Vikings' Johnson: Charlie come lately

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2012 - 7:59 AM

By selflessly adapting to new roles, Charlie Johnson shows he would rather be useful to his team than feel important.

Becoming a leader and the oldest offensive starter on a 3-1 team that has shocked the NFL isn't something Vikings left guard Charlie Johnson would have predicted for himself 10 years ago.

Neither would have Kevin Williams, a senior at Oklahoma State the year Johnson arrived in Stillwater as a ... um, mass-vs.-velocity-challenged 18-year-old skill-position player from Sherman, Texas.

"I look up and here comes this chubby little tight end that wasn't so little," said Williams, a Vikings defensive tackle, chuckling at the memory. "Boy, he could catch. But he couldn't run away from anybody."

"Chubby!?" Johnson responded in protest. "I was what you'd call a 'possession' tight end."

The end of Johnson's pass-catching days came when Cowboys coach Les Miles and his staff moved on to LSU and were replaced by Mike Gundy and a spread offense similar to the one used at Florida. Johnson spent three seasons backing up current Baltimore Raven Billy Bajema and was expecting 2005 to be "my year" with Bajema having moved on to the NFL.

Johnson wasn't upset that his tight end career ended at 20 catches for 233 yards and four touchdowns. When asked "Why not?" Johnson gave an answer that helps explain why Vikings coach Leslie Frazier calls him one of the most unselfish, well-respected players he has ever coached.

"I was the one who switched myself to tackle," Johnson said. "I knew my skill set at tight end wasn't going to translate to the spread. So I went to the coaches the first day and told them the only way I can help this team is at tackle."

So Johnson added 20 pounds and became a 300-pound first-year senior tackle on a team in transition. A team that went 4-7. It wasn't career suicide; it only looked that way at the time.

That's why Johnson is surprised to reach Year 7 of such an unlikely NFL career. That's also why he is at such a loss when reporters practically beg him to kick and cry and throw himself on the ground because the Vikings replaced him at left tackle with Matt Kalil, this year's fourth overall draft pick. Never mind the fact that the Vikings then asked Johnson to replace left guard Steve Hutchinson, a seven-time All-Pro and now a member of the Titans team that plays the Vikings on Sunday.

"I have no room to complain about anything," Johnson said. "If they want me to move from left tackle to guard, so what? I have a job that most people only dream about. I don't know. Maybe I feel that way because of how it all started for me."

Super Bowl bound

Johnson wasn't asked to any of the college all-star games. There was no invitation to the NFL combine. And he had one heck of a time finding an agent to take his NFL aspirations seriously.

"This one guy I called said he'd think about representing me," Johnson said. "I waited and waited. Finally, I call him back. And he says, 'Oh, yeah, our company doesn't think you'd be a wise investment.' I ended up finding an agent through a family member."

The Colts used a sixth-round draft pick on Johnson in 2006. He had one start at right tackle and played in the Super Bowl XLI victory as a rookie. Injuries to others led to him starting 10 games at left tackle in 2007 and 16 games at left guard in 2008. He won the left tackle job in 2009, starting 27 games and playing in another Super Bowl over the next two years.

Johnson thought he was returning to the Colts in 2011, even though they used their first-round pick on a left tackle, Anthony Castonzo.

"The next thing I know, I'm on a plane to Minnesota right after the lockout," Johnson said. "Then I get a playbook and, 'Hey, you got two days to learn what we're trying to do.' Then Bryant [McKinnie] gets released two days after that and I'm lining up across from Jared [Allen] as the starting left tackle in Mankato. The whole thing was surreal."

Eight months later, Kalil was in the cafeteria lunch line at Winter Park. He and safety Harrison Smith were in town to meet the media the day after being selected in the first round.

Moving over

Kalil recognized the guy walking toward him. The beard that sticks about 6 inches beyond Johnson's chin was the dead giveaway.

"He shook my hand, told me there's no hard feelings and not to hesitate if there's anything I need," Kalil said. "For that to be one of my first experiences here, that was a big relief for me as a rookie. It made it easier on me because as I saw him, I'm thinking, 'Uh-oh, how to I approach this?' And now, look at him. He's been killing it at guard."

Johnson may be the elder statesman on offense, but he's only 28. That's six years younger than the soon-to-be-35-year-old Hutchinson, whom coaches felt no longer fit the team's run-oriented approach.

"Hutch was a great player for a long time here," Frazier said. "So no knock on Hutch, other than he was at a different stage in his career when he left. Charlie is younger and gives us a little bit more of some of the things we're looking for in the run game."

The Vikings enter Sunday with the league's 10th-ranked running game. In back-to-back upsets over the 49ers and Lions, the Vikings have dominated the line of scrimmage and continued to run the ball effectively even when the other side knows it's coming. Meanwhile, Tennessee ranks 28th in rushing despite having former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson.

When he's not hanging out with best friend and starting right tackle Phil Loadholt or playing with his two young sons, Chandler and Cyrus, Johnson always is finding ways to fit in. His many interests include a passion for professional wrestling that he shares with strength and conditioning coach -- and resident pro wrestling guru -- Tom Kanavy; reading all sorts of books, from "The Hunger Games'' to the Pete Maravich biography he's currently reading; and dazzling receiver Michael Jenkins and others with his quick recall of song titles when they are playing the Song Pop app.

Italian painters?

Oh, and there also are the crossword puzzles from the Star Tribune and New York Times that he and center John Sullivan devour during lunchtime in the office of equipment manager Dennis Ryan. Hutchinson used to help them, although he was known more for prematurely writing in wrong answers before the other two had time to corroborate.

"Obviously, we're at two-thirds strength in our crossword puzzles knowledge," Sullivan said. "But I think Charlie and I have been able to overcome it to a certain extent. Charlie is much more cautious than Hutch, so that helps."

Hutchinson returned fire when reached by conference call in Nashville this week. After praising Johnson's football intelligence, Hutchinson went tongue-in-cheek negative when asked for Johnson's strengths and weaknesses in the crossword puzzle department.

"Renaissance era and Italian painters," he said. "He always got stuck on them."

The mood will turn serious Sunday when the Vikings try to surpass last year's win total. A revamped offensive line is the unsung key.

"When I finished school, I wasn't sure any of this would ever happen," Johnson said. "I graduated with a degree in education. I figured there was a good chance I'd probably end up getting certified and probably teach in middle school and coach high school football.

"Like I said, what do I have to complain about?"

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