GREEN BAY, Wis. — Johnny Jolly didn’t think he belonged in prison. Surrounded by murderers and other felons, Jolly was far removed from the lifestyle that he enjoyed as an NFL player just a couple of years earlier.
But there he was. In a Texas prison. Watching the Super Bowl XLVI matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Giants with his fellow inmates. Still only a few months into his six-year sentence at that time and also serving an indefinite suspension from the NFL, Jolly’s own football career seemed like it was over for good.
“I was a bad man,” Jolly said. “I mean, it was crazy because I knew I needed to chill, but it was like I was getting a thrill out of what I was doing, so I was just doing it. In my heart, I was like, I need to chill. I’m a football player and I need to take care of myself the other way.
“But sometimes you lose focus. You can’t get yourself back on track, so God sits you down and puts you back on track.”
That’s when Jolly, who had been arrested multiple times on drug-related offenses, started to get some good news. First, a judge in Texas deemed that Jolly qualified for “shock probation.” That meant no more time in prison. Then the NFL reinstated Jolly, and soon after, the Green Bay Packers decided to give him a second chance by restructuring his contract.
After he missed the first two weeks of Green Bay’s offseason training activities, what seemed nearly impossible for Jolly came true Tuesday. He was back on the practice field, wearing a Packers helmet again and using his 340-pound frame to be disruptive along the defensive line.
“It was excellent,” Jolly said in the locker room. “I’m out there laughing and joking with the guys, it just felt like I never left. It was just like, man, this is a relief. Oh, my God, I’m back on the field, practicing with the dudes I love to play ball with. It was great.”
It was the first time in three years that Jolly was able to be back with his teammates. He had missed out on Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV victory and consecutive NFC North division titles, but in that first moment stepping on the field Tuesday, it almost didn’t matter.
“It’s very hard, but you’ve got to have faith,” Jolly said. “You’ve got to have faith in God. And the whole time I had faith that God was going to bring me back to playing football. I didn’t know what team; I know where I wanted to be, which was Green Bay. Every day, my mother, she would talk to me and keep me going. My family was with me every step.”
Jolly’s extended football family in Green Bay was helpful, too. Jolly mentioned fellow defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, as well as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, as teammates who stayed in contact with him in recent years.
“The ones that played with him know the type of player he is and know the kind of person that we knew him as in here,” Rodgers said at his locker. “It’s exciting having him back. I’m just really enjoying his presence back in here and what he brings to us from an energy standpoint.
“He’s got a second chance and that’s an exciting thing to have. And I’m confident he’s going to make the most of it.”
Jolly credited a public comment that Rodgers made a while ago as something he feels ultimately led the Packers to keeping an open mind about a reunion. Jolly also specifically mentioned how Pickett kept in touch with his mother and how Raji never disappeared on him, either.
“It’s unexplainable for me to be in the situation that I’m in and they’re still worried about me while they’re working and doing what they’re supposed to do,” Jolly said. “I can’t explain it.”
When coach Mike McCarthy was asked whether he ever hesitated in bringing Jolly back to the Packers, he responded, “Not at all. None whatsoever.”
That decision by McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson was made easier when Jolly sat down with them a month ago for a “very, very long visit.” Jolly wanted to prove to them he was deserving of a second chance.
“That was the only way for me to go,” Jolly said. “I had to lay it on the table and let them know where I was and how I felt. It’s best for me and it’s best for them. For me to get it off my chest and for them to hear me speak and knowing that it’s true and coming from my heart. I think that was part of the thing for them signing me back, to know that I’m telling the truth.”
Jolly, whose drug arrests were for codeine (including one arrest in which he possessed 600 grams of the narcotic), said he hasn’t had any codeine in about 19 months.
“All that stuff is behind me,” Jolly said. “I’m just trying to be motivated, stick with my team and just do what I need to do. Like I said, all of that is behind me. That’s gone.”
Now 30 years old, Jolly isn’t a lock to make the Packers’ final 53-man roster. Green Bay has decent depth on its defensive line and used its first-round pick in April to add Datone Jones and a fifth-round pick to select Josh Boyd. With Raji, Pickett, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels and C.J. Wilson also all highly likely to be among the 53, Jolly will have to show he still has the talent that he did when making plays with the Packers from 2006-2009.
“My main thing right now is just coming out here every day and getting what I need to do down so I can be focused and more consistent in what I’m doing,” Jolly said. “Just being a part of the team and whatever I need to do, that’s my main focus. Once everything falls, we can go from there. But right now, I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team.”
McCarthy added that there will be a lot of work ahead for Jolly in order to go from being “one of the 90” players on the minicamp roster to being with the Packers for Week 1 of the regular season.
“We just want to get him back into the regularity, the rhythm and the every-day procedures and get back on the horse and start riding again,” McCarthy said. “He’s a football player competing for a job at the end of the day. You want to get him on that path.”
Making the roster is an achievable goal for Jolly, but considering where he was and where his life was headed not that long ago, just being back in uniform was a positive step.
“I’m blessed,” Jolly said. “I’m at a loss for words about it, but I’m happy to be back.”