GREEN BAY, Wis. – Johnny Jolly doesn't believe his sobriety is dependent on football, though he's definitely glad to have the game in his life again.
"I wouldn't say that I need it, but I love the sport, so I want to play," the Green Bay Packers defensive lineman said Sunday, following the first in-pads practice of training camp.
Jolly, who missed the past three NFL seasons while suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, is trying to become the same player and a different person all at the same time. So far, he seems to be making strides at both.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I do. Practice hard, work hard," Jolly said. "I'm going to keep pushing to be here for the season."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Jolly indefinitely following the 2009 season after multiple arrests for codeine possession in his native Houston.
After missing the 2010, '11 and '12 seasons — he watched the Packers win the Super Bowl on television, later admitting he was high as he watched the telecast — he was finally reinstated in March. The Packers, who never gave up his NFL rights during his suspension, then signed him to a restructured, minimum-salary deal that would pay him $715,000 this season if he makes the team.
After his final arrest, Jolly was given a six-year prison sentence that he began serving in November 2011. However, after just six months of incarceration, Jolly was released and put on "shock probation" for the next decade. He estimated he spent a total of "eight or nine months" in jail or prison because of his codeine addiction, and in May he graduated from a court-ordered rehabilitation program and was allowed to join the team during the first week of June for the mandatory minicamp and final organized team activities.
"You can tell that he's still working out some kinks, but at the same time you can tell that he's still got it," said Packers right guard T.J. Lang, who has been facing Jolly in practice. "I think he's just trying to still work through all that to get back to where he was. It definitely looks like he's on pace to do that. I like having him back in this locker room."
For the record, Jolly said Sunday that he does not have any sort of team-appointed handler, deciding instead to give him a support network while also putting the onus of responsibility on him to stay on the path to redemption. While he calls his defensive linemates "brothers," it's up to him to stay out of trouble.
"This is family here, (but) no one has to look after me like I was a child," Jolly said. "I'm a grown man."
Back home, though, Jolly has his wife of six days, Voniecia, to help keep him on the path.
"Oh, yeah," Jolly said with a belly laugh. "She stays on my (butt)."
The couple got married Monday, before Jolly traveled to Green Bay in time for camp-opening physicals on Thursday morning.
But first, he has to earn a spot on the roster, which is no slam-dunk, even though he was the defensive line's best player in 2009, when the Packers ranked No. 1 against the run in the 32-team NFL. Six linemen made the 53-man roster coming out of camp last year, and it would appear that at least four players are locks and three others have as good a chance as Jolly does.
Jolly says he is realistic about what's most important. He said if football doesn't work out, he'd like to return to school to finish his degree — he said he left Texas A&M roughly 20 credits shy of graduating — and he'd also like to work after football with at-risk kids battling addiction.
"I'd be willing to talk to kids that are kind of off track right now, because I know what it is to be off track and I know what it is to be on track," Jolly said. "Sometimes you just need that person in your ear to let you know the good advice that has been down that road and can tell you, 'That's wrong' or 'That's right.' You'll be amazed by how much it'll help."