But that is months down the road, McCarthy said.
"The biggest thing for Johnny Jolly is just to be one of the 90. That's really the way I want to go about it," he 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."
Jolly is starting on a limited practice plan, though he did take some snaps when the defense went against the offense in team drills Tuesday.
"There's only so much you can tell in helmets, but just the fact that he was fired up and moving around, he certainly looks like he hasn't lost any quickness or strength," offensive lineman T.J. Lang said. "You look at him, and you'd think he'd be just a big, power guy. But he's got a lot of quickness to him, and that's the thing you don't see too often with defensive linemen that big. He's got a lot of skills. I'm sure he's still trying to tone those skills, but he's a guy who, if he gets back to the way he played a couple of years ago, he could be a big impact player for us."
Most of the teammates Jolly had when he was last in Green Bay are gone, and many of the current Packers don't even know his story.
"It happened so I had to deal with it," Jolly said. "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."
After skipping last week's OTAs, CB Sam Shields was back for minicamp. Shields signed his tender, but is still hoping for a long-term deal. "That's one of my goals," Shields said. "If I have a great year this year, it'll speak for itself right there."