Commentary

Johnson forced to make changes

For Tank Johnson, nothing matches the rush of pulling the trigger. But with the Cowboys gambling on him to spark their defense -- and stay out of trouble -- he's learning to live without it.

Originally Published: October 24, 2007
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Tank JohnsonAP Photo/Amy Conn-GutierrezTank Johnson must live with the fact that his passion for guns is considered strange by most people.
Nobody needs to tell Tank Johnson why this bubbly, petite, frosted blonde is suddenly not so bubbly, why her blue eyes are darting around, why her hands are fidgeting and her voice is unsure. He knows.

The two are standing in the lobby of the Ashton, an upscale apartment building in uptown Dallas. Johnson, who's been living out of his suitcase, is wearing the same outfit on this hot October Tuesday that he has worn for the past few days: black hat turned sideways, basketball shorts, white V-neck, metal cross dangling over his chest.

The woman is one of the managers evaluating Johnson's rental application for this 21-story slab of luxury that offers, among other things, panoramic views of the city, valet parking, a rooftop pool, a wine room, an art gallery, a gym and a library. Johnson, the Cowboys' new nose tackle, can afford the rent. But he can tell by the manager's edginess as they discuss his application status that money isn't the issue.

"We're just, um, checking on a few things," she says, twisting her locked hands, eyes avoiding contact. She's trying hard to be friendly, because it's her job.

Johnson is trying hard to be friendly too, because he knows what a Google search will bring up: that his fascination -- obsession, really -- with guns has led to all kinds of legal problems in the past two years; that while he was a member of the Bears last December his suburban Chicago home was raided by a SWAT team, where, according to reports, six guns, 500 rounds of ammo and two ounces of pot were found; that police feared for the safety of his fiancee and their two young daughters and escorted them out of the house; that the following night Johnson went to a club and his best friend was shot to death; that he served 84 days of house arrest last winter and 60 more in jail this spring, both for violating his probation on a prior gun charge.

Suddenly, Johnson feels the need to make his case. He asks the manager, "Can we talk alone for a moment?" Behind closed doors he tells her he's a good guy who's had a few credit stumbles. Never does he mention his affinity for guns. Never does he mention that his guns have been confiscated.

And never does he mention that he misses them.

He spent his off-days at the shooting range. Standing before a target, he cradled and caressed his Colt AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle the way a musician does a guitar. Then he strapped on his "eyes and ears" -- goggles and headset -- and craned his neck to see the world through a scope, holding his breath as his finger encircled the trigger. There was a dreamlike serenity in this silent calibration, until he softly squeezed and his rifle coughed short and sharp, spitting out casings like sunflower seed shells.

Only after heat hit his palms and the stinging cloud of gunpowder filled his lungs and adrenaline coursed through him -- only after a faint, tiny, gorgeous white cloud signaled a hit 100 yards away -- did Tank Johnson exhale. "It's like shooting a game-winning free throw every time," he says.

He hasn't felt that way in almost two years. But for someone who's cherished guns since he was a boy, it's felt even longer. Johnson was born in Gary, Ind. Tank says his father, Terry Sr., split with his mother, Natalie Mobley, when he was 8 and that he hasn't seen his mom since.

In 1994, not long after the 12-year-old Johnson settled with his dad in Tempe, Ariz., a buddy's older brother handed him a pistol during a camping trip. One shot and the kid was hooked. The trigger's soothing, addictive power gave Johnson peace for the first time in his life. "I was like, Man, when I'm able to buy my own gun I'm going to so I can shoot," he says.

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Johnson joined ROTC as a freshman at McClintock High and, shooting a .22 peashooter, proved to be a natural marksman. He loved wearing his military uniform around school as much as his football jersey. He started collecting guns in 2004, almost immediately after the Bears drafted him in the second round, and became a member of the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World shooting range near his home in Gurnee, Ill. "If you're stressed out, rent a gun at the range and shoot two clips out," Johnson says. "You'll be feeling pretty good."

Coming from a man fresh out of jail for firearms-related charges, those words speak to how deeply he's drawn to guns -- a passion that has often clouded his judgment. In June 2005, Johnson was arrested in Chicago for unlawful possession of a 9-millimeter, which he was carrying in his Yukon.

He received 18 months probation and was ordered to give up all his guns. Still, he says, "I was in violation the very day I walked out of the courtroom." He kept a Colt AR-15 assault rifle stashed on top of his bedroom dresser mirror and a .50 caliber Desert Eagle handgun beneath some chairs in the basement.

These, he says, were for protection. Down in that basement, he had another assault rifle and three pistols in a locked cabinet. Those, he says, were for sport.

Why didn't he get rid of his weapons? It's simple, and it's for the same reason he still goes by a nickname like Tank, even though it scares the hell out of apartment managers: He likes them. "Once you master a gun," Johnson says, "you want to go on to the next one. It's just like any other sport, man. You want to challenge yourself."

