He helped the Ohio State Buckeyes win the Rose Bowl in 1997 and Sugar Bowl two years later. Perhaps that is what helped give Brent Johnson that “big game player” prowess that almost instantly made him a fan favourite during his eleven-year career with the BC Lions.
Playing at an elite program like The Ohio State University presented the chance to strap them on for many of those big games. Johnson counted the annual rivalry tilts with hated Michigan as his favourites in college.
“I got to play against Tom Brady before anyone knew who the hell he was, “ said Johnson in a recent chat with bclions.com.
We couldn’t resist the temptation to ask Johnson if he ever sacked the now five-time Super Bowl champion, 12- time NFL Pro Bowl selection and, in the opinion of this writer, the greatest quarterback in football history.
“Of course I did,” said Johnson with a laugh. “It was both our senior years and the last time each of us experienced the rivalry. It would have been 1999.”
As fate would have it, two quarterbacks that Johnson would eventually be teammates with in BC were selected higher in the NFL draft than Brady: Spergon Wynn and Giovanni Carmazzi. It turned okay for the now 40-year old New England Patriots starter, even if he had a healthy dose of Johnson in those college matchups.
“The Ohio State-Michigan game was always huge and it set the tempo for where you were going to go,” explained Johnson.
“A lot of times it was two undefeated teams and it was always the last game before the Bowl. It was a very exciting time and very fulfilling as a football player. Being where I was from, to get a chance to play at such a prestigious program and parlay that experience into the career I had up here.”
It wasn’t long before the pride of Kingston, Ontario was making life miserable for quarterbacks in the Home and Native Land. Upon his arrival here in 2001, Johnson quickly established himself as one of the best Canadian defensive players in the league and instantly became a fan favourite.
Yes, the two-time Grey Cup champion and back-to-back winner of the CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award is feeling a little nostalgic these days as he will officially go on to the club’s Wall of Fame alongside another ex-teammate, Carl Kidd.
“I am flattered to be part of it and to go in with Carl is huge for me. He was a big part of our own success and my personal success,” said Johnson of the honour.
“I think Brent was the type of player that comes around once every 50 years because of his skillset, his qualities and his character,” said his former head coach Wally Buono.
“I don’t know anybody who has ever met Brent Johnson or knows him that doesn’t like him. What he accomplished over time was impressive; it wasn’t just a one or two year peak. I’m sure he opened the eyes to a lot of people about the quality of a national born player. At his peak, he was maybe as dominant a defensive player that there was on both sides of the border.”
Of the six Grey Cup championships in franchise history, 2006 likely represented the most complete team. A 13-5 record and first place finish, followed by a dominating victory over Saskatchewan in the Western Final and a 25-14 stifling of Anthony Calvillo and the Alouettes one week later.
Johnson and Kidd were two main pillars of that suffocating defence that helped them hoist the Cup in 2006. Despite reaching the top of that mountain in style, Johnson looks back and wonders how much greater it could have been.
“It was kind of getting build in 2004 and 2006 was great because we obviously won the Cup and got our prize, but if you look back at those four years (2004-2007), it was really ours for the taking,” recalled Johnson.
“We were by far the best team in the league. Did we come up short three of the four years? Absolutely. But if you were to look back and ask who the most dominate team in the league was in that tight era, it was us. It was awesome. I look back on that time with very fond memories of being around exceptional players and having just an exceptional team in regards to going out there and winning. We had talent, but those teams also had edges to them. They were always backed by players that were ready to go and knew about to be professionals.”
Johnson excelled at both hockey and football in Kingston before embarking on his four- year journey at Ohio State. He first reported to Lions camp in 2001, following a tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He quickly learned that his impressive resume came with no guarantees.
“I came out of the American system and I remember a few distinct things: the game was much different from the pace of it, to the way it’s played. There are a lot of nuances to playing your position. I was a defensive end and linebacker, but they weren’t going to let me play defensive end when I got here. That was a position for Americans. They had distinct roles and I thought that was weird. It doesn’t really matter what position you are, they want the best people on the field. They told me I would play nose tackle; which was totally different. It wasn’t the end of the world, just different from playing defensive end.”
They would find out soon enough just how dominant he could be at the rush end position. Along with earning the championships and multiple league awards, Johnson became the club’s all-time leader in sacks with 89.
The club retired his number 97 in 2012, making this latest honour icing on the cake to all of his accomplishments in orange.
Not bad at all for a guy who didn’t start playing football until high school. Along with spending time with his wife Lara and five-year old son Roman, he now works as an investment advisor for CIBC Wood Gundy.
Johnson remains adamant that The Ohio State shaped him into both the football player and person he is today.
“It’s like going to Harvard Law School,” said Johnson of his alma mater.
“It’s really intense and it’s a program that prides itself on winning and building championship teams. That is what they’re there to do. It showed me a level of work ethic and intensity to put into something that I didn’t think I could cultivate.”
That winning attitude helped the Lions franchise a great deal as well. And how many guys can say they sacked Tom Brady and also won two Grey Cups?
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org