Welcome in to another edition of ‘Where are they now?’ in which we look back at some past Denver Broncos who left a lasting impact on the franchise but perhaps are not as widely remembered by fans as Ring-of-Honor type legends
In this edition, we’ll check in on former wide receiver Vance Johnson.
Vance Johnson’s path to the Broncos came by way of not only a standout collegiate career for the University of Arizona, but for his elite abilities in the long jump. He was considered “world class” at the latter and was the NCAA champion in 1982. He fell just short of making the 1984 Olympic team, finishing fourth in the Olympic trials.
Despite the Olympics miss, his athletic history and production drew the attention of the NFL, and the Broncos would end up drafting him with the 31st pick of the second round in the 1985 NFL Draft. He would begin his career with the Broncos, and outside of a season for the San Diego Chargers in which he was not on the active roster, he would end his career with the Broncos as well.
He played a pivotal role from 1985-1993 (and 1995) for a Broncos franchise that was among the most dangerous in the NFL. In 10 seasons, he accumulated 5,695 yards on 415 catches, including a career-best 1,095 yards on 76 catches in 1989.
His contributions helped the team make three Super Bowl appearances (XXI, XXII, and XXIV), and although it came in a loss, he pulled in five catches for 121 yards in Super Bowl XXI. He still holds the record (in a tie with the late Demaryius Thomas) for most 100-yard receiving playoff games with three.
He, along with teammates Ricky Nattiel and Mark Jackson, formed a dynamic receiving trio that earned them the nickname The Three Amigos.
At age 32, he would spend one final season with the Broncos before hanging up his cleats.
What has Vance Johnson been up to?
Johnson’s post-football endeavor initially included running his own real estate company as well as opening up a barbecue restaurant, VJ’s Outlas Ribs, both which were in Colorado. Yet, it was unfortunately things not of a business nature where Johnson had to focus his life.
Shortly following his NFL career’s end, Johnson would appear on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, where he admitted the ego he grew during his playing days made him disrespectful and abusive to women, including his ex-wife. He would revisit the interview in recent years to discuss his thoughts on the matter since then.
“I was the one making the money, I was the one who had the power,” he would say. “I guess in some respect I felt at the time that whoever I was with was lower than I was.”
His ex-wife Angela would also appear on Oprah, in which she referred to him as humiliating her and physically and emotionally abusive and that she would not accept an apology from him as a form of penance. Johnson said while at the time, he was angry she wouldn’t accept an apology, he now feels ashamed and embarrassed.
“It took a long time for me to realize that she didn’t need to accept my apology,” he said when looking back on the interview. “Because I was the abuser in the relationship.”
In the sit-down with Oprah he had in 1996, he would tearfully express remorse while saying he did not deserve forgiveness and contemplated taking his own life.
He would remember hearing from friends and teammates following the interview saying that he shouldn’t have done it and that it didn’t help him, so on the taxi cab from the show to the airport, he reflected on it.
“I put myself in the position, so you better mean what you’re saying,” he said. “Otherwise this whole country is going to come down on you...but I knew it wasn’t really me, that person. I knew that I was the one with the problem and didn’t want to be that way anymore.”
Along with his abuse towards others, he also abused himself in the form of alcohol and pills. He achieved sobriety in 2013 but for several years was in poor shape and a danger to himself and others. He had struggled with addiction throughout his athletic career, but once finished and no longer able to have the same euphoric feeling from his on-the-field successes, he sunk deeper.
“When the lights went out (professionally), I went out,” he would say in a 2019 interview. “The way to cope with life was to lean in on the same addiction that helped get me through my career.”
His son was tragically killed by a drunk driver in 2007, and that sent him even deeper into his addiction.
“I want to let people know that there is a way out of the hell we all go into,” he said. “When (my son died) is when I turned on my addiction even more. It was my only coming, and I abused myself into a coma for 24 days.”
It wasn’t until former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Randy Grimes reached out to him where he finally started to turn his life around. He would fly to Tampa and enter an rehabilitation facility where he would step out 28 days later a changed man.
Since then, he has written an autobiography entitled Uncovered: Why Becoming Less Became Everything in 2019 detailing some of his darkest moments along with his turnaround.
“My message is that there is hope, and that there has to be education that addiction is a disease,” he said. “Like any disease, we have to find a way to get it into remission. This is happening right next door to everyone, not just professional sports. It happens to everyone, and there is something that we can do about this.”
He now spends his time as an advocate for addiction recovery for athletes following their careers and serves as rehabilitation ambassador for Americas Rehab Campus in Tucson, Arizona, using his experience to try and help others.