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John’s Story: From NFL Player to a Human in the Game of Life

Written by Samantha Carter

John Abraham, a renowned figure in the National Football League (NFL), is celebrated for his exceptional skill as a defensive end and outside linebacker. With a career spanning 15 years, he quickly established himself as a formidable force on the field, later enhancing his legacy with impactful stints at the Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals. Accumulating over 130 sacks, five Pro Bowl selections, and two All-Pro honors, John Abraham’s contributions have solidified his status as one of the premier defensive players of his era.

What makes John so interesting is his unique story of failure and triumph. He courageously opened up about his journey into sobriety and healing on the All Points North (APN) podcast episode, I Had to Reframe My Thinking to Heal: Recovery x John Abraham. To find out more about John’s recovery story and his time spent at APN Lodge, check out the full podcast episode or continue reading the article below.

Reaching Rock Bottom

Like many stories of redemption, John’s story starts out with a rock bottom scenario that ultimately pushed him to make necessary changes in his life.

“[Right before I got treatment for the first time], I was going through one of my manic states,” John said. “I was not feeling well mentally and it was going on for probably about six or seven years, but I was steadily fighting it because I wanted to be strong. I was thinking that one day [I’d] just wake up and be fine.”

As it turns out, John would soon find out he was far from fine.

“And that day, you know, I chose to go to the hospital again,” John said. “[But] there was a cop there and he had his back turned. I felt that would be a good way to commit suicide without anybody knowing, so I attacked the cop [and started going] for his gun. I thought that would be enough for him to shoot me, but he didn’t … this [was] the first time I ever felt like something’s wrong with me.”

While John had been grappling with mental illness for some time that was only further exacerbated by his substance abuse, he finally began to understand the gravity of his situation after having hit rock bottom.

“This is the first time, mentally, I was like, John I really think this is serious. You know?” John said. “Because all the stuff I had before the suicidal thoughts—the self-mutilation things, [the] hurting myself in any way possible, hitting my head, or driving under [the] influence [and] wanting to crash, or doing things that really [weren’t] viable to stay in life—[all made me realize how bad it had gotten]. [After that], I prayed and I was like … if you can stop this mental stuff I’m going through, or at least help me through this, I’ll stop drinking. And from that day, I haven’t picked up alcohol since.”

What’s the Point?

Although John had left the world of substances behind, he still had a lot of healing to do to move forward. His first stop would be at a treatment facility for alcoholics.

“[From the hospital], I went to a [rehab treatment center] for alcohol and I was kind of like, this is not my problem, you know?” John said. “Because we have to identify, ‘Hi, my name is John, I’m an alcoholic.’ I said all that and I still want[ed] to kill myself … so [I thought], what’s the point of me being here?”

Whether it was the environment or John’s mindset, he found it difficult to dig deep in the issues he needed to face in order to continue onward.

“I spent 30 days there but the whole time I was in my mind [thinking], I can easily just sneak off. Nobody [will] ever find me … I [was] still in this mindset [where I was] isolating myself even though I [was] around people. So when I left there, I talked to my best friend and she was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I was like, ‘I’m still not leaving the house. I’m still not doing anything productive. I’m still not talking to people. I’m still not being open.’ She was like, ‘Well, we found this place, All Points North, in Colorado.’ I said, ‘Man, I ain’t paying no money to go out there.’ She said, ‘insurance will.’ ‘Okay cool. I’ll do it,’” John said.

Leaning Into Vulnerability

At first, John’s head wasn’t really in the game.

“If you look at [APN] online you’re thinking, okay … I can just go relax. I’m gonna go just chill for 30 days. You know? – get some free food … meet a couple people … So when I got here, I was not open. I was not clear,” John said. “You know, I went to AA meetings every night, I did all that stuff. [But] after I left [APN from the first] 30 days, [I] went back home [to] isolation. [I was still having] suicidal thoughts, still feeling like I wasn’t enough … because I spent 30 days bullshitting.”

