Los Angeles — You know how it is with kids -- once they've had success at one of football's glamour positions (quarterback, wide receiver, running back, etc.), you couldn't get them to play defense if you paid them. I mean, does Robert Redford hire out as a character actor?
But defensive back Johnnie Johnson, the Los Angeles Rams' No. 1 draft pick, never wanted to play anywhere except in the secondary, although he once ran through most of his opponents like sand through the eye of an hourglass.
As a two-way player in high school, Johnnie scored 37 touchdowns and intercepted 15 passes in his senior year while leading his team to a 14-1 record and the state championship.
"Almost every major college team [and there were more than 100] that tried to recruit me wanted me for offense," Johnson said. "Most of them thought I was kidding or that there must be something wrong with me because all I wanted was to play defense. They couldn't seem to understand that this was something I felt inside but couldn't explain, except that I'd rather be the one doing the hitting than get hit.
"The reason I chose Texas was because the people there said I could make up my own mind," he continued.
"Maybe Texas hoped I would someday decide that I wanted to play offense. I don't really know. But by using me at strong safety, they kept their word. I also ran back kickoffs and punts in college, but that was something I wanted to do anyway."
With 26 opposing National Football League teams shcheduled to pick ahead of LA, the Rams were afraid Johnson wouldn't still be available. So General Manager Don Klosterman swapped his team's first-, second-, fourth-, and fifth-round slections to Cleveland for its first and sixth picks -- thereby moving up to 15th in the opening round.
"Considering all the good young players already on our roster, we really didn't give up as much as most people think we did," Klosterman explained. "Our lower draft picks probably wouldn't have made it anyway."
Pressed as to why he feels he can come in as a rookie and stop veteran receivers, Johnson replied:
"One reason is because I've got many of the same talents they do. I'm also a leaper who can go up with the offensive man and not come down. And I can do it just as often as he can.
"Teams are going to come at me a lot at first because they know it takes time to learn how to play up here. But once I prove that I'm not the average rookie -- that I can stop the ball -- then all the action won't always be coming to my side of the field. In college, I never had a bad game. I think any Texas film will confirm that."
If the previous quotations make Johnson sound cocky, he never came across that way in person. On the contrary, he speaks quite softly, sums things up in few words, and doesn't seem to have an ego problem.
Whether Johnson's reported six-year, $1.1 million contract is to blame or not , veterans Larry Brooks, Dennis Harrah, and the Youngbloods, Jack and Jim, asked to have their own contracts renegotiated. When the Rams refused, all four threatened to boycott the season, and although they eventually came back to the fold, the potential for dissension is obviously still present.
Years from now, Johnson would like people to remember him -- but for what he did on the playing field, not at the bargaining table!