Johnson's not the only one who feels this way. Consider how the NFL is wired. A year ago, Johnson was one of at least eight Bears who collected guns. Even when he was sent to jail this past March for violating his 2005 probation, stemming from the December raid on his home, he was far from a team outcast. Everyone from Brian Urlacher to Lovie Smith to Bears president Michael McCaskey visited him. Johnson's new boss, Dallas owner Jerry Jones, says that "there are a significant, notable portion" of the Cowboys who own or collect guns. As long as the law and league rules are met -- firearms are prohibited at facilities and stadiums -- Jones says he doesn't mind.

It wasn't even Johnson's misadventures with weapons, or the eight-game suspension Roger Goodell gave him a few weeks after his May release from jail, that finally drove him out of Chicago. It was his June DUI test incident in Tempe. An officer who pulled Johnson over for speeding felt the player "appeared impaired to the slightest degree."

But Johnson's blood-alcohol level tested below the legal limit and no charges were ever filed. Still, the episode was huge news in Chicago, and forced the Bears to cut Johnson rather than endure more bad PR. "I understood," says Johnson. "That was just too much embarrassment for them to take."

But a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder with an electric first step is still coveted, no matter how many issues he's had in the past. When Cowboys nose tackle Jason Ferguson tore his biceps in the season opener, Jones signed Johnson to a two-year, $1.1 million, incentive-loaded contract.

Ex-Boys Troy Aikman and Daryl Johnston criticized the deal, wondering why Jones would risk disrupting the chemistry on a Super Bowl-caliber team. But they weren't in the room when Johnson made his case. After Jones let his son, Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, and Wade Phillips vet Johnson, the owner didn't even feel the need to include a zero-tolerance policy in the contract.

"He's learned from his mistakes," Jerry Jones says.

Tank Johnson
AP Photo / Louis LanzanoTank Johnson is still working to rebuild his reputation.

No doubt Jones was also moved by what many scouts are saying: The 25-year-old Johnson is on the verge of becoming very good. In 13 starts last year, including the playoffs, he had five sacks and was a roadblock against the run. He's known for that quick first step, yet never watches the ball before it's snapped.

Instead, he stares at an offensive lineman's hands, knowing that when they stop twitching the hike is imminent. When he returns to the field, likely against the Giants on Nov. 11, Johnson will rotate with Jay Ratliff, hoping to improve the No. 11-ranked defense. Says Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty, "It seems like he's going to fit in well."

Many Cowboys emphasize seems when talking about Johnson. No one knows him well. He's the only player who has his name and number written in black marker above his locker, as opposed to an embossed plate. In Chicago, he was "one of the most outgoing, fun guys we had," says Devin Hester. Johnson is also someone who wants to not just be "liked by everyone, but loved."

Maybe that's why he's nervous around his new team. Maybe that's why the handwritten goals he carries around are scribbled in Chinese, which he learned in high school. For now, he prefers to keep them private. "You don't know how people will take you," Johnson says. "So you've gotta let out your personality in doses."

In the weight room, he chats with linebacker Bobby Carpenter about Ohio State football, with center Andre Gurode about where to get a haircut. Superficial stuff. When alone, he can let loose. Like on a recent Wednesday afternoon, cruising on Highway 114 in his Porsche Cayenne, shouting along with Akon:

I got a 9-millimeter

Ready to go off any minute ...

Because of the law I had to conceal it.

"Well, guess what?" Johnson says. "The woman from the Ashton called. They denied me."

He's sitting in Bruno's, an Italian restaurant around the corner from the Cowboys' complex. He says that he was turned down after the Ashton managers saw a newspaper story detailing his jail time and history with guns. The story also claimed that he's a felon.

Johnson is not. He will now have to ask his lawyer to send paperwork indicating as much and hope that the Ashton reconsiders. He glides his finger along a glass of red wine and says, "I know this lady believes I'm just this big-ass thug, idiot, gun guy." He sips. "I don't think I did anything wrong. But I didn't do it right."

He knows he's judged most by what happened during the 48 hours that began on Dec.14. That afternoon, according to Johnson, defensive line coach Don Johnson told Tank, "Yo, Lovie needs to see you." When Tank arrived, Smith said, "Close the door, big guy." Then he asked, "What's in your house?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are there guns in your house?"

"Yeah."

"Are there drugs?"

"I have a little bud. Not much, whatever Po smokes."

The Gurnee police had notified the Bears that Johnson's house was being raided, and the coach broke the news that a SWAT team was there because of Po -- Bernard Posey, Johnson's best friend and live-in bodyguard. The two met at McClintock High, and reconnected after the Bears drafted Johnson. Posey was a convicted felon, having served two-and-a-half years in prison for armed robbery. Johnson thought he could rehab his friend, but earlier that fall Posey had fired gunshots into the air from Johnson's backyard.

