Johnson's life always a battle of good and evil
Tank Johnson knows the more success he and the Bears have on the field, the brighter the spotlight will shine on his off-the-field problems, writes Wayne Drehs.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As politely as he possibly can say it, Tank Johnson would like the questions to just go away. The queries about the guns and ammo in his suburban home, the murder of Willie Posey, his roommate, friend and bodyguard. He wishes it all would just disappear.
But Johnson knows better. He knows that the more he makes plays like the one he did last Sunday, sacking Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck late in the divisional playoff game to save the Bears' season temporarily, the brighter the spotlight shines on him and, subsequently, his off-the-field life.
It's been a little over a month since the much-publicized Dec. 14 raid on Johnson's home turned up six guns, 550 rounds of ammo and more than two ounces of marijuana. And authorities now say Johnson wasn't even the focus of their stakeout. It was Posey.
But that doesn't diminish the fact that Johnson's reputation has taken a blow. And every day he wakes up during his court-mandated home confinement, he knows his two worlds are likely to collide: The Tank Johnson on the field and the Tank Johnson off the field.
Truth be told, it's always been this way. As a child in Gary, Ind., a high school football and volleyball star in Arizona and an All-American defensive lineman at the University of Washington, Johnson's always faced questions about his character. Only this time, his off-the-field actions could keep him from achieving the ultimate team goal on the field.
That's because Johnson has yet to find out, should the Bears defeat the Saints in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, whether a Cook County judge will allow him to travel to Miami for the Super Bowl.
"I don't know if I can go," Johnson said. "I'm not even sure."
That decision likely will be made on Tuesday, when Johnson is next scheduled to appear in the courtroom of Cook County Judge John J. Moran Jr. Last month, Moran ordered that Johnson be allowed to leave his home only for practice, games and other Bears-related activities. Special permission would be required to travel out of state, including for the Super Bowl.
While another judge in Lake County overseeing the charges from the Dec. 14 raid granted permission for Johnson to travel to Miami, Judge Moran, who is overseeing Johnson's potential probation violation from a November 2005 guilty plea in a misdemeanor weapons case, has yet to say anything on the matter and declined to comment to ESPN.com.
Should the Bears win, Johnson's attorneys said this week they will file a motion asking permission for their client to travel to the game. Cook County prosecutors could ask Moran to bar Johnson from leaving the state, but Marcy Jensen, spokeswoman for the State's Attorney's Office, wouldn't say this week if that's something her office intends to do. "That's something we would discuss in court," Jensen said. "And not before then."
Either way, there's a chance Johnson will have reached the pinnacle of his professional football career and not be allowed to participate.
"I can't even fathom that," said teammate Ian Scott. "I don't know even know what to say. I can't imagine what that would be like."
From the outside, Tank Johnson's suburban Chicago home is the picture of peacefulness; the two-story white brick structure, covered in snow this time of year, sits in a modest neighborhood alongside a conservation area where families walk their dogs and watch for birds.
At Halas Hall, Johnson's locker is the picture of a family man. On a wooden shelf above his white No. 99 Chicago Bears practice jersey sits a framed photo of his two daughters, ages 3 and 21 months, the two people he unquestionably tells you are the center of his world.
But the rap sheet tells a different story. It tells the story of a man, who, as he was being arrested last February on charges of aggravated assault and resisting arrest -- charges that were later dropped -- told an officer, according to several published reports, "You ain't the only one with a Glock. If it wasn't for your gun and your badge, I'd kick your ass."
It tells the story of a man who was charged with six counts of unlawful possession of a firearm and four counts of unlawful possession of ammunition after last month's raid, in which authorities found several guns and ammunition within sight of Johnson's two daughters. And the rap sheet tells a story of a man who, despite promising to clean up his act following the police raid on his home, was at a downtown club two days later with Posey when his friend was shot and killed.
At the time of his death, Posey, 26, was out on bail after being charged with possessing the marijuana that was found in the raid. Cook County authorities have since charged Michael Selvie, 34, an alleged gang member, with first-degree murder in Posey's death.
