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Tall order

Posted May 5, 2009


Michael Johnson (AP photo)

Posted: 6:35 a.m.

Of all the things they said about his son in the days leading up to the draft, the one that still makes Sam Johnson guffaw is that he'd have to toughen up.

Heck, Sam and Thomasene have been doing that for the last 22 years. And it started after some freak weather hit Selma, Ala., not long after Michael Johnson was born in 1987.

"I took him out in the snow," says Sam Johnson. "He was a little baby, but I wanted to toughen him up in the cold weather."

The baby has grown into what even Sam calls "a beast." The spurt came late junior high school or early high school. Sam says it was five inches in a year. Thomasene remembers three inches in about three months.

"I remember watching him walk down the hall and his pants were up to his ankles," she says. "I thought to myself, 'Didn't I just buy those?' "

At 6-7, Michael Johnson's wingspan filled up the Paul Brown Stadium doorway so impressively this weekend at the Bengals rookie camp that his shocking athleticism drew physical comparisons to the great pass rushers of every decade since the league started keeping sack stats.

Ted Hendricks in the '70s. Richard Dent in the '80s. Jevon Kearse's 14.5 rookie sacks in '99 and Julius Peppers' 70.5 career sacks this decade.

Of course, Johnson has 0.0 NFL sacks and won't wear pads in the NFL for nearly three more months, and he may end up with as many career sacks as Elrod Hendricks instead of Ted Hendricks.

But clearly the Bengals never have had a pass rusher in modern times whose specs so closely resemble the great ones like the defensive end from Georgia Tech.

Defensive line coach Jay Hayes smiled as he lined up Johnson on the edge in 1-on-1 pass rush drills. Linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald smiled as he dropped Johnson in coverage drills. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer smiled as he thought about mismatches with running backs on the blitz. Special teams coach Darrin Simmons just smiled.

"I'll put him anywhere; I've got 11 spots," Simmons says. "He's big, he can run. Those are the two things you want."

And he's got the toughness. So say the two who should know.

Marine Sam Johnson stepped on a land mine in a jungle hell somewhere south of DaNang and came back to Selma, Ala., learning how to go to work left-handed. His wife, Thomasene, had just entered high school when two weeks after "Bloody Sunday," she followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the first day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in one of the epochal moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

At the very least, Michael Johnson is the product of some of the toughest moments the Baby Boomers have to offer.

"I stayed away from the cattle prods," Thomasene Johnson says of the police. "I was lucky. I never got hit with anything or punched. I tried to stay away from the outside. I don't remember why, but I didn't go to the one (two weeks before) where there was all the trouble.

"I saw it as a cause and all my friends were doing it, and so maybe that's why it didn't seem so (scary)."

Thomasene, who shook King's hand, was arrested three times during protests but she didn't realize it was history until years later when she explained to Michael landmarks and legends around town.

"I was always very protective of my parents; just being proud of both of them," Michael Johnson says. "I never want to disappoint them in any way."

Which may explain the inexorable run through Dallas County High School, where he finished No. 1 in his class.

"Don't tell anybody," he says with a smile. "I went to Georgia Tech and got humbled. There were 98 kids in the school. It's a small school in the country, but No. 1 is No. 1."

Sam Johnson: "Michael has always been competitive. He wants to be No. 1 in grades or in sports. Anything. Second place has never been good enough for Mike. I remember in first or second grade he wanted a four-wheel bike and I told him I'd get him one if he made all A's. I told him if he made all A's by the time he got to eighth grade I'd get him a shotgun for hunting. If he got all A's by the time he got to 16, I'd let him have a car and I gave him my wife's."

Mike Johnson didn't always want to be a pro football player. For the longest time he wanted to be a Marine.

"Right from the time he was little. I would tell him no way," Sam says. "I would tell him that he was too smart. That he should be a doctor, lawyer, or something like that. I guess when he got into high school he stopped that."

Samuel Johnson, 19, signed up for the Marines and he turned 20 in Vietnam. "I was gung-ho," he says, and Thursday is the 42nd anniversary of the day it all changed near a place called Marble Mountain.

"May 7, 1967. About noon," Sam says. "It was like one of those valleys you see out in California. A lot of vegetation. We were out on patrol. Next thing I knew, 'Wump.' I don't know how far I went, but I wasn't where I started. I was lucky. Most people lose both their legs after stepping on a mine. I was moving and I was wearing a flak jacket. If I hadn't been wearing the flak jacket ... "

Sam Johnson didn’t lose much of his right hand and foot ("I don't talk about it much"), but there was enough damage that he was in a hospital for 16 months and when he left he was using a cane mainly for support and doing most things left-handed after several surgeries.

