On the field, Thomas Johnson was part of a linebacker corps that made everyone around them defensively better. “Pepper” may have moved on from his playing days with the New York Giants (1992), but he remembers them vividly and with great, fiery passion.
Pepper Johnson’s NFL statistics of over 1,200 tackles, over 25 sacks, 14 interceptions, Pro Bowls (and more) only tell part of his football story. He still follows his alma mater Ohio State and is beyond knowledgeable about all players (no matter the team or level they play on). He openly (and swiftly) admits that since he has won Super Bowl rings as a player as well as a coach, the former is most definitely more satisfying.
While Johnson was recently autographing pictures from Super Bowl XXV, he paused, recalling the exact play that he was signing a still shot of. Quarterback Jim Kelly was in Johnson’s grasp, while fellow linebacker Carl Banks was on the ground. #52 shows some angst that he didn’t get the sack of an elusive Kelly, citing that if Eric Howard just seriously kept pushing forward…what could have happened was “the sack or at least a strip” of the football if he himself hadn’t focused solely on the tackle. He also thinks Banks should have “had him” [Kelly].
The silver lining to this flashback of Kelly running downfield with the ball is this: a tackle was eventually made by Johnson (due to their unending pressure/chase) and this, in turn, set up the now infamous 47-yard Scott Norwood field goal heard ‘round the world. Super Bowl XXV and “Wide Right” are pretty much synonymous for those that viewed it real time. Speaking of missed three-pointers, Pepper Johnson didn’t watch the attempt. Although he does wish that he saw what Norwood’s face looked like live, just before the stab at sealing a victory (the only chance) for a Buffalo Bills World Championship that year.
Johnson’s fiery side also came out when speaking of former New York Giant-turned San Francisco 49er, Jim Burt, and his hit on backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler that angered the entire defense on January 20, 1991 during the NFC Championship Game. Further commentary passed on about Joe Montana’s “condition” post the defensive end, Leonard Marshall hit shall be withheld at this time. Assume agreement with Carl Banks’ comments about some of the Giants players thinking Marshall killed Montana — and then some. The man definitely had jokes throughout his numerous New York Giants team stories and lore.
Although #52 clearly does still bleed a familiar shade of Blue, he has had some mixed and torturous emotions to face as a coach of the New England Patriots: losing two recent Super Bowls to his former team that drafted him (1986) and gave him most of the memories he continues to share and discuss today. Further conversations about the possibility of a third-time’s-a-charm meeting in East Rutherford this upcoming February were not entertained. He wouldn’t even take part in Super Bowl XLII or XLVI dialog, but did add that he feels that he did have a hand somewhere along the way in helping those two Lombardi trophies land in New Jersey. Interesting viewpoint and a +5 awarded to Mr. Johnson for not forgetting: “Once a Giant, Always a Giant.”
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