John was starting to realize that there was no easy formula for feeling better and that he would have to do the work if he wanted to see the results.

“I just spent 30 days wasting time,” John said. “I [was] 43 years old at the time [and I was thinking to myself], you’re still a kid. You can’t even talk to yourself about stuff … you’re scared. [So] I end up coming back [to APN] a second time.”

This time, John was determined to take things much more seriously.

“After sitting at home, [I was] really feeling like I hadn’t left this place—meaning my mind was still here,” John said. “So I said, ‘I’m going back,’ and I went. I was like, whatever you say [to] do, Laura [an APN therapist], I’m going to do … when I was at home, I wasn’t washing my ass. I wasn’t I wasn’t cleaning my room. I wasn’t even driving anywhere. I wasn’t going to see people. I wouldn’t answer my phone. So … when I [came back] here [I decided I was going to] wake up in the morning, take a shower, get right, go to every meeting, work out—do everything possible … I said, ‘this time, you’re going to be proactive, just like when you played football, just like when you try to be a better father … I’m gonna go out here and I’m gonna give it my all.’”

Third Time’s The Charm

Part of giving it his all meant accepting when he needed more help than he initially thought.

“After I left that second time, I wasn’t better but I was getting better,” John said. “My success was waking up in the morning, getting out of the bed, taking a shower, going downstairs, even if [I] just [went] to the grocery store … it sounds very mediocre or minimal, but just walking downstairs, going to the grocery store, and being around people [helped with] getting out of that feeling of being alone. You know? I picked up writing, which really helped me a lot, [but] I still was dealing with the suicidal stuff.”

Despite his best efforts, John couldn’t seem to break free from his tormenting thoughts.

“Everything felt broken, even though they weren’t – like mentally looking back, they weren’t broken, but in my mind I just felt like I wasn’t enough,” John said. “So I came back here [for a] third time [and that’s] when I figured out that I was just running from being good. I wasn’t bad anymore. I thought I was still bad, [but] I wasn’t.”

Shortly after coming back to APN, John figured out the key to his personal recovery by using the tools he had learned in the program.

“So I talked to Laura [and] I was like, ‘Laura, you know, I’m going to leave,’” John said. “She’s like, ‘You sure, John? It’s only been like 10 days.’ I said, ‘You know what, I’m ready’ … And something just clicked … It was no more blocking my blessings. It was no more saying no the things that I knew I could say yes to.”

Continuing the Path

After three stays at APN, John was finally able to put into practice the things he had learned and apply them elsewhere in his life. What he found was that this is a continual process that takes time to unfold.

“You don’t graduate,” John said. “It’s all about trying to get better.”

Another thing John learned is how to accept himself for both where he’s been and where he’s at now.

“I think that’s the biggest thing is knowing that you can always change,” John said. “For me, I was beating [myself up from] my stuff [in] the past. Like, how are you beating yourself up [for] stuff that you can’t change? It’s not even rational when you think about it.”

Now, John tries to focus more on the present and preparing himself for the future, as opposed to dwelling on the past.

“I’m thinking right now, how is this podcast going to help me a year from now?” John said. “[I’m] not worrying about [what] I cannot change.”

When he does get stuck in a difficult moment, John tries to remember to resource his relationships with others.

“The worst thing is when you’re feeling like nothing, but you always can pick up someone else,” John said. “Even if I’m feeling like [it’s] the worst day, I can call someone that’s having a better day … and they need to hear from me.”

These sorts of conversations and connections can help put things into perspective.

“You know, every now and then you’ll have your bad moments,” John said. “You’ll think, oh if I [could have done] this, but then you got to look at where you are now. Look at the strength that you built … When I started seeing me getting up in the morning as an achievement, when I started seeing me taking a shower as an achievement, when I started seeing me pumping my gas as an achievement, everything seemed like a win.”

