Cause of Death Revealed for Steelers Former First-Round Pick

Getty Charles Johnson runs with the ball versus Jaguars.

The sudden death of longtime Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Charles Johnson in July 2022 has finally been determined. The case was ruled a suicide stemming from a drug overdose, according to a report from the North Carolina state medical examiner.

Johnson, the Steelers’ 17th overall selection in the 1994 NFL draft, was reported missing by his wife on July 16 and found dead at a hotel near his home in Raliegh, NC, on July 17, according to a medical examiner’s report obtained by USA Today’s Brent Schrotenboer.

Though there was no prior record of drug use and no active prescriptions (per Schrotenboer’s query of the North Carolina Prescription Monitoring Service), autopsy results indicated Johnson, 50, had “acute oxycodone, hydrocodone and mirtazapine toxicity” in his bloodstream.

According to Schrotenboer, the report also noted, “In the previous week, he had been acting strange and had recently purchased a funeral and cremation service.” The report released Monday, January 9, stated that Johnson was found “unresponsive in the room lying on the bed” and pronounced dead at the scene. Johnson left many items at his residence, including a wallet, cell phone, keys and vehicle.

Charles Johnson’s Career with Tom Brady Won Him a Super Bowl

Charles Johnson’s most recent NFL accomplishments stemmed from being on the receiving end of Tom Brady‘s passes in New England, where the team won its first Super Bowl title in 2002. But Johnson’s career started with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was the Robin to Yancey Thigpen’s Batman for five seasons.

From 1994 to 1998, Johnson contributed 3,400 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. In 1996, he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the first and only time in his career. In what was then a run-heavy league, he amassed over 100 receptions twice as an explosive option for quarterbacks Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart.

After his time in Pittsburgh, in addition to the Patriots, Johnson spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills. Nine seasons in the NFL netted Johnson 4,606 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns on 354 passes.

Charles Johnson Sued Steelers in 2009, Claiming Injuries, Problems From Playing

Schrotenboer reported in September 2022 that Charles Johnson claimed to have suffered from “brain, head, spine neck injuries and neuro/psyche” from his nine years in the NFL.

Per Schrotenboer, friend Doneka Buckner said at one point Johnson had been seeing a Los Angeles medical specialist after suffering symptoms of suspected chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to head trauma in football. Other friends of Johnson’s said he “didn’t exhibit or speak of any symptoms he might have had from head trauma in football.”

Johnson sued the Pittsburgh Steelers for workers’ compensation in 2009, claiming permanent injuries and problems with hearing and sleep. While the Steelers disputed the claim, the club settled the lawsuit for $150,000 in 2013 (according to California court documents obtained by Schrotenboer) after Johnson was declared permanently disabled by independent medical examination.  

After retirement, Johnson became the assistant athletic director at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, NC. He coached with ex-Steelers running back Willie Parker, ex-NFL wide receiver Torry Holt, and former NFL running back Dewayne Washington.

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