Commentary

Johnson remembered as tough, caring

Updated: August 7, 2009, 1:20 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

With time bearing down on their sixtysomething bodies, Jim Johnson and Pete Jenkins used to ponder retirement. It never lasted too long. They knew they were a fading generation in the NFL, a couple of silver-haired coaches in a world of text messages and hair gel. When Johnson and Jenkins commiserated, Eagles coach Andy Reid used to joke that they were probably talking about something old-fashioned and dated, like Elvis.

But when the old men were alone, Johnson used to say he'd retire in California, where the sun was warm and he could play golf and catch up on all the lost years. Jenkins thought about those conversations the other day as his wife was online, trying to book plane tickets back to Philadelphia. Jim Johnson had died.

[+] EnlargeJim Johnson
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesJim Johnson spent 22 years in as an assistant coach in the NFL.

Johnson succumbed to melanoma last week at the age of 68, six months after helping lead the Eagles on an inspired run to the NFC Championship Game, three months after he coached one last time on a motorized cart during rookie camp.

The Eagles will temporarily break camp Friday to attend the funeral of a man considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL, a sharp and innovative mind who was still thinking about football in his final days. The services will be private, much like Johnson's life.

He shunned the limelight, was unfailingly blunt and managed to connect with players one-third his age. He refused to let anyone focus on the fact that cancer was ravaging his body. With a tumor pressing against his spine, Johnson still insisted on standing up when he gave his game plans this past winter.

One time, after a long day, Jenkins noticed Johnson's obvious pain and said, "Boy, that back's hurting you, huh?" Jenkins said Johnson simply told him, "Yeah," and got up and walked out. But most days, he'd wait until everybody else left before he struggled to get out of his seat.

"I shudder to think of how much pain he was in," said Jenkins, who retired as the Eagles' defensive line coach in the offseason. "Let me tell you, his back bothered him so much where at the end of the season, God bless him, he could hardly get around.

"He would never complain about it. He's just that kind of person. He did his job the best he could do it. He didn't want to lay his troubles on anyone else. He was as tough as an old boot."

A man behind the scenes

A quick background on a man who preferred to stay there: Jim Johnson married his high school sweetheart, Vicky, a patient woman who loved playing golf and traveling with him in those precious down weeks of vacation. They had two children and four grandkids. He'd light up when talking about his twin grandsons, and could, on occasion, be seen throwing a football to the young boys late in the summer while the team camped at Lehigh University.

[+] EnlargeJim Johnson
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesJohnson orchestrated a blitz-heavy defense.

His favorite dish was steak Delmonico. He was so revered in Philadelphia that when he once ordered a piece of banana cream pie, and the steakhouse didn't have it, an employee scurried out to buy the pie, and the restaurant never went without it again. Johnson, of course, was embarrassed by that.

At a young age, he seemed destined to be an offensive mind. He played quarterback at the University of Missouri for coach Dan Devine, and was a tight end for the Buffalo Bills. He was the head coach at Missouri Southern for two years, then turned his attention to the defense. Johnson won a national championship as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 1977, and spent 22 years as an NFL assistant.

In 1997, when he was a defensive assistant in Indianapolis, he crossed paths with Reid, who was the quarterbacks coach for Green Bay. The Packers made it to the Super Bowl that year, but the Colts blitzed, sacked and frustrated Brett Favre. Two years later, when Reid got his first head coaching job, he hired Johnson as his defensive coordinator.

"What Jim provided for Andy was a total confidence level on that side of the ball that is rare," said Bob LaMonte, who served as Johnson's and Reid's agent. "The defense was something he knew would be handled perfectly.

"Both of them were no-nonsense coaches. They were both brutally honest. There was never any agenda. It was all about winning and how to get it done. I think a lot of times you can have a staff where the defensive coach tries to outshine the offensive coach. That was never the case. With Jim, it was always, 'How do I make the Eagles better?'"

His aggressive, blitz-heavy style of defense helped the Eagles play in five NFC title games in the past 10 years. In that span, he's had 26 Pro Bowl picks. From 2000 to 2008, Johnson's defenses ranked second in the league in sacks (390), third-down efficiency (34.0 percent) and red zone percentage (43.9).

"Right before he arrived, it was a defense that couldn't stop people," said longtime Eagles play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese, "that was being beaten and backed off the ball. He coached very aggressively. He gave them a certain toughness. He blitzed probably more than a lot of coaches did. It was a gambling defense that also played very smart football."