But even the way Johnson is perceived by the authorities is somewhat muddled. While police documents obtained by ESPN.com reveal a man whose home Gurnee Police visited 30 times in the past two years, only seven of those visits resulted in police reports being filed. Of those, five involved Johnson's pit bulls. Another was for a shot-fired call and the last involved a domestic dispute between a female business associate of Johnson's and her fiancée.
"It's not like he's a menace to the neighborhood," Gurnee Police commander Jay Patrick said.
But the two sides to Tank Johnson are nothing new. Since the days of growing up in Gary, where gang members once poured gas on Johnson and threw a match at him, his has been a life caught in the middle of the tug-of-war between good and bad.
His parents, Johnson has said previously, were drug users. He attended a different school every year between kindergarten and sixth grade. His mother left the family when he was 8. His father spent time in prison. Not until his father moved the family to Arizona and they met a local Sunday school teacher, who eventually became Johnson's guardian, did he find any consistent structure in his life.
At the University of Washington, he was labeled a selfish player. But after doing an extensive background search, the Bears selected Johnson with the 47th pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
But it all came to a boil over the last month and the team was criticized for not cutting Johnson after everything that happened. But while that might have seemed like a simple solution and an easy decision, it was anything but for Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. Angelo went against his first instinct and kept Johnson after being convinced he would change his lifestyle. Johnson said he would seek counseling and submitted a list of other changes he would make. Still, Angelo suspended Johnson for a game as well. Despite all this, Johnson's Bears teammates have no trouble lining up to support their 25-year-old teammate. And with the loss of Tommie Harris due to a season-ending hamstring injury, Johnson's teammates need the defensive tackle now more than ever. Johnson, who has 26 tackles and 3½ sacks this season, will be a key part of a Bears defense asked to slow Reggie Bush, stuff Deuce McAllister and put pressure on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
"Tank's a good guy," defensive end Alex Brown said. "He was doing a lot of good things before this all kind of hit the fan. Everything sort of came down on him at once. A lot of people would have folded. But he's a strong guy, he's working his way through it and once he gets through he'll be stronger in the end."
"He's my friend. He's a good guy," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "He may have made some bad decisions, but he is a good guy. To me he's been a good guy, to our team he has been a good guy it hasn't been hard for our team to stand behind him."
Over the course of the last month, football has become Johnson's refuge, he said. Whether it's Halas Hall or Soldier Field, the game has given him a place to be around teammates and friends and leave his legal troubles at home for a few hours.
For Johnson, who admitted this week he has dealt with anxiety issues since returning to the team following his arrest and the murder of Posey, it was his first major contribution since he had been given a second chance by the Bears.
"It felt like the weight of the world came off my shoulders," he told reporters afterward. "I've just been going through so much to be inside that arena and make a play, it just kind of washed away a lot of the bad thoughts I've been having in my life. It felt good."
Playing for a Super Bowl would feel even better. So, too, would having his name cleared of all pending charges, which Johnson's attorney, Thomas Briscoe, believes will happen. Briscoe said this week that the firearm owner's identification card that Johnson is accused of not having only applies to in-state residents. Johnson, Briscoe said, is still a resident of Arizona, where the guns were purchased legally and are registered.
"I don't think this will be much of a problem," Briscoe said.
And if that's the case, he added, he thought the courts likely also would drop charges that Johnson violated his probation from his 2005 arrest. Johnson's attorney in that matter, Lorna Propes, refused to comment this week on that case.
Patrick said Posey was the target of the Gurnee Police department's investigation after officers responded to a shots-fired call at Johnson's residence on Nov. 4 and Posey refused to allow authorities to enter the home.
"Tank Johnson was never the target of this investigation anyway," Patrick said. "It was his bodyguard and roommate causing the problems over there. When the warrant was served, we knew he was going to be at practice, but he didn't have the proper card for his guns so he got caught up in this."
Whatever happened, Johnson insists that the events of the last month -- from authorities crashing into his home to watching one of his closest friends get shot and killed in front of him to the Bears' coming dangerously close to cutting him has changed his outlook on a lot of things.
"What's happened to me, you know, could have happened to any man," Johnson said. "So, as a man you put it on your shoulders and you handle it and you deal with it like a man.
"Being able to play football and play this game is an honor and a blessing. When the Lord allows you to have this opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. That's all I'm trying to do."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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