That drew the attention of the Gurnee police, who eventually secured a search warrant. Now the SWAT team had arrived, closed off the entire block and broken down the front doors in front of Johnson's fiancée, Lorri Chavez, and their two daughters, 4-year-old Cheva Marie and 2-year-old Chanel Jaunae. "Tank Johnson was never the target," says Gurnee police commander Jay Patrick. "Posey was the one causing problems in the neighborhood."

Tank Johnson
Al Messerschmidt/WireImage.comAt last year's Super Bowl, Johnson was forced to answer questions about his past.

The police found a small amount of marijuana in the house and charged Posey with possession. As for Johnson -- even though Chavez insists that she and the kids never saw his guns, that she "never felt unsafe there" -- he was in trouble too. He had violated his probation. Smith told Johnson he had to turn himself in by 3:30. Johnson didn't know the charges, but since his guns were confiscated he figured he was going to jail.

So he immediately left the complex and went to three Washington Mutual banks, withdrawing $10,000 in cash at each one, enough for bond. But upon arriving at the police station, Johnson was told he was being charged with a misdemeanor for not having proper ID for his guns. He was released for $100. "I was like, you mean to tell me they just took a SWAT team to my house, took my daughters out with Uzis and machine guns, and they're going to charge me with a misdemeanor?"

The next day, on Smith's orders, Johnson helped Posey pack up and move to the South Side, where he had family. That night, the two dined at Gibson's steak house downtown and dropped by Ice Bar to meet a friend. Within minutes, Posey was in a fight with a group of guys. When the brawl momentarily split, Johnson pulled Posey aside and yelled, "Po, what the f--- are you doing?"

Johnson turned away and out of the corner of his eye saw a few guys huddle. A couple of steps later, he heard a gunshot. Johnson jumped behind a couch. When he peeked up, he saw everyone clearing out of the club,passing Posey as he lay bleeding on the floor.

Two women were taking Posey's pulse. Johnson bent over his friend, asking "Po, is you hit?" Posey said yes, in the back. But Johnson could tell he wasn't shot there so he asked, "Where?" Posey tried to say something, then gurgled up blood and went into shock. He was rushed in an ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead of a bullet wound that had entered his biceps and continued into his heart.

As Johnson retells this story at Bruno's, his eyes begin to soak and his skin turns so flush it shades purple. His breathing quickens, his hand squeezes a napkin, his anger and hurt rise. And this is when you expect him to admit it: This is really why he needs a gun, right? So that he and Posey could have blown up Ice Bar if need be?

But Johnson says that the lone "blessing" of that night is that the SWAT team had rendered them unarmed. Otherwise, "almost certainly, there would have been more than one shot fired," he says. "As sick to my stomach as that makes me to say, I'm just happy no one else got hurt."

Johnson is ready to leave Bruno's. He needs to blow off some steam. These are the times when he'd probably like to hit the range most. Instead he visits a buddy who's got an Xbox. They play Halo 3.

Tank Johnson is not just obsessed with guns. He's terrified of them, too. He's beyond frightened that in less than a year three professional athletes -- Knicks center Eddy Curry, Heat forward Antoine Walker and Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson -- have been held and robbed in their homes by armed assailants.

"How many players have to get their families tied up at gunpoint before the players or the league takes action?" he says. "Because, I'm sorry, if I can help it I'm not going to let my family get tied up at gunpoint."

But he can't help it. Not with a gun anyway, not if he loves playing football. According to Johnson, when he met with Goodell in May, the commissioner asked him to lose his guns. Johnson interpreted "asked" as an order, so he donated them to some Arizona state troopers. But he misses his weapons. He says he feels "uneasy" without them. It's not just about security, otherwise Johnson would have owned just one or two guns, not six.

It's about a rush. Always has been. And without it, in a new city with new teammates, Johnson feels very alone, very bored and very motivated to use what's left of this season as a springboard for "a Pro Bowl season next year." When he says, "I'll help this team the best way I can," he knows that means staying out of trouble and away from guns.

For now, at least, he won't need them. After receiving calls from Johnson's lawyer and the Cowboys, the Ashton, which boasts 24-hour security, approved his lease. He's in the building right now, exiting the elevator on the 18th floor, walking down the hallway to the right, then left, unlocking his front door. Suddenly his brown eyes widen and his face eases. "What do you think?" he says. "I like it."

He turns left, into the bedroom, where he plans to put his bed against the far wall and a 32-inch plasma on the near one. He opens his closet and imagines how he'll fold his clothes. He runs his fingers along the kitchen counters. Then he walks onto the deck and leans against the railing, staring downtown. "This is where I'll hang out all the time," he says.

"Just relax, you know?"

And not a gun range in sight.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.