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No longer running from his past - FlagSpin

No longer running from his past

Former Broncos football star and now recovery ambassador Vance Johnson (far right) poses with students at Steamboat Springs High School this week, where he spoke as part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting.
Vance Johnson/Courtesy photo

The three church services at Steamboat Christian Center were full during Superbowl weekend, as community members came to listen to the thought-provoking life story of former Denver Broncos wide receiver Vance Johnson.

Johnson said Monday he originally planned to travel to Steamboat Springs for the graduation of a client at Come As You Are, or CAYA, the 12-month Christ-centered residential treatment program for women overcoming addictions that is housed on the Steamboat Christian Center campus. He had helped the woman find treatment, which is his role now as a speaker and recovery ambassador.

The visit led to Johnson telling his tough life story at church services Saturday evening and Sunday morning, guest hosting the church’s Sober Super Bowl Party, and speaking to students through Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Steamboat Springs High School. Johnson said he met or talked for hours with local residents throughout his visit, including with youth flag football players and attendees after church services.

“It was so much fun. I had such a great time,” Johnson said of the sober party.

Johnson said he spent his youth and much of his adult life running from a childhood that included his father physically abusing his mother. Youth, college and professional sports provided escape for Johnson, including as a two-sport track and football standout at the University of Arizona.

“I did all different types of sports as a child because I wanted to achieve an identity,” Johnson, 58, said. “I called myself a believer in God, but I was not a follower. I did what was right in my own eyes so that I could be great and famous and hopefully wealthy one day.”

After years of substance abuse that started with his first drink of alcohol at age 21 with Broncos teammates in Denver, he experienced a rapid decline into alcoholism, then drug abuse, domestic violence and self-harm, all while playing in three Super Bowls.

“The only time I had any happiness and joy was when I was on the football field,” Johnson said Sunday morning. “Off the field I only leaned on different types of addictions.”

Johnson said he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive brain condition related to repeated blows to the head and concussions.

He often avoided his responsibilities to, eventually, seven former wives and seven children. Johnson told audiences repeatedly with strong emotion, “What kind of father was I?”

Johnson lost one child, Vaughn Edward Johnson, 19, in September 2007 from a vehicle crash in Colorado when a driver in an SUV turned into the path of the teen riding a motorcycle. This ushered in the lowest part of this life.

After years of ups and downs financially, personally and physically, Johnson said he has been clean and sober for more than eight years. As a recovery ambassador, he works to connect people with help through his website

“No matter where in the country people are dealing with loved ones suffering in addiction, I ask them to reach out to me because no matter where they are I want to help them to get into treatment. Because that’s the promise I made God when I got clean,” said Johnson, who recently moved to Tucson, Arizona, to be near his aging parents and work as a treatment center ambassador.

“Vance was lost, just chaos in his life trying to deal with pain,” church lead pastor Troy Lewis said. “You hurt people. He’s discovered that, and he’s humbled enough to own it.

“Perhaps we can use our misery to turn it into our ministry. We’d have a chance to maybe help other people who are struggling. And that’s what he’s done. It takes a lot of courage to do that, to come and confess all that junk in front of us. It’s clear evidence that none of us are too far away from experiencing the grace and kindness of God.”

Johnson said he is playing for “team Jesus now for life” and has reconnected with his six living children.

“I hope people will listen to me so I can be a part of breaking the stigma, that people don’t have to die in their addictions, and they don’t have to be ashamed to talk about it. That’s why I get this platform now to offer hope to everyone,” Johnson said.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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