But it was his last season that might have given Johnson some of his most satisfaction. Philadelphia finished the year 9-6-1 and was one of the last teams expected to make a run in the playoffs. On Jan. 11, the Eagles went to East Rutherford, N.J., and beat the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants. The defense held New York to 11 points that day, when Johnson's back was hurting so badly that he had to coach from the press box.

When the clock ran down, Johnson, unable to contain himself, banged his cane at the glass toward Reese and gave a fist pump.

"Seeing him light up. … He was just absolutely ecstatic and rejoicing at what was a big victory," Reese said.

"He was a great presence. You had a John Wayne-type of feeling when you were around him. He was big and tough and strong, but at the same time, he was a very warm human being. One of the most decent human beings you'd ever want to meet."

His players paid attention

Four days after Johnson died on July 28, Brian Dawkins put on a helmet and hit somebody. It was a different helmet, and that, in itself, still seems strange.

[+] EnlargeBrian Dawkins
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesSafety Brian Dawkins said Johnson demanded a lot of his players.

They talked maybe four weeks ago for one last time, the student and the teacher. The conversation was short, because, as Dawkins recalls, Johnson didn't want Dawkins to hear him in any kind of weakened condition. Johnson wished him the best on the season, told him good luck, and said he would miss him tremendously.

"I'll always think about Jim," Dawkins said. "It could be in a game or something, and it's crunch time, and in my mind I'll flash back and think, 'OK, this is when Jim counted on me the most.'"

Dawkins was signed by the Broncos in the offseason, ending an era of sorts in Philadelphia. Ten years ago, Johnson built his defense around Dawkins, changing him from a cover safety to what Dawkins liked to call a "freelance safety."

Johnson trusted the youngster, so much that he added blitzes for Dawkins and dialed them up at crucial times. He went to the Pro Bowl in Johnson's first season, and made it there six more times.

"I think he was very good at looking at the players he had, understanding their strengths and utilizing them to the utmost," Dawkins said. "Obviously I'm really biased, but I don't know of another defensive coordinator who could break down blocking schemes like he could and expose their weaknesses.

"He was very demanding right off the bat. There were certain ways he wanted his defense to be run, and he believed in the guys he kept around and he demanded a lot of us."

There was no whispering in a Jim Johnson meeting, and definitely no eating or rustling of candy wrappers. Dawkins said that was the respect Johnson commanded from the players.

The night before every big game, when the defense watched film, Johnson would get up and tell a joke to break the tension. "He had a knee-slapper a couple of times," Dawkins said. Sometimes, the joke dragged into a long story and the punch line wasn't funny. But the guys would let the old man spin it, laughing in between.

Dawkins has two lasting memories of Johnson breaking character and letting go: the playoff game against the Giants in January, and the 2004 NFC championship, when the Eagles finally beat Atlanta to go to the Super Bowl. Johnson busted through the crowd to find Dawkins, ran over and gave him a hug.

"Dawk," he said. "We finally did it."

How the team will carry on

The letters "JJ" were painted onto a grassy spot behind the end zone in Bethlehem, Pa., last week, a constant reminder that training camp is missing one of its most important faces.

A few days before Johnson died, Reid named Sean McDermott the Eagles' defensive coordinator. McDermott is 35 and considered one of the most promising young defensive minds in the NFL. He has a massive task ahead of him.

[+] EnlargePete Jenkins
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesRetired Eagles assistant Pete Jenkins, right, remembers Johnson as a coach who left his imprint on a league, a franchise and a group of young men.

On Sunday, during "Flight Night," a fan-invited practice, middle linebacker Stewart Bradley went down with a reportedly season-ending knee injury. Bradley is considered one of the team's best young players and an emerging leader.

It has led some to wonder how a team that has dealt with so much so early will rebound. Will they use it as a rallying point? Have they suffered too many losses?

"I think he set a good example for all of them," Jenkins said. "The defense is still going to have Jim's footprint and will for a long time."

And Johnson, no doubt, would demand that his players give their undivided attention to the season. In one of his last conversations with Reid, they talked about the training camp schedule.

LaMonte said he last saw Johnson in June. The coach talked about getting healthy and getting back to work.

"He was just a man who loved what he did," LaMonte said. "He loved his wife, loved his family. I can guarantee you the day he died, he was designing blitzes."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.