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Brent Johnson ‘flattered’ and ‘floored’ to be having his number retired

September 18, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Brent Johnson expresses all the sentiments you’d expect of an athlete who so defined his craft that his old team has decided that, henceforth, no one will be worthy of wearing his uniform number.

“Flattered,” he says. “Excited and happy and floored.

“It gives really nice closure to a career that not everybody gets.”

Johnson, the Holy Cross Secondary School grad who fashioned an outstanding 11-year professional career as a defensive end in the Canadian Football League, will have his No. 97 retired by the British Columbia Lions in a ceremony in Vancouver Friday night.

“It’s really a great feeling to think that I made my mark.”

Someone might wonder what’s not to get about a man who made a living putting quarterbacks on their backs, and did so more often in his career—89 times—than anyone else in the history of the B.C. football club.

“There’s a ton of good players that I’ve seen come and go,” Johnson explained, “and whether it’s injury or bad timing or they didn’t have that one season or even three games of consistent success—in the sports world you’re out of a job fairly quickly.

“I was lucky enough that I never got injured, and I was surrounded by great players that made me play really well and coaches that supported me. It was just the right mix. Not everybody gets that. I’m talking from my days at Holy Cross to all the way through (college) and the professional ranks, I was surrounded by people who wanted me to succeed and helped me deliver on that.

“It doesn’t always get put together for everyone. I feel quite lucky that it did get put together for me, because I know how hard it is.”

There’s a sense of humility that’s palpable across the phone from Calgary, where Johnson now resides with his wife, Lara, and son, Roman, 2. It gets reinforced when you ask him about his career highlights and he speaks of championships won, championships he should have won, coaches who had an impact on his life, and relationships that survive time and distance.

Not once, however, does he mention the tidbit that, you know, by the way, he was the CFL’s defensive player of the year (in 2006) or the league’s outstanding Canadian player (twice, in 2005 and 2006).

“The awards that I did get, I’m very proud of them, they’re very special to me,” he said, “but getting to be Canadian of the year and defensive player of the year? To be brutally honest, none of it got done without the help of my teammates. When I say I was lucky to be surrounded by these guys, I truly mean that.

“Of course I did my job, and there’s no question I did my job really well, but so did they. I got the recognition and I love that and I’m sure they feel that I was properly recognized but I also know that this doesn’t happen by yourself. If anyone tells you that they figured it out on their own, they’re full of shit, because you can’t. You can’t.”

After dominating the Kingston high school gridiron, Johnson went to Ohio State University, where he was all-Big 10. After a failed tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL, Johnson landed in B.C. in 2001, but it took him three years—and the arrival of coach Wally Buono, for him to become established.

What establishment.

During the next five years, Johnson had 65 sacks, intercepted three passes and recovered a remarkable 15 fumbles. “In those years,” Buono once said, “he was as good as any great player we’ve ever had in our league.”

Johnson traces his football beginnings to Rob Ball, a lineman on Queen’s University’s national championship team in 1978 who was then was coaching the defensive linemen at Holy Cross.

“He was the catalyst for me to keep playing football,” Johnson said. “I mean, I played before that but I never thought that I would make this into a career, never thought that I would actually go to school, have it pay for my education and take me to Ohio and Florida and Vancouver.”

Richard Harris, Johnson’s first coach at B.C., was also influential. “Yes, he knew the position, but for a young man just finishing university and figuring out his next step in life, he was a great mentor to have around.

“Even Wally and now Coach Benevides, those people took time to want to get to know me, not just as a player, but as a person … that’s what I’m speaking of, where I had all this help along the way. (Playing football) is what I was there to do, but they wanted me to grow as a person and contribute more than just being a football player. I was always surrounded by those people.”

That growth manifested itself in a keen sense of community. Johnson said he takes a lot of pride in work that he did—with youth football, reading to elementary pupils, visiting hospitals, among several initiatives with which the Lions were involved.

“It’s a hard concept to understand, especially when you’re young, because you don’t necessarily get what the big deal is,” he said. “Life is a tough road and as lucky as I was to have a terrific family and lots of support around me, not everybody has those advantages. As you go through life, you learn how important it is that if you’ve got a story, whether it’s triumph or disappointment or getting it done or not getting it done, you’ve got common ground.

“Whether the people admire you or not, you’ve got a story to tell because sports has that appeal and it writes that sort of narrative for every athlete. It’s really important to get out there and show that you know that a lot of times we’re fighting through things and a lot of times we have a setback and have to battle through it. A lot of times it’s not as profound as what they go through, but it helps.

“Selfishly it’s for us, we love doing it, it puts smiles on people’s faces, but all those initiatives helped me grow as a person.”

Those aforementioned career highlights? Not too few to mention, in Johnson’s case: winning the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl while at Ohio State; winning the Grey Cup twice with the Lions.

“You know, there’s the tough ones that you remember (when) you had all this potential and you had this great season and you go into a playoff game and you suck, and you don’t get to write that book the way you wanted to,” he said, “but above that are all the guys that I got to play with and the relationships I got to build.

“The Grey Cups, the Rose Bowl, all those things aside, having those relationship with wonderful people, and knowing that they got to be part of my life and I get to be part of theirs; will go on and on. Whatever the distance (between us) you have this one force that pulls you together … those memories are still there and they’re quite real and they’re real for everyone who participates in this game.”

Johnson now works as an investment advisor with CIBC Wood Gundy, a profession for which he prepared during his playing days and one he’s been practising for two and a half years. His interest in the field stems from his time in Jacksonville, when an investment advisor came to training camp to speak to the players about money management.

“It really hit home for me, looking around the room, thinking, ‘Yeah, that makes total sense,’” Johnson said, “but no one seemed to be listening.” The importance of planning for one’s future involves big decisions, he said, “and I like being part of that.”

The number that’s about to be retired? There’s a bit of a story there. It’s actually the same one he wore at Holy Cross, when “I just liked the look of it.”

At that time, the Buffalo Bills were in the midst of their heyday, and they had a linebacker named Cornelius Bennett. “He wore 97,” Johnson said. “I was just getting into football at the time and I was, like, that guy seems like a pretty good player; he wears 97, that’s kind of cool. That looks like a neat number, so I took it.”

After wearing No. 60 at Ohio State, Johnson asked about No. 97 when he got to B.C. “It happened to be available,” he said.

As of Friday night, it won’t be available anymore.

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