I’ve told this story many times, but during what was then the NFL-AFL draft in 1968  when the Cincinnati Bengals had the second overall pick and selected Bob Johnson, a center out of Tennessee.

I remember walking up to Bengals owner Paul Brown and telling him, “You’re crazy,” because he had passed up on players such as Fred Carr, Larry Csonka, Haven Moses and Greg Landry, all of whom had great pro careers.

At the time the draft was much different than it is today — just reporters and team management sitting around tables. When the Bengals selected Johnson, the room was shocked.

But Brown told me something that remains true to this day. He said, “That guy is going to start at center for me for 15 years, and he’s going to win us a lot of games because of that.”

Well, Brown was right. Johnson played for 12 seasons for the Bengals, was an AFL All-Star his rookie season and was so consistent at his position that he remains the only player in franchise history to have his number retired.

It’s with that in mind that the Vikings have to be hoping that John Sullivan, the nine-year veteran who missed all of last season after back surgery, is able to come back fully healthy and ready to play.

With the NFL draft happening on Thursday, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings select a center at any point. Last year, Joe Berger filled in very well for Sullivan but this season it figures that if Sullivan is healthy, he will be the starter and could really improve the offensive line overall.

Sullivan had two back surgeries over the past eight months, but he believes that while his rehabilitation was difficult, it could be a benefit heading into next season.

“I assume the rest of my body will be healthier than it has been for a long time,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been playing football for a lot of years straight. It was unfortunate to miss last season, however it allowed my hands, wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, ankles, everything else to recover a little bit. As long as I put the work in right now and get back in good shape I would think I’ll come out and be fresher than I’ve been in quite some time.”

Sullivan, 30, had played in 109 of a possible 112 games over the seven previous seasons with the Vikings and had been one of their must durable players.

He said that the injury came on quickly during training camp last year.

“Yeah, it just started bothering me during the beginning of training camp,” he said. “I was making it work getting through practices and playing through the pain. We did some therapeutic injections and I had an adverse reaction to one of the injections.”

He said that following his first back surgery he might have rushed his rehab, which led to the need for a second surgery.

“When the disc closes, you allow it to scar over,” he said about the procedure. “So the first time we were just a little too aggressive in terms of trying to come back, lifting too much weights trying to come back after the first surgery. We’ve gone back and imaged it since and we can see that there’s scar tissue there. … I’m doing full workouts now and good to go.”

Looking forward to playing

Sullivan said that there has been an element of stir-craziness having to sit out a full season, something he had never done before.

He was asked if he thinks he can play at a similar caliber to before he left, when he was considered one of the best centers in the NFL.

“If not better,” Sullivan said. “I expect to play as well as I have in the past if not better.”

Is he worried about increased competition for his roster spot after the play of Berger last season?

“Yeah, you know he had a great year,” Sullivan said. “I’m just focused on myself right now, coming back being in the best shape possible, making sure I perform. I believe if I do that I’ll be the starting center for the Vikings next season.”

Sullivan, who said he has been going to Winter Park five days a week for rehab, talked about how hard it is to be on the sidelines for a whole season.

“It was difficult,” he said. “You know you just feel like you’re out of the action, you just feel very disconnected. The way an NFL team has to function is it’s next man up. The guys that are hurt you can’t contribute on the field, so you kind of fall by the wayside. You have to focus on getting yourself healthy, work with the training staff, the strength staff, and do everything you can to get back.

“While I was very happy we were having a lot of success, you know it’s great to see the team win the North, have a good showing in the playoffs and I wish we would have won that game, it was definitely difficult to watch last season. I would have much rather been out there, trying to help the team win more games and just doing what I love and playing football.”

So is Sullivan excited for the start of training camp and OTAs?

“I would say that’s a safe assumption,” he said. “I’m champing at the bit a little bit right now, and I want to get back out there.”

JOTTINGS

Karl-Anthony Towns had fantastic statistics this season, but you could imagine how much better the Timberwolves will be next year if Nikola Pekovic is healthy and playing, since some of his stats improve on even Towns’ great season. Pekovic still holds the team record for single-season field goal percentage at 56.4 percent from 2011-12. Towns was at 54.2 percent this season, second to Pekovic in franchise history.

• Is it possible that the Vikings will find a way to draft a UCLA linebacker for the third consecutive year in Myles Jack? Jack, whom UCLA coach Jim Mora rates every bit as good as current Vikings linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendrics, played only three games last season due to injury but is viewed as one of the best prospects in the draft.

• Former Twins third baseman Danny Valencia, who didn’t pan out the way the team hoped after a good rookie season in 2010, was batting cleanup for Oakland, his sixth big-league club in six seasons, but the Athletics put him on the disabled list Friday because of a hamstring strain.

• Baseball honored Jackie Robinson on April 15, and it reminded me of the fact that I used to pick up Branch Rickey at the airport, something I did for a lot of sports pros to get stories. Rickey ran the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Paul had a farm club playing at Lexington Park. We were sitting there one day and he said, “I’ve given you some good tips, but there’s one big one I can’t give you.” It was 1947, and the next week Rickey announced the breaking of the MLB color barrier by recalling Robinson from Montreal. It wasn’t until the next year when Rickey told me that the tip he couldn’t give me was the event of Robinson coming to the pros.

• The Twins have not gotten much out of Ricky Nolasco in his first two years after paying him $49 million for four seasons, but this year he is 1-0 with 2.66 ERA, giving up five runs in 20⅓ innings after the righthander won at Milwaukee on Thursday.

 

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO

AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: shartman@startribune.com