Jermaine Wiggins, a tenement kid from East Boston who gained a glimmer of fame by helping the Patriots win their first Super Bowl and launch one of football’s greatest dynasties, went broke within two years of his last NFL game.
But Wiggins was never alone in hardship among alumni of New England’s historic 2001 team.
Twenty years after those underdog Patriots shocked the football world and triggered the transformation of Boston into a City of Champions, life has been extraordinarily kind to many in their ranks. Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, and Willie McGinest, among others, have basked in wealth and glory.
Yet an outsized number of their teammates have been haunted by trouble and tragedy. Had those Patriots champions gathered this year for a 20th reunion, their numbers would have been sharply depleted by premature mortality. In all, seven players who started the first title season in Foxborough have died between the ages of 35 and 50, strikingly young even for veterans of professional football. A 2019 study of NFL players from 1979 to 2013 found their average life expectancy was 59.6 years.
Many of the 2001 team’s living alumni, meanwhile, share painful histories of financial and emotional distress. Wiggins, who made several momentous plays for the trailblazing Super Bowl team, is one of eight members of the title team who fell hard into bankruptcy. Most, like Wiggins, a seven-year NFL veteran who got squeezed by the Great Recession, lost nearly everything.
“A lot of us were blessed to play in the NFL,” Wiggins said. “Now, unfortunately, there are guys who are no longer with us, and there are other guys who are dealing with stuff, whether it’s from head issues or financial problems or alcohol abuse or drug abuse.”
At least seven other players on the Patriots’ first championship team avoided bankruptcy but not fiscal calamity: liens, foreclosures, evictions, court cases, the ever-present threat of outright insolvency.
“Just because you win Super Bowls doesn’t mean you’re immune from the carnage, the brain damage, the drug addiction, and depression,” said Ted Johnson, a hard-hitting linebacker who played 10 years for the Patriots, retired in 2005, and went broke three years later, also during the Great Recession.
“Guys suffer in silence because nobody wants to hear how the sausage is made, how a lot of guys leave the NFL with more problems than they came in with,” Johnson said.
‘Just because you win Super Bowls doesn’t mean you’re immune from the carnage, the brain damage, the drug addiction, and depression.’
Ted Johnson, member of the 2001 Patriots
Some of the deceased Patriots were among 24 members of the 2001 team afflicted with symptoms of football brain injuries, according to their claims in a landmark class-action lawsuit against the NFL. The league settled the case for more than $1 billion, with the most severely impacted players and their survivors receiving compensation.
Their traumas serve as a potent reminder that the league, whose teams have been collectively valued by Forbes at more than $140 billion, have posted staggering profits at the expense of many of the sport’s performers.
Few NFL rosters have been exempt from early deaths. But of the eight New England teams that have reached the Super Bowl this century, only the 2001 team has had more than two alumni die, a distinction that defies easy explanation because the causes have varied sharply.
Highway crashes claimed receivers Terry Glenn, in 2017, at age 43, and David Patten, in 2021, at 47. Two of their former teammates succumbed to cancer: linebacker T.J. Turner, in 2014, at 35, and defensive back Leonard Myers, in 2018, at 38. A heart attack felled offensive lineman Kenyatta Jones in 2018, at 39, and defensive lineman Riddick Parker died suddenly while riding his bicycle in August, at 49.
No cause of death has been disclosed for Charles Johnson, whose body was found in July in a hotel room near his home in Raleigh, N.C. Police said there were no signs of foul play.
Johnson, 50, a receiver whose two catches in the AFC Championship game helped the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl, alleged in the class-action suit that he suffered from symptoms caused by “repetitive, traumatic sub-concussive and/or concussive head impacts” during NFL games and practices.
Had the Super Bowl XXXVI champions gathered for a reunion this year, brain injuries might have been a difficult topic to avoid. Like Johnson, most players who joined the concussion case claimed head traumas damaged them physically, emotionally, and financially.
In 2018, running back J.R. Redmond, who made several crucial plays to help the Patriots win both the epic divisional round “Snow Bowl” and Super Bowl, tearfully told the Globe his brain injuries had left him emotionally unmoored, homeless, and fantasizing about his death.
Many of Redmond’s former teammates empathize. Defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell made a star turn in the AFC title game by blocking a field goal attempt, enabling teammate Troy Brown to grab the loose ball and lateral to Antwan Harris, who scampered for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead that proved insurmountable.
Seven years later, Mitchell hit rock bottom. Drinking heavily and directionless after his eight-year NFL career ended in 2004, Mitchell twice was cited for drunken driving before he was charged with possessing and intending to distribute cocaine and crystal methamphetamine in 2009 in his hometown of Abbeville, La.
