Brent Johnson - Defensive End - 2001-11 - Ohio State
Grey Cup perfect end for great guy - Ed Willes - The Province - 6/3/2012
In his three years as a letterman at Ohio State, Brent Johnson made all Big-10 while playing his home games in front of 100,000 fans at Buckeye Stadium. His OSU teams also won both the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl.
"It's hard to explain how big football is there," Johnson said Monday.
It's also hard to explain what happened next.
After a failed tryout with the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, Johnson decided, "What the hell, I'll give the CFL a shot," and attempted to fly to Vancouver on Sept. 11, 2001. After a five-day layover in Minneapolis, occasioned by the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, Johnson arrived in Vancouver to a Lions team that wasn't winning and was lucky to draw 18,000 fans to their games.
"I can't lie to you," he said. "I was expecting more."
And more would come his way. A lot more.
On Monday, 35-year-old John-son retired after an 11-year career in which he set a team record for sacks, won two Grey Cups, three most-out-standing-player awards and basically established the gold standard for players at his position.
But when he talks about the most rewarding aspect of his career, he doesn't talk about the individual accolades or the team triumphs. Instead, he talks about the evolution of the Lions from an amateurish collection of misfits who were barely tolerated in this market into a highly professional, highly motivated organization that re-established the Leos' honoured place in the province.
Through his work ethic, his ability and his character, Johnson also epitomized the qualities of the reborn Lions. You can't exactly fit that one on a trophy. But, as far as legacies go, that's not a bad one to leave behind.
"I remember talking to some guys [before Wally Buono took over the team in 2003] and saying, 'This isn't really for me.'"Johnson said. "I was going to give it one more year and that was it. No hard feelings. But then Wally and Bob [Ackles] came in and it was like a light went on."
On Monday, the light went off but Johnson insisted this wasn't a sad day. He kept talking, in fact, about how lucky he'd been.
There's something to that. In his 11 seasons, he never suffered a serious injury and played 184 consecutive games before he booked off the Oct. 29 game against Edmonton last year for the birth of his first child, son Roman.
He was also allowed to morph gracefully from youthful under-study, to established star to role player and, in the end, leave on his own terms. Again, only the rarest of players are granted that privilege. But, in this case, Buono says it was richly deserved.
"I'm sentimental when it comes to players like him," Buono said. "Those are special guys who make what you do worthwhile. He was a great football player but he was even a better person."
It was Buono, in fact, who was responsible for turning around Johnson's career. Despite his credentials, the Kingston, Ont., product was stuck in a backup role his first three years with the team. About the time he was considering a career change, Buono told him the best players would play in his regime and, in 2004, Johnson emerged as an every-down end and a force on the Lions' defensive line.
That started a five-year run when he was the ultimate game-changer, a Canadian who played a skill position at an all-star level. He would record 65 sacks over those five years while intercepting three passes and, here's a doozy, recovering 15 fumbles.
"In those years, he was as good as any great player we've ever had in our league," Buono said
"There was never a confidence issue," Johnson said. "It was 'give me the opportunity and I'll run with it.' I knew I could play at this level. I just had to prove it to the powers that be."
His CFL dotage was then spent as part of a rotation on the Leos defensive line. Johnson would remain productive in a part-time role. But he also said that move added a couple of years to his career and allowed him to come back in 2011 for his final act.
He couldn't have scripted it any better. After an abysmal start, the Lions rallied, then moved into the new B.C. Place where they caught fire. Johnson and his wife Lara would have their first child. The Lions would demolish Montreal in the season finale to clinch first, pound the Eskimos in the Western final, then beat Winnipeg in the Grey Cup on their home turf.
After the game, Johnson could be seen with Lara, holding Roman, starring as the confetti fell from the rafters, the perfect ending to a perfect day.
"I literally came back last year because we had the new stadium and the Grey Cup," he says. "I mean, could you imagine if we actually got into the Grey Cup game at home? Could you ask for anything more?"
Maybe not. He'd call it luck. Others would say he earned every bit of it.