Craig: 'Cultured' lineman Johnson took long road to Vikings

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2014 - 6:34 AM

Tom Johnson’s odyssey included Canada, Europe.

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Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson has played on four different pro teams in three countries — and tried selling cars before taking another shot at making the NFL.

Photo: File photo by Charlie Neibergall • Associated Press,

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The Vikings released 15 players this week and will cut an additional 22 within 48 hours of Thursday night’s preseason finale at Tennessee.

“Cutdown day is, no question, the hardest part of the job,” said General Manager Rick Spielman, who felt the other side of the NFL chopping block three times as a linebacker in the late ’80s.

Being released usually is the end of a particular road, but isn’t always the end of the journey for some of the more stubborn players. Just ask Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson.

Johnson was cut by the Colts as a rookie in 2006 and again in 2007. And those were career highlights compared with what happened to him on April 15, 2008.

“Coach called me in and said he was going in a different direction; they were making some changes,” Johnson said. “He said I wasn’t cutting it. And I was gone.”

Johnson’s career had been kicked to the football curb by the Philadelphia Soul. Of the Arena Football League.

Yeah, ouch.

“It was me having that moment of clarity that I had to make a change,” Johnson said. “And commit myself to football. It was a humbling experience.”

Johnson still isn’t sure why the Soul released him after four games. But he blames himself for being “immature” and thinking he could coast on his superior athletic ability.

“I didn’t take it seriously because the Arena League really wasn’t something I wanted,” Johnson said. “I was in a situation where I had to do it. I needed money and they were paying good.”

Johnson said he made about $2,000 a game playing for the Soul and the Grand Rapids Rampage, another AFL team that signed him after he was cut in Philadelphia.

“That’s about what I was making a month selling cars in Mississippi, which was my first adult job,” Johnson said. “I had torn my calf muscle and got cut by the Colts. I was rehabbing and really needed the money.”

Hanging in there

Johnson’s high school buddy, Kelvin Murphy, worked at a car dealership in Pascagoula, Miss. Johnson spent so much time hanging out at the dealership that his buddy said he might as well do some work.

“I sold a few cars,” Johnson said. “But it took me only two months to know that wasn’t the job for me. That’s dog-eat-dog business right there. If you’re not selling a lot of cars — and I mean a lot — the 12-, 13-hour days don’t equal the pay you get.”

The Colts gave Johnson another try in 2007. Again, he looked like a promising prospect, but he tore his other calf muscle and was let go with an injury settlement.

“That definitely was the low point in my rise to the NFL,” Johnson said. “I was like, man, I got a 1-year-old daughter [Autumn] and the NFL’s not happening. I need to go and get a 9-to-5 job.”

That’s when Johnson father, also named Tom, stepped in.

“He said, ‘You got your whole life to get a 9-to-5, but your time for playing ball is limited,’ ” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Don’t give up.’ ”

He didn’t, so the Colts allocated him to the Cologne Centurions of the now-defunct NFL Europa.

“You could say I’m very cultured now,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’ve seen things that a lot of people will never see in their lifetime. I had never seen a cathedral before. A real, live cathedral. I’ve seen the Netherlands, the Berlin Wall, different Holocaust things.”

On the move

When the Arena League ceased operations for a year in 2009, Johnson headed to the Canadian Football League, where he made about $70,000 a year and “changed my mind-set toward football and how good I could be.” In 2011, the Saints signed Johnson, beating out about nine other NFL teams for his signature.

“I grew up about 90 minutes east of New Orleans [in Moss Point, Miss.],” Johnson said. “That first game under the lights at the Superdome was the first NFL game I ever saw in person. My dad and my mom [Lenora] were there. And I probably spent 20 grand on tickets for family and friends that year.”

Johnson played 40 games for the Saints, all as a backup, before signing a one-year, $845,000 deal with the Vikings this offseason. For the record, that’s roughly $51,000 more per game than Johnson made with the Soul.

He’s also in no danger of being released despite turning the big 3-0 on Saturday, the NFL’s final cutdown day. The 6-3, 288-pound backup to Sharrif Floyd has earned an important niche as a strong and deceptively quick interior pass rusher in the nickel defense. He has had half a sack in each of the Vikings’ three preseason games and played 32 snaps compared with Floyd’s 30 in Saturday’s third preseason game at Kansas City.

“Everything I’ve done in football, I’ve gone in the back door,” Johnson said. “Nobody wanted me out of high school, so I went to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before Southern Mississippi. I wasn’t drafted. I’ve played in four different leagues in three countries, man.

“But this is what made me who I am, a better person. It’s made me hungry. And I’ve stayed hungry because I know that at any given time, cutdown day or any week, all of this can be taken away from you like that.”

 

Mark Craig mark.craig@startribune.com

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