Mitchell said in an interview that he has suffered severe depression and other symptoms associated with traumatic brain injuries. He said his condition was aggravated by alcohol dependence, which escalated to a drug addiction, as well.
“It was a lot of regret, going from playing with Tom Brady and Willie McGinest on a Super Bowl team to being locked up with criminals” in pretrial detention, Mitchell said.
Though he avoided a prison sentence, Mitchell lost almost everything but his Super Bowl ring in bankruptcy.
‘It was a lot of regret, going from playing with Tom Brady and Willie McGinest on a Super Bowl team to being locked up with criminals.’
Brandon Mitchell, member of the 2001 Patriots
A 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that nearly 16 percent of NFL players file for bankruptcy within 12 years of their last game. With 56 players on the 2001 New England roster, the eight bankruptcies fall within range of those findings.
Roman Phifer, a key linebacker on the Super Bowl XXXVI team who also tumbled into bankruptcy, produced a 2009 film documentary, “Blood Equity,” in which Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Wood said, “It saddens me when I hear about ballplayers who can’t pay their rent.”
The NFL has since addressed the problem in part by providing financial literacy resources for all rookies and wealth management workshops for all players.
In Mitchell’s case, he wound up making ends meet by crab fishing. Then he met a therapist he trusted.
“I told her, ‘I’m lost, I need help,’ ” Mitchell recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to come out of this, but one thing I learned from being with the Patriots and Bill Belichick was that I’m coachable. If you’re willing to coach me, I will give you my best effort.’ ”
Committing to therapy “changed the course of my life,” Mitchell said.
Sober ever since, he said, Mitchell now works as a specialist helping others recover from addiction. He sometimes arrives at interventions wearing his Super Bowl ring.
“It’s a reminder that you can have all the money in the world and still be unhappy with yourself,” Mitchell said.
Ted Johnson identifies with Mitchell. After his career ended in 2005, Johnson was laid low by severe symptoms of traumatic brain injuries, which he blamed in part on receiving too little time to recover from back-to-back concussions within four days while training for the 2002 season. The second concussion, from a collision with Redmond, “changed everything for me” with cognitive health, he said.
In 2008, Johnson became one of the first NFL players who pledged to donate their brains for research at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, joining a campaign that has created safer playing conditions throughout football.
Johnson said he first treated his trauma symptoms with prescription amphetamines. When the prescriptions became too hard to obtain, he turned to cocaine, he said, which led to “many, many years of a horrible addiction.” He said he called 911 at least four times when he believed he was dying from his cocaine use.
By 2009, he was broke, his life in ruins.
“It can take years before you realize that this thing has got you by the throat and that helplessness has turned to hopelessness,” Johnson said.
With the help of his girlfriend — “an angel looking over me” — Johnson said he has lived clean as an addict in recovery since his most recent relapse in 2017.
“I’ve been scratching and clawing to fight my way back,” he said.
Johnson now works in broadcast media, appearing on NBC Sports Boston, WCVB’s “SportsCenter 5 OT,” and radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub, among other platforms.
Wiggins has followed a similar professional comeback path. Raised by a single mother, he became one of the only Boston Public School graduates to reach the NFL, after playing at Marshall University and the University of Georgia. A tight end undrafted out of college in 1999, Wiggins was signed by the New York Jets, waived in 2000, and promptly claimed by the Patriots.
Then came the playoffs in January 2002, and the kid from Eastie became a hometown star with indispensable pass receptions that helped the Patriots clinch the “Snow Bowl” and Super Bowl. But after his last NFL game in 2006, Wiggins had no plan for a post-career livelihood, as he, too, dealt with symptoms of head injuries.
“You go through a point where you’re playing football and all of a sudden you don’t have a job, and you’re married with three kids and things start adding up,” he said. “If you don’t have the income you need, you unfortunately run into some situations you have to learn from.”
In his 2008 bankruptcy case, Wiggins abandoned more than $2 million in property in Georgia, South Carolina, and Minnesota. He held on to his diamond-studded Super Bowl ring, unlike a few teammates, including Je’Rod Cherry, whose ring was being offered by a New Jersey auction house through Dec. 10, with the high bid topping $14,000.
For Wiggins, the road back to financial stability began when he called The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Mazz” show nearly a decade ago to challenge their commentary. The call led to weekly appearances, which opened doors to other gigs in the Boston broadcast market, most recently co-hosting WEEI’s “The Greg Hill Show.”
Wiggins now has two sons who play football, Jermaine Jr., at the University of Arizona, and Jaden, at Central Catholic High School. Like other NFL players who have struggled, Wiggins is trying to spare the next generation from similar hardships.
He shares with them a football lesson he considers vital to life itself.
“When you get knocked down,” Wiggins says, “it’s all about getting back up.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.