Health & Fitness

A former addict, son of coach Jimmy Johnson helps others get sober

Chad Johnson combines his business acumen and successful battle over alcoholism to help others recover from addiction in his treatment center, Tranquil Shores, near St. Petersburg. Johnson is the son of former Miami Hurricanes and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson.
Chad Johnson combines his business acumen and successful battle over alcoholism to help others recover from addiction in his treatment center, Tranquil Shores, near St. Petersburg. Johnson is the son of former Miami Hurricanes and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson. Special to the Miami Herald

For most people, growing up in a tony neighborhood in Dallas and being a successful stockbroker would be a sweet life. What, then, would induce someone to abandon that job, desert family members and take up quarters in the musty interior of a parked car in Tampa?

The answer: alcohol addiction.

“The first and last thing on my mind each day was where I’d get my next drink,” said Chad Johnson, now 48 and living comfortably in St. Petersburg. “Nothing else mattered.”

Johnson, the son of Jimmy Johnson, the former football coach of the Miami Hurricanes, the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins, fought a 20-year battle with alcohol addiction before turning his life around. Today, he runs an addiction recovery center near St. Petersburg that specializes in an individualized approach to recovery.

“Five years ago I hired my first employee and chose the company name of Tranquil Shores,” said Johnson, who applied his experience in finance to build a solid business base. From that beginning, Tranquil Shores has grown into a 24-bed facility with 30 employees. The corporate office is in Madeira Beach and the resident lodging overlooks the Gulf of Mexico.

Johnson knows about addiction. His struggles with alcohol began as a teenager in the early 1980s, hanging out with kids who drank booze and did drugs.

I’d gotten to the point where every aspect of life was miserable. Some people call that hitting bottom, but whatever the definition, my first step to recovery was to quit believing that it’s OK to have even one drink.

Chad Johnson, son of ex-football coach Jimmy Johnson, on his alcohol addiction and recovery

According to a survey in 2013 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), about 8.7 million of those between 12 and 20 years old reported drinking alcohol in the past month; 5.4 million of them binge drank while 1.4 million did so heavily.

“My downward spiral didn’t take place overnight,” Johnson said. “I started drinking socially and it escalated as I got older. I kept drinking because it was the answer to all my problems and issues.”

“I completed college and got a job as a stockbroker,” Johnson said. “I never defined myself as a functional alcoholic even though I was. My friends, family and business associates recognized that I had a problem, but my answer was to appease them by half-heartedly going through multiple treatment programs. Instead of getting better, I got worse.”

Johnson ultimately left Dallas and moved to the west coast of Florida.

“My family never stopped loving me,” he said, “but at some point they reached a limit on empty promises and hopes for a cure. Then again, I’d also given up on myself.”

With no more family believers, no friends, no money and no hope, his daily routine regressed to scrounging up his next drink and living out of a car. He’d become a vagrant, a statistical failure, one of millions who the NIAAA labels as suffering from a severe “alcohol use disorder.”

Three weeks flew by, each day a dither. Finally, alone one night in his car, his clothes musty and wreaking of alcohol, he finally accepted in his heart and head that the fountain of life could flow no further from the spout of a liquor bottle. After two decades of despair, his life choices had whittled down to two choices: Continue drinking to oblivion, or stop and climb out of the hole.

“I’d gotten to the point where every aspect of life was miserable,” Johnson said. “Some people call that hitting bottom, but whatever the definition, my first step to recovery was to quit believing that it’s OK to have even one drink. Only then could I get the clarity that life can be better and that this isn’t the way it was supposed to be for me.’”

In time, Johnson relocated across Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg. He needed a change of venue to go with his newfound resolve. He began to surround himself with those who didn’t define drinking as a way of life.

By age 42, as if emerging from a blurry nightmare, Chad Johnson decided to become a lifeline for others and created Tranquil Shores.

A key to Johnson’s inability to recover from the rehab programs he’d entered boiled down to a numbers game. Many facilities are understaffed, leading to clients being treated more as a group than an individual.

The 90-day program at Tranquil Shores is based upon therapists adjusting to the needs of each individual rather than trying to fit everyone into their way of thinking.

“You still need group and peer support, but I committed to a process with a smaller program with a low ratio of therapists to clients,” Johnson said. “We get to really know the person to find out what motivates him or her and the root cause of addiction. Only then can we begin to figure out what works and the direction to take for each client. Anyone can sober up, but recovery isn’t just about detoxification, it’s about staying sober.”

Johnson said he learned something from his dad about creating a tightknit organization.

“My dad told me that when it comes to running any successful business, you must create an atmosphere where people are confident and fulfilled,” Johnson said.

His dad knows a thing or two about leading successful organizations — he coached the Hurricanes to a national college football title in 1987 and the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl victories in the early 1990s. He left the Cowboys to coach the Miami Dolphins, retiring as a coach in 2000. Today, he’s a TV studio analyst for Fox Sports and spends much of time at his home in the Florida Keys, fishing off the Florida Straits.

Chad Johnson said Tranquil Shores alumni include athletes, doctors, corporate executives, students and housewives. And while the client list is confidential, Johnson said those who’ve been successfully treated provide a roadmap to others.

“We encourage our alumni to get involved with clients going through our program,” Johnson said. “Clients relate well to those who have also experienced deep-seated issues about self-esteem and hopelessness.”

Johnson knows. And he knows recovery can work.

Resources

Contact Tranquil Shores at (727) 391-7001, www.tranquilshores.org. For more information on addiction programs, contact the U.S. government’s routing service for treatment facilities at (800) 662-4357, or www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.

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