Stephen Johns isn’t your typical 29-year-old. All he wants to do is walk across North America, one of the most difficult feats to accomplish in human history. The United States to Canada, a distance of 2,400 miles, and then back again, is not a simple task, but it seems to be what Stephen wants to do right now.
The day after I turned 25, I thought about all the things I’d accomplished in my life. I thought about all the things I wanted to do. I thought about all the things I wanted to achieve. I thought about how I wanted to live my life. I thought about how I wanted to be a person. And then, I thought about how I wanted to be a human. I thought about how I wanted to be alive. I thought about how I wanted to be loved. And then I thought about how I wanted to be me. And I was filled with this wonderful feeling—this feeling of finally being where I needed to be.
Stephen Johns has a lot of things on his mind. He was the first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Suns in 2015, but tore his ACL in his first preseason game, ending his rookie year. He was traded to the New York Knicks last year for a second-round pick to clear cap space, but only played a little more than six minutes per game for the Knicks in 2017-18. He’s now in the G League, called the #MentalMiles G League, and playing for the Long Island Nets, the Brooklyn Nets’s G League affiliate.Stephen Jones missed the 2021 NHL season, and he knew his career was over. It’s not that the 29-year-old didn’t want to play hockey anymore, he just couldn’t do it.
The Dallas Stars defender was once out for 22 months as he battled post-concussion syndrome. Although he had permission to return to the ice, he never recovered. Jones still has a constant headache. In the last NHL game he played – Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames in the 2020 postseason – he looked at his watch and saw that the second period was underway, but he couldn’t remember any shifts from the previous game. He knew he’d been there.
Jones stayed in Dallas last season and finished the final year of his contract before returning to his childhood home in Pennsylvania in early April.
I stayed home, drank, isolated myself and did nothing, he says. I didn’t play golf, I didn’t go out with my friends. I had suicidal thoughts. I was just in a very, very dark place.
One day he stumbled upon a video clip of the song Live Before I Die by Mike Posner and Naughty Boy on YouTube. The video chronicles Posner’s six-month journey across America on foot.
Why? The first caption in the video reads as follows. I was on my way to becoming a person I was truly proud of.
It turned out to be the inspiration Jones needed. He called a friend. He got his skates. And he too decided to make a trip across the country.
He had no idea how this trip would go.
Jones finished his trip to Oregon this week, having traveled nearly 2,000 miles and made hundreds of new contacts. Maybe thousands. His inbox is flooded with notes from around the world, and every day he is celebrated in dozens of videos by people sharing their own #MentalMiles, a term Jones coined to spread his message about the importance of mental health.
He first posted on the 13th. June about the trip on Instagram. I didn’t think I would announce my retirement in this post, but I did, Jones said. But I didn’t think it would explode like that. Before we even started the trip, we thought: Wow, this is getting a little crazy. It could be something important.
The friend traveling with Jones is Jeff Toots, who worked as a videographer for the Stars. This season was Toots last with the organization, as he took a new job. It was the best news I ever got, because it was unexpected, it was a Thursday afternoon, and it was… I think I’ll go rollerblading across America. That’s it. It was a text. That was the best part. I was like this: I’m so depressed.
Two days later, Toots booked a plane ticket to Pittsburgh. They left after about a week. Toots filmed the trip for a documentary they’re about to make, and he knows Jones’ raw vulnerability can have a big impact – and that goes beyond hockey.
Compared to what is common in the league, it disrupts some of the expectations and standards for media accessibility, Toots said. I didn’t see Stephen in the context of a hockey player, but the way he opened up, the story he wants to tell, is definitely different than what we’re used to seeing from hockey players.
Jones and Toots drew up a rough plan for their trip, and that was it. In the beginning they would get up at 7 or 8 in the morning and Jones would work on the magazine for three or four hours, while Toots followed in the car. Then I get in the car, get up for an hour or two, find some really good roads, drive another three or four hours, set up camp, drink beer, talk about life and then go to bed, Jones says.
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Jones is not bitter about his hockey career. In fact, the opposite is true. Most of the highlights of my hockey career have taken place in the minor leagues and I think the minor league hockey system is very interesting and unique, Jones said. I played in the great city of Austin. I also played in the beautiful city of Rockford [Illinois]. People don’t speak well of Rockford, but I had the best teammates and the fans were so passionate. I really love this game.
Although he loves the game, he sometimes feels like the game is letting him down. According to Jones, he watched games for the 2021 playoffs when his friends played, but that’s about it.
It’s hard to be in my situation, Jones said. The ETC problem is not even recognized in our league. So it’s hard for me to watch hockey right now. I’m sure I’ll get one eventually if I don’t get it now. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease run in my family. Almost every neurologist I’ve talked to says I’m on the fast track. It’s a test of the soul.
When asked what he hoped people would take away from his story, Jones said the obvious answer was the importance of conversation.
Jones says head injuries are an extremely important topic, about the recovery process and not rushing children – especially children. As an adult you can make your own decisions, but not as a child. That’s the worst. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve played with a headache because it was just a headache. It’s an injury that can lead to a disease, and a disease can take you down such different paths in life that you can’t imagine. I mean, I never understood what anxiety or depression was because I never had it. I thought it was normal when you lose a loved one or break up with someone, standard stuff. I didn’t realize how deep the roots were, how messy everything was, and how hard it was to get out of that hole.
At the end of his journey, he thought about how to keep the momentum of #MentalMiles going.
I’m lucky I can afford this trip and not have to worry about it, Jones said. Many people work from nine to five and only have something to do on the weekends. So I try to find a way to bridge that gap and help people.
Jones and Toots announced a partnership with the Dallas Stars Foundation and Mental Health America. They encourage people to donate for every mile someone drives, and Jones donates for every mile he drives.
My goal with this project is to inspire one person, Jones said. I hope people watch our documentary and don’t get it, because they do a great job. But I focus on the fact that if I can save one person, that’s enough for me. I don’t care what people think of me, if they think I’m stupid or inconsiderate. Because it’s not about me anymore, it’s about a lot more. And it’s just great.While Americans are known for their lack of fitness, the rest of the world is not so far behind: according to a recent study, nearly a third of people in the U.S. are also physically inactive, and that’s a problem. We need to change that.. Read more about stephen johns 2021 and let us know what you think.
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