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Rookie diary: History lesson

Michael Johnson

Posted: 7:40 p.m.

Michael Johnson is our man on the ground at the NFL Rookies Symposium in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He'll be giving a daily report on the most covered orientation in American business that opened Sunday night and continues Monday through Wednesday.

The conference closed up shop Wednesday morning but maybe the most memorable moment of Johnson's week probably came Tuesday afternoon.

He already was excited because it had been bandied about as an NFL history primer. And the Bengals got a call in the general discussion when the moderators ran through each team's history briefly and mentioned that "you guys have to read (about) the Paul Brown story" in order to find out how he and his family brought the franchise to Cincinnati.

They also got an added bonus in the form of Hall of Famer Willie Brown, the former Raiders cornerback who continues to work with the club in squad development.

"He's from Yazoo City, Mississippi, so I could relate to him right away," said Johnson, who comes from just outside Selma, Ala. "He talked about racism and how we've come a long way."

Johnson and the Bengals rookies got a heavy dose of Brown, first in the general panel discussion with the full group and then later in a breakout session with the Raiders and Dolphins. Joining Brown on the dais in the general discussion were such old-timers as Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson and Eagles wide receiver Harold Carmichael. The moderator was former Packers center Bill Curry, so he and Dawson traded some jabs about Super Bowl I in between the panelists reminding the rookies they are representing "the shield of the NFL."

But Brown's discussion that touched on the boycott of the 1964 AFL all-star game in New Orleans riveted Johnson. Brown, then with the Broncos, was one of 21 black players that during the week leading up to the game in January 1965 decided to opt out because of what they saw as violations of their civil rights and discrimination.

Their action got the game moved to Houston, but Brown said he paid a price. Johnson recounted how Brown told the group that he had been informed by Denver ownership that any Broncos player participating in the boycott would be traded and he did get shipped to Oakland two years later.

It was an odd time. Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist, acknowledged by some as the leader of the boycott, got traded to Denver the next season.

Johnson also got a kick out of how the 68-year-old Brown used the third person. Such as, "But they weren't going to cut 'ol Willie because ol' Willie Brown was too good."

"I went up to him after and told him how much I appreciated the story," said Johnson, whose mother participated in civil rights marches as a teenager in Selma. "Because of my mother and what she's told me and because of how those guys made it easier for us."

"We've come a long way," Johnson said. "In 1860 there was slavery and in 1960 it was separate but equal. It really wasn't equal, but now we have a black president."

Tuesday began with the rookies putting on a clinic for youth on the golf course and the Bengals were charged with working on the tip drill and four-cone drill. Johnson also got tapped to wrap up the drills by talking to about 20 kids.

"I emphasized always putting your best foot forward, taking care of your grades, and listening to your parents and teachers," he said. "Getting out in the community, that comes naturally to me."

The night session consisted of yet another panel of veterans and former players talking about their experiences. Among the group were Mark Bruener, La'Roi Glover, David Thornton and Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew, a guy that stuck a chord with Johnson.

"He's not the biggest guy (5-7, 208), but he talked about how you had to ignore all the things that are said about you and just believe in yourself," said Johnson, whose draft status was hurt by whispers of toughness and physicality. "I could feel him there."

But Johnson said he had already heard much of the advice in his own locker room. Johnson is the kind of rookie that seeks it out, and he says any number of Bengals veterans would have been good symposium speakers.

"You go up to those guys, and they'll talk to you," Johnson said. "Frostee (Rucker), Domata (Peko), any of the D-linemen. Dhani (Jones). (Andrew) Whitworth. (Darryl) Blackstock. Reggie Kelly. The Palmer boys."

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