"I was semi-ambidextrous anyway," he says. "But I don’t talk about that much. You move on."

After an honorable discharge, Sam Johnson went back home and got his degree in business from Alabama State and became a director of human resources at International Paper for 29 years before retiring a few years ago and helping Thomasene run her company that sells herbal products.

After her experience in the movement, she stayed close to home and got a business degree of her own from Tuskegee. (Mike has been taking notes. He's close to a business degree from Tech.)

The degree came through for her when Michael was a baby and he kept getting ear infections. Thomasene had heard about the power of herbs and when Mike stopped getting the infections after she tried them, she decided to open a shop selling herbs.

Thomasene will tell you about tough and her son.

"There were games he played hurt," she says. "He didn't advertise it and the school didn't say anything about it, but he went out there and played.

"It was pretty tough to hear some of the things they said about him. Especially when they don't know you and don't bother to find out."

Sam Johnson couldn't quite believe what he heard about his son in the days leading up to the draft, where the Bengals ended up taking him early in the third round with the 70th pick. After watching him become a regular for the first time, Sam watched Mike double what he'd done before in a season.

"Inconsistent, doesn't play hard all the time," Sam says. "That's not Michael. I thought he had his best year as a senior. I thought he would go in the first round. Early in the second. I was mad. I showed it. But Michael took it all in stride. He was still smiling.

"He's soft-spoken. But he's got a lot of desire. He's a competitor."

"Yeah, I guess I'm tough," Sam Johnson says. I'm 6-1, 235. But I wouldn’t want to meet Michael in a dark alley. He's one tough dude. No, I guess I wouldn't want to meet me in a dark alley, either."

Michael's mother told him when he was little that he should write down his goals and he's been doing it ever since.

"Write it down and do it," she says and when she went to his dorm room at Georgia Tech, he had his goals up on there on the wall, starting with all-ACC. She noticed they were all checked off.

"I'm sure he's going to have goals there," she says. "I know he wants to be one of the best pass rushers in the league. Whatever the records are for sacks, I'm sure he wants to get more than that."

So after meeting those two, it's really no surprise then that Michael Johnson showed up the way he did this past weekend. Talented, upbeat, soft-spoken, recharged after the draft day snub. Even Zimmer couldn't get him down when he groused early and often, "Your butt is mine."

"Yeah, yeah," Johnson says. "I don't mind that. I've played with coaches before that get in your face. I'm used to that. With him, it's not personal and he'll tell you that, and you know it's not personal. With some guys I've played for ... I never even worry about that. As long as you know everybody else is getting chewed. I want him to stay on me. Keep on keeping on me."

Johnson has embraced the part-time move to SAM linebacker even though the Bengals primarily see him as a pass rusher. But he sees it also as a way to disguise himself.

"I can see everything better; It helps me run to the ball," he says of standing up. "It's cool getting to play games with the offense and the mind of the quarterback. They don't know if you're coming or not. You can end up with one of those James Harrison plays in the Super Bowl. Those guys that can rush and drop. DeMarcus Ware. Jason Taylor. I watch those guys."

Dropping into pass coverage isn't totally to foreign to Johnson. He figures he did it 30 percent of the time at Tech, with the only difference in college he did it starting with his hand on the ground. At SAM he'll be starting from what he calls "depth."

"That's a great honor; I look forward to living up to all that," Johnson says of the names he's conjured up with his athleticism. "I know they're going to put me in a position to be successful. I just want to go out there and execute the defense to the best of my ability. I want to come in and be a part of it."

The Bengals and Johnson clicked from the moment they met back in January at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He drove the four hours from Atlanta to meet with them "and representatives from two other teams that I won't mention because they're irrelevant," he said, and the coaches were immediately taken with his demeanor and character.

It also seemed like fate. The day after the Bengals drafted Johnson, they cut Eric Henderson, another hybrid end/backer. It was Henderson that took Johnson under his wing at Tech.

Johnson can still remember that first summer when he showed up at school early to work out and Henderson threw a weighted vest at him before a run.

"It was like he was saying to me, 'This is how you're supposed to do it,' " Johnson says. "Then I started doing it on my own."

After a lot of help, he's on his own again.

 

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