Road to Recovery

illustration by Charles Marsh

We've all heard stories about great athletes who for some reason get hooked on drugs and alcohol and wind up losing their career, their money, their families and sometimes their lives. My friend John Corker's scenario was pretty similar to that.

An All-American out of Oklahoma State in the late ’70s, John was one of the top linebackers in the nation when the Houston Oilers drafted him in 1980. Although he was already using, his drug use escalated during the four years he played in Houston. He then went to the newly formed United States Football League, where he played alongside future NFL great Reggie White on the Michigan Panthers. During his time there, John set the all-time professional football record for sacks in one year. What makes that especially amazing is that he got all 28 and a half of them while he was sky high on cocaine.

But the drugs began taking their toll. After the USFL, there were stints in the Arena football league. He played off and on until he was 45 years old, but by then, all the big money was gone. His friends and his family had given up on him. He was a full-blown drug addict living on the streets of Baltimore.

You're probably thinking that this is just another sad ending for someone that had Hall of Fame potential. But you'd be wrong. Against all odds, John declined death's offer to come inside again and finally decided to leave that doorstep for good. That was just more than 10 years ago. And now he might be the most content and well-adjusted person I've ever known.

I first met John through Nancy Woodson, a mutual friend who works for the Salvation Army. I had reached the end of my rope due to a family situation, and she thought it would be a good idea if I spoke with him. The first thing you notice about John is his size. He's 6 foot 7 inches and weighs a rock-solid 290 pounds. I'm no small guy, but standing next to John made me feel like Gulliver. I felt even smaller when I reached out to introduce myself. His huge hand totally engulfed mine. I might as well have been an ant trying to high five a catcher's mitt. But what you really notice about John is an immediate sense of well-being when he begins speaking. For the next two hours, I sat in that restaurant totally mesmerized just listening to him talk about his addiction. And did he ever have some stories.

During his playing days with Houston, he woke up one morning in a hotel room and immediately decided to get high. A few hours later, he flipped on the TV and casually started watching a football game. The pounding on his door a few minutes later turned out to be the general manager of the football team. He was a little curious as to why his semi-coherent linebacker was watching the Oilers on television instead of being on the field with them. He made it to the game by halftime that day, but there were other incidents. Despite all his talent, Houston finally had enough after four years. It got scarier. In the later years when he was broke, he tried to pass off pine needles as marijuana for $20 to feed his habit. When the buyer figured it out, he pulled out a 9-millimeter and emptied the magazine. As big as he was, John managed to dodge every bullet. He leaned back in his chair and let out a big laugh when he told that story. John laughs a lot now, and when he does, the room shakes. The city of Denton blames it on fracking. Nope. It's just John.

By the time John was 47 years old, the drug use had cut his weight down to 170 pounds. He was so thin, if he'd been standing on a green while you were putting, you would have instinctively tried to tend him. Yet he had somehow managed to land one last job as a long-haul trucker. It included a layover in Fort Worth on the way to Memphis. But while he was here, John got ripped again. The next day, he couldn't find his truck. It's probably because the little old lady whose driveway he'd been blocking decided to have it towed. John was quickly fired and spent the next two nights sleeping in an abandoned gas station on East Lancaster. When he came to that second morning, he decided he'd finally had enough and moved into the Salvation Army just down the street. For the next eight months, he gradually got his life together while mentoring others with similar problems. He became a motivational speaker, and I can attest that he's second to none. John also came to realize that addiction is really about being possessed, and the only way you can beat the devil is through the positive forces in the universe. I used to think that was nonsense, but now I believe it. He's living proof. John channels his energy from a place we all wish we could find.

For centuries, mankind has been searching for hidden treasure. But to find it, we've never really needed a ship, a map or even a shovel. The real hidden treasure in this world is an individual who changes other people's lives for the better. And fortunately, you can find that treasure on the east side of Fort Worth. Just go to the Salvation Army on any Sunday evening and listen to the guy leading the prayer meeting. Or you can go down East Lancaster and wait for the 89 Spur bus on The T. You see, that's the one John drives for a living. And if you seek him out, he'll always find time to talk to you.

Since that first meeting a couple of months ago, my family situation has gotten a tiny bit better. That's why every day I've started saying a little prayer. Then I look up and smile and give a special thanks that John Corker never found that truck.