By: Steve Wilaj
Underneath a steady drizzle and mid-40-degree temperatures, Tim Johnson emerges from the Stambaugh Stadium tunnel.
While most of the Youngstown State University football coaches are hooded and bundled up for this mid-October practice, Johnson wears gym shorts and a T-shirt.
“Isn’t this weather great?” Johnson, a first-year student assistant on the Penguins football strength staff, asks. He’s back at YSU to complete his communications-focused general studies degree.
“Perfect football weather!” he adds. “I love it.”
It’s not the typical feeling of most players or coaches on this gray and dreary day.
But that unhindered excitement is just Johnson being Johnson. That attitude is what enabled him to compete in a national championship, a Super Bowl and wind up in the YSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny,” Mickey Cochran, YSU’s head strength and conditioning coordinator, said. “He’s an exciting guy every 24 hours of the day — very passionate, loves being around Youngstown State football.”
This was obvious to Jim Tressel 14 years ago.
‘Fire in his eyes’
In retrospect, it’s clear to Tressel how talented Johnson was.
A winner of six Big Ten Conference championships and a national title from 2001-10 as The Ohio State University’s head coach, Tressel endorses that skill with confidence.
“He certainly would have made us an even better team at Ohio State if he were there,” the former YSU coach said. “Obviously, he could have played at any level in college.”
Not as apparent at the time, Tressel brought Johnson for a campus visit in the spring of 1999. Immediately, he was sure the 6-foot, 245-pound Fairfield, Ala., native who played two years at East Mississippi Community College fit his program.
“He just had that certain something about him that you can tell he was going to be a great team guy,” Tressel said. “You could tell he had the fire in his eyes.”
Did he ever. In just two years and 27 games at YSU, Johnson compiled 401 tackles (14.8 per game), six sacks, 10 interceptions and five forced fumbles.
“Tim was definitely our playmaker. Anytime we needed to make a big play, Tim was that guy,” said Bruce Hightower, the Penguins’ starting safety from 1998-2001. “His play on the field just stood out.”
And it was that way from day one, as Johnson unseated senior captain Kawonza Swan at the inside linebacker position early during the 1999 training camp.
“Timmy looked so good in practice that we asked our captain if he’d switch positions,” Tressel said. “Kawonza was a team guy all the way, so he moved to outside backer and Timmy took over an inside spot. The rest was history.”
‘All about winning’
With Johnson, the 2013 Penguins squad gets a high dose of energy and excitement every day in the weight room.
“He’s in there pushing us,” junior safety Donald D’Alesio said. “He’s in our face making sure we’re going as hard as we possibly can go because he just wants us to play to our full potential.”
But Johnson provides something else as well, something invaluable. His mere presence is significant.
“It’s great having Tim around because he’s played in a national championship when he was here, and that’s obviously where we want to get,” D’Alesio said. “He knows what it takes to get there, and he knows exactly what it used to be.”
It’s a swagger Johnson hopes to spread to current players.
“It’s always all about winning,” he said. “I want this team and everyone to understand that.”
From his student assistant position, Johnson doesn’t want to overstep his boundaries. He simply provides help and advice when asked.
“My time here, I learned something,” Johnson said. “You come in, go to work and represent the community. You love the community and love the fans, and you go out and represent this city. All you should want to do is fight for a win.”
His boss understands that value as well.
“Just having him around our guys and him giving his expertise of a guy that has played at the next level has been beneficial,” Cochran said.
‘A great combination’
For as many important games and big moments Tressel has experienced, it didn’t take long for him to recall a particular play by Johnson.
“I think everyone remembers the big interception he had against Florida [Agricultural and Mechanical University],” Tressel said.
It was the play that sparked the Penguins’ 27-24 comeback victory that sent them to the national championship.
Trailing the Rattlers 24-13 late in the fourth quarter of the 1999 I-AA semifinals, Johnson intercepted FAMU quarterback Quinn Gray’s pass at the YSU 2-yard line and returned it 24 yards.
“He had excellent speed and just really played the ball well.” Tressel said. “He was kind of like a safety playing linebacker from a ball-skills standpoint, but he was a linebacker playing linebacker as a tackler. He just had a great combination.”
Fellow linebacker Ian Dominelli, also a YSU Hall a Famer, couldn’t say enough about his 1999 season playing beside Johnson.
“It was the time of my life,” Dominelli said. “We did our thing out there. It was fun playing alongside a guy that has that kind of talent and nose for the ball.”
Finishing with 164 tackles that season, he was the only player who recorded more than Johnson (152).
“He played a lot like I played; we were all over the place,” Dominelli said. “But he was better than I was, so he pushed me, and I think I pushed him too a little bit.”
Johnson’s 2000 season was even better, as he earned a First-Team All-America selection and was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which honored the Football Championship Subdivision’s top defensive player.
“Leaving here from playing in the playoffs, I was prepared,” Johnson said. “Youngstown got me prepared for a playoff atmosphere and for a championship atmosphere.”
It didn’t go to waste.
‘Just a hell-bent for leather kid’
Bob Casullo commends Johnson for a lot of things.
From his work ethic to his attitude, Johnson’s special teams coach with the Oakland Raiders in 2002 and 2003 describes him as an outstanding player.
But he also gave the underdog linebacker credit for something else.
“Tim was smart enough to realize ‘Hey, if I’m gonna make the Oakland Raiders, I’m gonna have to be a standout on special teams,’” Casullo said. “At the time, we had a very, very good football team … so he made himself a core special teams player, and everybody recognized it.”
After leaving YSU, Johnson went undrafted. He signed with the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens practice squads, but didn’t catch his break until joining the Raiders in 2002.
“He was a bulldog. I’m telling ya, he was relentless,” Casullo said. “He was full speed ahead, take no prisoners — just a hell-bent for leather kid. He did a hell of a job for me.”
The entire world saw this during Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002 when the Raiders were defeated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in San Diego.
Early in the fourth quarter, Johnson busted through the Tampa Bay offensive line and blocked the Buccaneers’ punt. Teammate Eric Johnson recovered it for a touchdown.
“It don’t get any better than that,” Casullo said.
While it was the top moment of Johnson’s pro career, he was most proud to represent YSU worldwide.
“It’s one of those things where there’s only one ‘Y’ in all of football, and that’s Youngstown,” Johnson said. “I could sit next to a [University of] Miami Hurricane guy, sit next to a [University of Southern California] Trojan guy and I’m from Youngstown, and everybody knew me because I was a Youngstown State Penguin.”
Johnson bounced around the NFL until 2006 and eventually retired in 2009 after playing a year in the Canadian Football League.
For a kid from YSU, he’s proud of what he accomplished.
“It was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “I played in a national championship and a Super Bowl. Not many people can say that.”
‘Enjoying the wave’
Don’t get Johnson wrong, he considers Youngstown home.
But if all goes well, he’ll obtain his degree in the spring semester and then explore all of his career options. He already has a job offer from the Morgan Stanley financial services firm in New York City.
“That’s something I can take immediately,” Johnson said. “I’ll be interested to see if I can make it out of this area, and maybe see if there’s other job offers I can pick up on.”
Still, he’s in no rush to leave.
“Right now, I’m just enjoying the wave,” he said. “I’m enjoying the opportunities, enjoying my old professors and a lot of my old friends here. It’s just a great atmosphere here, and I love it.”
And it’s safe to say YSU football won’t mind Johnson sticking around for a little while longer.
“To have him back here, it’s great for our student athletes to see some of that passion,” Trevor Parks, YSU Sports Information Director, said. “If we can use some of his energy and bottle that up, I think we’re all better people for it.”