25 Years Ago: Pepper Johnson

By Joe Beale on July 24, 2009 at 7:00 am

It is not often that the Buckeyes manage to pull a blue-chip recruit out of the state of Michigan. First of all, that state does not have nearly as many good major college prospects as Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida. The great ones that do come out of Michigan are typically snapped up by That School Up North, or else they end up signing with one of those teams that OSU fans love to hate.

pepper_johnsonYes, he can still kick your tail.

But when a player from there decides to anger his entire state by coming down to play for Ohio State, it's usually someone pretty special. Younger readers might immediately think of the guy we at 11W affectionately call "the gun show" . If you're still celebrating OSU's 2002 BCS Championship team, your thoughts might turn to a certain molecular genetics major. But if you attended OSU in the 80's like I did, you are probably thinking about a guy who was an All-American in college, a Pro-Bowler and 2-time Super Bowl winner as a pro, and part of 3 other Super Bowl winning teams as an assistant coach. Of course I'm talking about Ohio State's leading tackler in 1984 (and 1985), Thomas "Pepper" Johnson.

Pepper Johnson (the nickname came from his Aunt, who was amused by the way he used to sprinkle pepper on his breakfast cereal) grew up in Detroit, MI, where he starred as a linebacker at MacKenzie High School. His exploits were such that he was named to the state's All-Decade team for the 1980's. At Ohio State, Johnson played extensively as a sophomore before starting and leading the team in tackles his last two seasons. After an All-American senior season in 1985, he was drafted by the NY Giants in the 2nd round and proceeded to play 13 seasons in the NFL. He was twice named to the Pro Bowl and collected over 1200 tackles during his career. After retiring in 1998, he joined the New England Patriots in 2000 as an intern and was named their linebackers coach in 2001. In 2004, he moved to defensive line coach and has excelled at that post ever since. The Patriots' defensive line is consistently one of the finest in the NFL, and Johnson is one of the big reasons why.

Big is how many fans described Johnson when he arrived on campus to play linebacker at Ohio State. In those days, linebackers were roughly the size of running backs, and rarely did you see a guy over 250 pounds playing anywhere other than the line. But Ohio State ran a 3-4 defense under Earle Bruce, and the opportunities along the defensive line were few. Johnson had enough speed to play LB, and that is where he stayed. There were some questions about his mobility early on, especially after he saw extensive action in OSU's 17-13 loss to Illinois in 1983. The Buckeyes were nursing a 13-10 lead when they turned the ball over on downs with 1:43 remaining. The Illini moved 46 yards in only two plays as QB Jack Trudeau connected on nearly identical passes in the seam of OSU's zone. They scored the winning TD only two plays later. After the game, Johnson was singled out for being out of position on the two pass plays. Still, the criticism didn't seem to faze him as he continued to earn playing time.

In 1984, the defense was the focal point of criticism throughout the season. The offense, led by Heisman runner-up Keith Byars, produced points consistently after QB Mike Tomczak returned to the line-up following recovery from a broken leg. The defense had several new starters, including Juniors Larry Kolic and Johnson at LB, and the inexperience showed. Purdue's QB Jim Everett torched OSU's secondary for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Boilermakers overcame a 17-7 deficit to defeat the Buckeyes 28-23. Many fans wondered how OSU could have lost after racking up 570 yards of offense. And of course, the wild 45-38 victory over Illinois did not ease anyone's misgivings about the defense. Freshman LB Chris Spielman eventually beat out Kolic for the starting ILB spot alongside Johnson, and his energy gave the defense a spark. But Johnson was the consistent rock in the middle, and he anchored the defense the same way his roommate Byars anchored the offense. By the time the team defeated Michigan 21-6, the chemistry had been established and all of the formerly inexperienced parts were functioning more as a unit.

Johnson's achievements at Ohio State were recognized at the end of his NFL career and afterwards. In 1999, he was named to OSU's All-Century team. In 2001, he was inducted into the Ohio State Varsity "O" Hall of Fame. Best of all, he had the honor of seeing his own son come to Ohio State as a fullback and eventually become a team captain. Off the field, he formed Pepper Johnson Enterprises, a non-profit community organization that operates in Detroit to support youth and anti-crime programs. While he was playing for the Giants, he sponsored a charity golf tournament on Long Island to benefit a home for babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

It seems obvious now that leadership is one of Johnson's strengths. He also seems to have excelled at learning the technical aspects of the game. Having served under one of the NFL's most respected head coaches and most innovative defensive minds, Johnson is clearly on the fast track toward a defensive coordinator position somewhere. After that, a head coaching job is a realistic goal, especially if he continues to have the kind of success he has had as an assistant. It looks like Pepper Johnson will continue to represent Ohio State in the NFL for years to come.