Brent Johnson's career was on his terms.
BC Lions all-star defensive end Brent Johnson called it a career on Monday when he announced his retirement after 11 seasons in the Canadian Football League. The Kingston, Ontario native was named to the CFL all-star team three times, was twice named the league's Outstanding Canadian - once Outstanding Defensive Player - and has two Grey Cup rings to show for his stellar career. But what is truly remarkable about Johnson's journey in football is not what he accomplished, but how he did it and the example he has provided for all Canadian football players that have followed.
Johnson walks away from the game while the game still wants him, which in pro football is a rarity. While his roll on the defensive line in BC has changed over the last couple of years, general manager Wally Buono said at his press conference that had Johnson decided to return for another season, he would have been welcomed back with open arms by the organization. Virtually every athlete that gets the chance to play at the pro level is told by the team's general manager or doctor that it is over. Very few walk away when they are still wanted as Brent Johnson did on Monday.
He is healthy. In fact, his consecutive games played streak ended at 184 when he missed a game last year, which was again his choice, to be with his wife Lara for the birth of their son Roman Jake. You can almost envision the discussion that Brent has with his son in a few years when Roman asks about that one game he missed that ended the streak, and Dad will be able to look down and say; I missed a game because your arrival into the world and our family was more important.
It is that strength of character that will define Brent Johnson's career, and illustrates once again that being a great player has as much to do with character as it does with athletic ability.
Johnson was not always a starter. In fact, he was a backup for the first three years of his pro career, which could not have sat well considering his college resume was written at Ohio State University. Yet, the three year letterman and Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl champion never complained during those early years in BC.
Johnson continued to work hard, waited for his opportunity, and was ready when it was given to him by Wally Buono. Like a lot of Canadian players at that time, the Lions all-time leader in sacks had to fight the bias of some American coaches in the CFL who would predetermine where the imports would play and where the Canadians would play. Historically, defensive end was an American position so despite coming from one of the top college football programs in North America, Johnson had to wait. Players currently playing in the skilled or impact positions like receiver, running back, or defensive end, can thank Brent Johnson for opening the eyes of some American coaches.
In his final two years with the Lions, he was asked to become a rotation player on defense, and to relinquish his role as the starter for the good of the team and again, without complaint, he went to work to become the best rotation defensive player in the league.
It is not a surprise that Johnson would choose this year to call it a career because it would be impossible to find a better time to ride off into the sunset than after the Lions' Grey Cup championship at home, in the newly refurbished BC Place stadium in Vancouver.
But hidden in all the great numbers and stats that were accumulated by Brent Johnson over 11 years in the CFL is the fact that through the entire journey, whether it was waiting for his opportunity early on, fighting the prejudice of some coaches, relinquishing his starting job, choosing to break an amazing games played streak for his wife and son, or deciding when to walk away, Brent Johnson has done it all on his terms.
Congratulations Brent, it has been a true pleasure to watch you play the game over the years.