Big Beautiful Changes

As these new thought patterns began to take root in John’s brain, his life began unfolding in some beautiful ways.

“[The greatest] thing you can give someone [is your time and presence],” John said. “[For example, I knew my relationship with] my oldest daughter was gonna be the one I need[ed] to work on because she was with me through my bad phases. You know—being in the league and drinking. She’s seen it all … Well, she’ll be 22 next month … and she surprised me for her spring break. That’s some shit that you don’t expect. Like, she’s in college and my daughter came to see me for spring break?!”

Now, John’s starting to see the payoff from all his hard work and reaping the rewards in his relationships.

“You know, like I said, making those phone calls, calling my daughters, texting them, like doing all kinds of stuff to make sure that I was a presence in their life, not just you know being here every now and then, ‘it’s Christmas time,’” John said. “I give them something every day. Like, I’m hitting them up [saying], ‘What’s going on? … What [do] you want to [do]? I’m taking you wherever … I’m here for it.’ So that was a big turnaround in my life.”

As John came to find out, his relationship with his children was one of his largest driving forces helping him continue on his path to recovery.

“As hard as I worked on being a great football player, I had to work just as hard to be a great father,” John said. “And being a great father is more now being a great friend. You know? – being commutative, being able to talk, asking stupid questions, asking stuff that might be uncomfortable … it’s not [just] being a parent. Most of the time now it’s being a friend and being someone they can literally talk to.”

Having this improved relationship with his daughters wouldn’t be possible without all the work he’s done to improve the way he shows up in relationships.

“[Now], I can just really be in the moment,” John said. “I’m in this moment now. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing five/ten minutes after we leave. I’m not thinking about getting off the mic right now. I’m thinking about being out here. Being [fully present] with my kids now, I don’t think about what I am doing afterwards. I don’t think about going through the motions … It’s always something you can get better at, it’s always something you can change, whether it’s your haircut, whether it’s your clothes, whether it’s your body. It’s always something. But, can you be happy for where you [are] right now? Like, right in this moment.”

A Former NFL Player Who No Longer Blocks His Blessings

Being in the NFL for so long, John previously learned to focus on the negative.

“One thing that football kind of messed me up on … [was] look[ing] at all my negative plays,” John said. “I would never pat myself on the back for the positive plays, so I think that switched over into my life too. [Now, whenever] I have a human problem … stuff that happens to people that are not in the NFL every day … I start letting go. I’m like, dude you can’t keep grading yourself … it ain’t our job to stay down. It’s our job to bring ourselves up.”

Part of letting go of negative thinking patterns meant finally giving himself some grace, instead of constantly holding himself to impossible standards.

“I played 15 years in the league. I got 133 and a half sacks. I made five. Instead of [being proud, I’d say things like], ‘Dang, I only did 15 years. I only got 133. Man, I was eight sacks away from being a top five. Dang, I only made five pro. I should have made seven.’ [Now, I say things like], ‘John, your test is over … You did not fail.’ I didn’t fail … If I wanted to do a mile and I finished my mile in four minutes compared to three minutes, it doesn’t mean I failed. You did finish your test. Your task was completed. You can still talk about what you did do.”

With 991 days sober at the time of the podcast recording, John was finally ready to stop blocking his blessings.

“I’m always going to be in recovery,” John said. “A lot of times my big thing was blocking my blessings, [but now I no longer do that] … We have so many blessings that we don’t know [and that we take for granted].”

While John Abraham is certainly an esteemed retired football player, it is his accomplishments off the turf that really speak to us here at All Points North. We know that by sharing his story, he will be able to affect change with so many others who may be facing similar challenges.

If you’re interested in learning more about All Points North and our addiction, trauma, and mental health recovery programs, submit our confidential contact form or call us at 855.934.1178 today. You never know how good your life can get until you deal with the things that are hard.

More From John Abraham

Listen and watch John’s episode of Recovery x APN below, and find more episodes on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.