Hall of Famer Brent Johnson had defining impact on Lions

The latest significant achievement in the career of Brent Johnson hasn’t hit home yet, because to know the former B.C. Lions defensive end in his post-football life is to understand the same guy who worked tirelessly for 11 CFL seasons without seeking the spotlight.

A quiet and unassuming character off the field, Johnson’s relentless pursuit of opposing quarterbacks has earned him a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, it was announced Wednesday night at CFL Week in Winnipeg.

It didn’t hit him, he said, when he had dinner to discuss old times Tuesday with another former Lions great who is sharing headlines in this year’s induction class, safety Barron Miles.

It’s not certain whether it will hit him, he said, when Johnson will again be joined by fellow inductees Scott Flory, Hank Ilesic, Frank Cosentino, Paul Brule and a representative for the late Tom Hugo at the induction ceremony later this season in Hamilton.

It will happen though, and when it does it will be as a result of what those closest to Johnson have done to identify mileposts on the way to being recognized.

At the urging of wife, Lara, Johnson took his six-year-old son, Roman, and his family back to his college roots at Ohio State last Christmas. The trip onto the field in Columbus, Ohio would have been an introduction to the start of his rise if Johnson’s son was a little older and less into biking with his dad than football.

It did, however, serve as a reminder to the player who would go on to become a North Vancouver investment banker that achieving greatness isn’t accomplished without help. Johnson is proud of his achievements. It sometimes just takes others to recognize them, as his wife did when she posted the Columbus family photo on Facebook.
“God bless my wife. I’m bad that way. It feels uncomfortable to me. If not because it’s meaningless. I really didn’t give it the proper respect when I was playing,” Johnson said.

“It is significant to me. I just interpret it in my own way. My life is what it is now because of the things I got to do within the B.C. Lions organization. We’ve been very fortunate and we’re grateful for everything.

It is likely not lost on those who still follow the Lions that the two inductees with BC ties have not been replaced since they left. Miles was the most creative safety of his generation, whose work on special teams over 12 CFL seasons with the Lions and Montreal Alouettes until now was never adequately recognized.

Among other things, Johnson will be remembered by his first-step quickness on the field.

“I’ve never been around a player that had the first two steps he had,” former Lions coach Mike Benevides once told The Province of Johnson. “You knew when it was a passing down and he’d get his hips high, that [offensive tackle] was in trouble. There were times … where he took control.”

Johnson rejects the notion that as a native of Kingston, Ont., he is also responsible for changing the way CFL teams view the ability of non-imports to play his position, but if it is true wishes that would extend to a view of the Canadian quarterback.

All these guys who are going through the Canadian system and they’re somehow not worthy of having an opportunity? That’s insane,” he said.

“If I had a hand in (changing the perception of non-import defensive ends) I’ll be the first one to cheerlead myself. There were other Canadian ends. I do remember being told that and that was a bit of the spark that lit the fire. It was based on nothing. It was based on the status quo.”

Johnson, however, has no regrets about his career, save perhaps the 2005 season when the Lions had an 11-0 start but fizzled down the stretch. He doesn’t regret not spending more time to try for an NFL career, and isn’t wistful he isn’t getting a chance to extend his career into a farewell season like the one coach Wally Buono is about to experience this year.

Johnson missed exactly one game with the Lions, when he asked to be at his wife’s side to witness the birth of his son. To many, an injury-free career is an achievement all its own.

“If there was a regret I wish I would have slowed down and taken it in a bit more,” he said.  “When you’re in the thick of it you can’t have that perspective. You think you have moments of it but you don’t. You don’t have perspective until you create distance.

Perspective will arrive definitively when his son is shown a Christmas photo in Columbus and asks his dad while out for a bike ride about the significance of his outstanding career for the first time.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.