How Eagles OT Lane Johnson found his happiness after nearly quitting the game
PHILADELPHIA — Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson hasn’t given up a sack since Nov. 22, 2020, against the Cleveland Browns, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a streak that spans 29 games, 794 days and more than 1,800 snaps.
Just how hard is that to pull off?
“That is basically, you go out there and win 100% of the reps against a better athlete when you’re going backward and they’re coming forward,” Eagles lineman Andre Dillard said. “That’s how hard that is.”
Arguably the biggest test of the past two-plus years comes Sunday in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers (3 p.m. ET, Fox) when Johnson faces regular-season sacks leader Nick Bosa. He’ll do so while playing with a torn adductor — a groin injury suffered on Christmas Eve against the Dallas Cowboys that sidelined him for the rest of the regular season. Surgery awaits him at season’s end, but he returned in the divisional round against the New York Giants and, somehow, pitched another shutout in a 38-7 Eagles win.
“He’s a true warrior,” Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts said.
The run of sustained excellence becomes all the more extraordinary when you consider Johnson was, as he once put it, “living in hell” for much of it. Johnson, 32, has had anxiety since 2008 when he was a college freshman, but things took a dark turn early in the 2021 season.
Johnson’s frustration largely stemmed from an ankle injury that was impacting his play with the Eagles. Simultaneously, he was suffering severe withdrawal symptoms after unsuccessfully attempting to taper off an SSRI medication — a type of antidepressant that works by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. He was vomiting, had tremors in his hands and was having difficulty eating and sleeping.
Concern spread when he didn’t show up to the stadium prior to the Eagles’ Week 4 game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Few knew Johnson had decided to never play football again.
“I was really scared how my body was responding,” Johnson told ESPN. “I didn’t feel right. My ankle was f—ed up. I didn’t want to play no more.”
He had been living with depression and anxiety for a long time and had lost touch with his sense of self. Things had gotten so bad, he was vomiting daily and throwing up blood. But after a conversation with his psychiatrist, Dr. Lonny Rosen, Johnson decided to go back to Philadelphia to meet with the Eagles, which eventually led to his return following a three-game absence. He also began opening up about his mental health.
Johnson’s candidness had a profound effect in the locker room, “opening up a pathway” for players to talk about their personal struggles, Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata said, adding that Johnson is now viewed as the “focal point of our locker room for mental health.”
“I’ve never had any siblings, so being in a locker room, those guys are my brothers,” Johnson said. “I can tell from body language, I can tell from a lot of stuff that people are not doing good. So my thing is to just talk to them … to get personal with them and really tell them how I was feeling very similar, and I know what you’re feeling, I know what you’re going through.”
THE FRIGHTENING PART to some close to Johnson was the unknown on the morning of Oct. 3, 2021.
Johnson had worked out early with trainer Gabe Rangel at the “Bro Barn” — the standalone gym in the backyard of Johnson’s New Jersey home — before leaving in his black pickup truck. The assumption was he was headed to Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles were hosting the Kansas City Chiefs at 1 p.m.
But then Rangel’s phone started blowing up. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and vice president of team security Dom DiSandro called to ask about Johnson’s whereabouts. No one knew where he was for the better part of an hour.
Johnson’s wife eventually texted Rangel to let him know they were headed to Johnson’s home in Oklahoma to be with family.
He had cut off communications with most of the outside world, including teammates. But if they wanted to get to him, they could still go through Rangel.
“I remember [Eagles center Jason Kelce] calling, and he was very, very upset,” Rangel said. “And he was just like, ‘Please, tell him I love him. I just want to talk to him. I just want to say hi.’ And I think that really touched Lane. It’s just a lot of those connections of, ‘It’s not about football, buddy, these guys are your actual family and they care what happens, nothing to do with if you’re going to ever play again or any pressure of that.'”
There is a history of mental health struggles on the paternal side of Johnson’s family, he said. According to Johnson, his grandfather died by suicide when his father was a few months old. But Johnson was not having suicidal thoughts on the day he drove off.
“[My thought] was never suicide,” he said. … “My thing was to stop the pressure of what I was feeling from my job. I felt like my body was shutting down, and I couldn’t do what I normally do. And so I was over that.”
Because of his medication withdrawal symptoms, Johnson said he knew the night before he was heading out of town.
“I was going back to see my dad. And be in a place where I wasn’t going to be bombarded,” he said.
His lingering ankle injury was making it impossible for him to reach his perfectionist standard, even though by most measures he was playing at a high level. The last time he gave up a sack — the one against the Browns — he was playing with a torn ligament in that left ankle. Season-ending surgery followed. The foot still didn’t feel right as he limped into the 2021 campaign.
Meanwhile, Johnson feared his medication was becoming a “crutch” as he tried to wean himself off. But he was doing it too rapidly.
“It’s like a withdrawal from an opioid. Similar side effects, it’s that bad,” Johnson said.
People who stop taking SSRI medication suddenly “can experience a constellation of withdrawal symptoms,” according to the American Psychological Association, citing Dr. Maurizio Fava, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. A study conducted by Fava and colleagues showed those effects can include dizziness, insomnia, flu-like symptoms, anxiety and panic attacks.
“I was facing that, on top of my foot [injury]. If my foot wasn’t going to feel better, I was ready to call it a career because I didn’t want to go out there and play half-ass and be remembered for that. That was a big reason why my anxiety was the way it was.”
Upon arrival in Oklahoma, Johnson called Rosen to fill him in on all that had transpired and his intentions to potentially step away from the game for good.
