NEW YORK -- Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said coach Bill Belichick subjected him to hard hits in
practice while he was recovering from a concussion -- against the advice of the team's top trainer.
Johnson, who helped the Patriots win three Super Bowl titles before retiring two years ago, told The New York Times that a collision with another player during that 2002 practice led to another concussion. And, after sustaining additional concussions over the next three seasons, he now forgets people's names, misses appointments and suffers from depression and an addiction to amphetamines.
"There's something wrong with me," Johnson, 34, told the Times in a story posted on its Web site Thursday night. "There's something wrong with my brain. And I know when it started."
The Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times, posted a similar story on its Web site.
Johnson, who played 10 years in the NFL, said he began to deteriorate in August 2002 with a concussion during an exhibition game against the New York Giants. He sustained another concussion four days later after Belichick prodded him to participate in a full-contact practice, even though he was supposed to be avoiding hits, Johnson said.
The next month, with their relationship already strained, Johnson confronted Belichick about the practice after the coach asked him to meet in his office.
"I told him, 'You played God with my health. You knew I shouldn't have been cleared to play,'" Johnson told the Globe.
Belichick told the Globe he got no cue from Johnson in practice that day that he was hesitant about participating in the full-contact drill.
"If Ted felt so strongly that he didn't feel he was ready to practice with us, he should have told me," Belichick said.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, in Miami for the Super Bowl, said he wasn't qualified to speak on concussions.
"Ted is one of my favorite players, someone I've had a deep relationship with," Kraft said Friday. "He's going through a difficult time. My thoughts and prayers are with him."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, at his state of the league news conference Friday, did not get into specifics of the case, saying he only became aware of the situation Thursday. He said, however, a player's health should take precedence over football issues.
The Patriots did not allow Jim Whalen, still their head trainer, to comment for this story, according to the Globe.
Patriots spokesman Stacey James told The Associated Press on Thursday night that the team was aware of the report but was not prepared to comment.
In a story last month, the Times reported that brain damage caused on the football field ultimately led to the suicide of former NFL defensive back Andre Waters last November, according to a forensic pathologist who studied Waters' brain tissue.
"We have been focused on the issue of concussions for years," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the AP. "It remains one of our prime concerns as we continue to do everything possible to protect the health of our players."
Dr. Lee H. Schwamm, the neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who examined Johnson, wrote in a memo Aug. 19, 2002, that Johnson sustained a second concussion in that practice, the Times reported.
Schwamm also wrote that, after speaking with Whalen, the trainer "was on the sidelines when he sustained the concussion during the game and assessed him frequently at the sideline" and that "he has kept Mr. Johnson out of contact since that time."
Johnson said he spoke with Belichick the next day about the incident, but only briefly, the Times said.
"He was vaguely acknowledging that he was aware of what happened," Johnson said, "and he wanted to just kind of let me know that he knew."
Johnson sat out the next two preseason games on the advice of his neurologist but played in the final one. Then, thinking he was still going to be left off the active roster for the season opener against Pittsburgh, he angrily left camp for two days before returning and meeting with Belichick.
"It's as clear as a bell, 'I had to see if you could play,'" Johnson recalled Belichick saying, according to the Times.
Moments later, Johnson said, Belichick admitted he had made a mistake by subjecting him to a full-contact drill.
"It was a real kind of admittance, but it was only him and I in the room," Johnson told the Times.
After returning to game action, the linebacker sustained more concussions of varying severity over the following three seasons, each of them exacerbating the next, according to his current neurologist, Dr. Robert Cantu.
Cantu told the Times he was certain that Johnson's problems "are related to his previous head injuries, as they are all rather classic postconcussion symptoms."
He added, "They are most likely permanent."
Cantu, the chief of neurosurgery and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., also said Johnson shows signs of early Alzheimer's disease.
"The majority of those symptoms relentlessly progress over time," Cantu said. "It could be that at the time he's in his 50s, he could have severe Alzheimer's symptoms."
Johnson told the Globe he estimates he had at least six concussions in his last three seasons but reported only one because he already had a reputation as an injury-prone player and he didn't want to make it worse.
"Looking back, it was stupid not to tell anyone," Johnson said. "But I didn't know then that every time you have a concussion, you are four to six times more susceptible the next time. I had no idea the damage I was causing myself."
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, spoke in general terms about concussions at a news conference Thursday in Miami, where the Super Bowl will be played Sunday.
"If a coach or anyone else is saying, 'You don't have a concussion, you get back in there,' you don't have to go, and you shouldn't go," Upshaw said, not speaking about Johnson's case specifically. "You know how you feel. That's what we tried to do throughout the years, is take the coach out of the decision-making. It's the medical people that have to decide."
Upshaw told the AP that concussions are one of the issues the union is examining this year.
"We've seen a number of concussions in the NFL this year, and as a result of our studies, we've seen a change in the helmet. We're also studying the effects of that on concussions," Upshaw said.