Cardinals rookie OL Dorian Johnson managing liver condition with family's support

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It’s been six months since Dorian Johnson was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic disease of the bile ducts, after a routine blood test at the NFL scouting combine, and life hasn’t changed all that much for the Arizona Cardinals’ rookie offensive lineman.

He has cut out whatever alcohol he used to drink, which, the 22-year-old said, wasn’t much to begin with.

He didn’t drink coffee, so abiding by the doctor’s orders to stop consuming large amounts of caffeine wasn’t difficult.

He can’t take over-the-counter acetaminophen, which he wasn’t a fan of taking anyway.

And he has been diligent about taking his medicine, five pills a day -- three in the morning, two at night.

“I feel fine,” Johnson told ESPN. “Nothing’s wrong with me. It hasn’t limited me in any way.

“As long as I keep up with my medication, people live to be 95, no issues with their liver. I’ve just got to keep up with it.”

That, he will, said his mother, Lisa Cotton.

Johnson always has been a rule follower, she said. When he was younger and somebody would tell him to stop doing something, he stopped. When he’s back home in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh, and he’s offered any beverages besides water, he politely turns them down.

Even after all these years, Cotton still is impressed with her son’s willpower and discipline, but she’s not surprised.

When Johnson was playing midget league football, Cotton, a single mother of four -- she has three daughters, all younger than Johnson, as well as an 8-month-old granddaughter -- had a job on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes north of her home. Her shift would end at 5 p.m. every day, and by time she got home, picked up Johnson and drove him to football practice, which started at 6 p.m., he was 10 to 20 minutes late. So Cotton did what any mother would do and talked to the coach. She explained her situation, telling the coach Johnson would be late every day. The coach understood and gave Johnson permission to show up after the start of practice without repercussions.

But Johnson didn’t like that.

As soon as Cotton dropped him off, Johnson would jump out of the car and run a lap. Every day. Even though he didn’t have to. Johnson saw his teammates running laps when they were late and felt it was only right that he did as well.

“He’s always been like that,” Cotton said. “He just had that mindset: This is what he had to do and he’s going to do it.”

And Cotton always has been a worrier, Johnson said.

Johnson had never had the type of blood work that looked for issues similar to primary sclerosing cholangitis. When the initial blood work came back at the combine, the doctors asked Johnson if he had been drinking alcohol. This happened on the third day of the combine.

“I’m confused,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘No … I’m at the combine.’ So they had no idea what could’ve caused [those results] at that point. I’m not thinking much of it.”

After he went back home to Pennsylvania, Johnson was told it was more serious than doctors thought and he’d need a liver biopsy. He wasn’t sure what a biopsy entailed so he went into the ensuing testing “blind.”

“But the emotions were all over the place for a while,” he said.

Primary sclerosing cholangitis is a rare condition that affects about 32,000 people in the United States -- or 1 in every 10,097. About 70 percent of patients are men, and PSC typically affects 30- to 60-year-olds.

It causes the ducts that transport bile from the liver to inflame and scar, causing them to harden, which reduces the flow of bile, according to the American Liver Foundation. Over time, PSC can cause the ducts to be totally blocked, with bile accumulating in the liver, which will slowly damage it. However, it could take a patient 10 to 15 years -- or even longer -- to experience liver failure, the website said. The best treatment, eventually, is a liver transplant.

Johnson didn’t research any of that. He stayed away from the countless websites with information. He kept his questions and curiosity for the doctors.

His family, however, didn’t.

“It was good and bad,” Cotton said.

Added Johnson: “That’s the worst thing you can do. But she meant well.”

Johnson’s family has been with him in lockstep throughout the process. His mom, girlfriend, grandmother and aunt went with him to all his appointments.

“He was never by himself,” Cotton said. “I think it helped ease his mind. I didn’t want to show Dorian that I was worried because then he would get a little upset.

“That was my baby.”