“He said, ‘Before you make any rash decisions, you owe it to yourself to communicate with the Eagles,'” Johnson said. “So after a couple days, Dom came down and that’s what I did.”
Johnson returned to Philadelphia not long after, though his mind hadn’t changed about playing again. However, as time passed and the issue with his medication withdrawal began to resolve, his passion came back into focus.
“I remember we were in the barn and he was being emotional. He was just like, ‘I love football, and I want to go down as one of the best, and I know I can do this,'” Rangel said. “And I was like, ‘All right, well, let’s get everything else in life back in order and we’ll go from there.'”
Johnson signaled his return with a social media message on Oct. 18, 2021.
“I appreciate the positive notes and messages as I’ve worked hard to restore my personal life,” he wrote in part. “Depression and anxiety are things I’ve dealt with for a long time and have kept hidden from my friends and family. If you’re reading this and struggling, please know that you are not alone.”
IF YOU POLLED the Eagles locker room, Johnson would likely get the most votes for funniest player on the team. His wit is as quick as his get-off, and he’s got a knack for finding out what gets you going and then using it against you for the comedic benefit of the group.
But a different side to his personality was revealed when he returned from addressing his mental health break.
“Seeing Lane the way he has opened up about his mental health has kind of given me an opportunity to be able to be myself and go seek help, too,” Mailata said.
When the stresses of the job and life become burdensome, Mailata ducks into the therapist’s office to unload.
“When I talk to Lane now, he’s like ‘Hey man, hang in there.’ He’s got great advice. Most of the time he’s just making me laugh, making me forget about it, and making sure I know there’s more to life than football,” Mailata said.
The Eagles have three therapists on site at the practice facility, with at least one present when players are in the building. Players have access to those clinicians after hours as well. Per an agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association, teams are required to have a behavioral health clinician on site at least 8-12 hours per week.
Dillard, a 2019 first-round pick who has endured his share of criticism for not meeting the lofty expectations placed on him, called Johnson a “role model” and an “older brother” to whom he can relate.
“Always wanting to be perfect, being a first-rounder, being hated in the beginning. All of it,” Dillard said. Johnson’s openness “was huge for me because I had been dealing with some struggles of my own. To see him go public about that type of thing, it meant a lot to me.”
Liberated through telling his story and with his ankle strengthened, Johnson is in “a good headspace” now. And his play has never been better: He was named first-team All-Pro for the second time in his career and received his fourth Pro Bowl nod.
“He’s been a stalwart of this organization for a long time. Going through what he went through last year, it’s hard to fully grasp,” Kelce said. “I’m just so happy for him that he’s back, he’s playing well, he’s happy.”
In the summer of 2022, Johnson led his first speaking engagement for over 80 people at an event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties in Southern New Jersey. He went deep into his personal story, and broke into tears when talking about how his father “self-medicated with alcohol much of his life.”
Said Roberta Clark, executive director of the organization: “His messaging is critical to people who see mental health challenges as somehow something being wrong with themselves or that they should be ashamed of, as well as the importance of getting help. … His legacy is his leadership, his ability to show vulnerability to help people have better lives.”
JOHNSON IS FOND of a quote from Mike Tyson’s former trainer Cus D’Amato that likens anxiety to fire, where it can work for you — in an athlete’s case, alerting their bodies and pushing them to exceptional heights — “but if it gets out of control,” Johnson said, “it can take over your life and destroy it.”
Johnson is learning how to hone that fire.
He actively works on the mental part of the game, assisted by sports psychologists and mental performance coaches.
Like many athletes, he used to listen to music during his pregame routine to get amped up, but came to realize that it took away from his focus. Now, he listens to an audio track of mental performance coach Brian Cain, who has worked with Olympic gold medalists and a number of top-level athletes in the NFL and UFC.
“Talking about stuff I need to focus on during the game: alignments. Me getting off the line of scrimmage and a quick pass set. Eyes on the safeties. Quick feet,” Johnson said. “He really tells you to focus on your breathing, but then he starts going into deeper detail.”
Instead of scrolling through social media, he’ll sit at his locker stall pregame and pull up a concentration grid app, where up to 100 numbers are scrambled and the objective is to find each in order, one by one.
“As stupid as that may seem,” Johnson said, “it’s a good way to stay in the moment.”
That level of concentration, Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said, is key to Johnson’s elite play, along with his athleticism and spatial awareness.
“I fear not the man who practices 10,000 kicks once. But I do fear the man who practices one kick 10,000 times,” Stoutland said, paraphrasing Bruce Lee. “That’s Lane. We can complicate this game all you want. But until you have until you consistently take the set, take the set, and not get bored with it, that’s when you become super great.”
Stoutland and Johnson came into the league together in 2013 — Johnson as a first-round pick out of Oklahoma, Stoutland as a former college coach. The bond between them is tight and it hurt Stoutland when Johnson was going through his challenges last year, because he knew how much pain he was in.
But by deciding to no longer bottle his feelings up, Johnson is in a better spot.
“It’s great that those guys are willing to come forward and express their feelings and not be afraid, because I’ve done this for quite a long time. … I can go back and tell you players that I’ve coached that have struggled, struggled, struggled that weren’t so fortunate,” Stoutland said, his voice catching as he grew emotional. “And you did everything you could to help.”
Standing in sharp contrast to the dark road Johnson traveled was a scene from the team’s Christmas party this past December. Stoutland remembers it vividly: It’s of his wife, Allison, taking Johnson’s face in her hands.
“I’ve never seen you look this happy in my entire time with you,” she told him.
He smiled back.
“That’s because I haven’t been.”