My Story

Book John Jones
Can you look back and pick a single day that changed your life?
Think about it.
The day you got married? Maybe the day your kids were born? Perhaps the day you graduated from school? For me, picking the day that changed my life is easy.

June 11, 2006. The day I nearly died.

Photo of John Jones

Before then, I was living a dream that I’d worked 20 years in the National Football League to achieve.  I had risen to become the 10th president in Green Bay Packers history.  Everything in my life was on track.  My sights were set on leading the Packers franchise to ever greater success.

Then that Sunday morning in early summer 2006, my dream slipped away literally in a heartbeat.  My aorta dissected, a terrifying injury from which only 10 percent survive.  I suffered a stroke during the open-heart surgery that saved my life, a stroke that permanently damaged my short-term memory which ultimately forced me to retire from the team and the game that I loved.

If it were not for my personal doctors – Pat McKenzie and John Gray, the Packers’ team physicians – or a legion of caregivers at Bellin Health in Green Bay, led by cardiothoracic surgeon Tom Cain and cardiologist Matt Fuchs, I wouldn’t be around to tell this story.

But before I tell you about what life has been like since the stroke and dissection nearly killed me, let me tell you a little about who I am and why I’m writing this.

I was born and raised in New Orleans.  And like a lot of NOLA guys, there are two sports I live and die for . . . football and spring football.

By the time the New Orleans Saints came into existence in 1967, I was already a Green Bay Packers fan.  Don’t take that as a snub of the Saints.  Just the opposite.  I always pull for the Saints.  It’s just the fact that by the time the Saints came on the scene, I had already pledged allegiances to enduring Green Bay legends named Lombardi, Starr, Nitschke, Davis, Kramer and Adderly.

Following graduation from St. Stanislaus High School in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where I played offensive guard on the footbal team and work jersy number 64 — the same number my idol All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer wore for the Green Bay Packers – I earned my Bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Loyola University in New Orleans.

A couple of months after graduation, my wife Cindy and I were married in her hometown, Cedarburg, Wisconsin.  And, the following spring I entered graduate journalism school at the University of Wisconsin Madison.  During that spring semester of 1974, I was offered a full-time job as editor of a new weekly sports publication — Ray Nitschke’s Packer Report.  So I reluctantly left grad school to become the founding full-editor of Packer Report.

It was a tough decision, but my grad school advisor-Dr. Jim Hoyt, who remains a good friend to this day – told me that I could always come back to school if my job didn’t work out.  As things evolved and one job opportunity led to another, I never got back to finish my Masters at UW.  But I stay connected.  I am the proud father of two UW-Madison graduates, who are themselves married to UW-Madison graduates.  And their kids?  Let’s just say that Sophie, Owen and Madeline already wear Bucky Badger outfits and have pictures of themselves at Bascom Hall.

Packer Report opened the door for me to cover the 1974 Packers home games and even a season-ending trip home to New Orleans to cover Super Bowl IX at Tulane Stadium, the first of 20 Super Bowl games I attended.

By 1976 I was teaching journalism at Loyola and working part-time as a stringer for the States-Item, New Orleans’ then-afternoon daily newspaper.  By 1978, I had landed a full-time job as a States-Item sportswriter.  Over the next nine years I covered a wide range of major beats and stories – ranging from New Orleans Saints and LSU football to college basketball and baseball as well as the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.  Two personal high points for me were the stores I filed covering boxing.  I covered the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks rematch in the Superdome in which Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title.  And I was ringside for the Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard “no mas” bout in which Leonard claimed the world title by toppling the favored Duran.

Along the way, long-distance running had become both a personal and professional magnet for me.  I launched a weekly newspaper column at the States-Item on running.  My column garnered national acclaim when it was referenced by legendary running authority Jim Fixx in his Second Book on Running.  I ran three marathons in that era, including the 1979 New York City Marathon.

Little did I know that day in 1979 as I slogged through the Big Apple’s five boroughs that by 1987 I’d be working in Manhattan for the NFL Management Council and launching a 20-year NFL career in League and club administration.  I was hired as public relations director of the NFL Management Council in 1987, and I served as spokesman for NFL owners in the contentious players strike and replacement games of that strife-torn season.

By 1993, the League had settled antitrust lawsuits brought by players and given birth to the modern, Salary Cap system under which the NFL operates to this day.  I joined the inaugural front office staff of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars before returning to the Management Council prior to taking a front-office leadership role at Green Bay in 1999.

The Packers franchise was at a crossroads when I arrived in Green Bay.  The franchise faced an uncertain future due to the rapidly changing economic landscape of the league.  Lambeau field was an aging, outdated venue that offered limited financial lifeblood to the team.  Without dramatic new revenue generation opportunities, the competitive days of the Packers’ franchise seemed surely to be numbered.

I am proud of my contributions to saving Lambeau Field with the “destination venue” stadium project that transformed the legendary site into a year-round tourism destination that generates sufficient revenue to ensure the Packers’ economic and competitive survival.

Green Bay’s return to the Super Bowl in 2011 underscored the successful path that the franchise embarked upon in the “new” Lambeau era.  That’s a great compliment to my successor, club president/CEO Mark Murphy, and to the leadership of GM Ted Thompson, Head Coach Mike McCarthy and the Executive Committee of the Packers Corporation.  Bravo, gentlemen.

The day I became President of the Green Bay Packers on May 30, 2006, I was filled with excitement for the positive direction in which our team was heading.  I looked forward to maintaining the Packers’ success for many years to come.  And, thanks to new Lambeau, we were poised to do so.

I was personally very encouraged by Commissioner Roger Goodell’s leadership of the NFL.  Goodell had appointed me to serve on five owner and League executive committees dealing with key elements of the League’s operations.

I felt strongly at the time that great years for the Packers franchise and for my leadership aspirations were about to unfold.

But, my personal dream was not meant to be.

The aortic dissection and stroke took care of that.

In the days since, I have worked to put my life on a new course.

With the support of a loving family and the unceasing encouragement of so many friends, I have charted a new direction toward helping other men avoid a devastating health crisis like the one that nearly claimed my life.

I speak to civic and community groups urging men to get their checkups.  And, I have had my successes.

Not that I don’t still wrestle with the emptiness of what could have been.  On the days when I feel especially low about all the things that I’ve lost since my stroke and heart surgery, I have taught myself to “change channels” in my mind and think about the lives that I have touched via my presentation – - “Bulletproof:  The Men’s Healthcare Myth.”

I think about men I’ve encouraged to get their checkups, some of whom have gotten next-day heart surgery to prevent a potential heart attack.  I think of all the guys who’ve gotten medical checkups after hearing me speak, guys who sometimes haven’t had a doctor visit since getting a medical clearance to play high school sports.

At times like that, I can cope with what I have lost.

So I say a prayer of thanks.  Thanks that I lived.  Thanks for a loving family and good friends.

And thanks that I can do something to keep my personal health story from becoming some other guy’s story.

Men need to take care of themselves like their lives depend upon it.

Because they do.

No man is bulletproof.


 

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