Johnson, a former Ohio State All-American and now the defensive line coach for the New England Patriots, has four Super Bowl championship rings. He won two of those during his decorated 13-year NFL career as a player. The other two came in the last three years as a member of Bill Belichick's coaching staff with the Pats.
These are the best of times for the 40-year-old Johnson. He and the Patriots will tackle NFC champion Philadelphia in the Super Bowl Sunday. At the same time, Johnson enjoyed seeing his son, Dionte, begin his college career at his alma mater, Ohio State. Dionte Johnson was pressed into service in the middle of his freshman season at fullback.
"Yeah, it was emotional," Johnson said via telephone from Jacksonville, where he was helping the Patriots prepare for the Super Bowl. "It was great for him and, as a father, I have to say I was so proud to see him playing in that stadium. I know he was thinking like he would be redshirting, but that plan got adjusted. They had some guys get banged up and in practice he was busting his butt.
"They put him out there for a few games and he started a few games. He almost scored a touchdown against Michigan (on a catch near the goal line)."
Johnson's life as an NFL assistant makes it impossible to attend his son's games. But he did the best he could to watch the Buckeyes play each week.
"I have my TiVO system and I had the college football package," Johnson said. "I watched all the games, just on a little delay. Our work hours prevented me from being there or watching it on TV."
Father and son have spent a lot of time apart, but that's the nature of things sometimes in the world of football. They will be together this weekend in Florida, Johnson said.
"Dionte has had a chance to come around and see our guys and see how hard they work," Johnson said. "He's seen how many hours his father has put in. This weekend shows him how all of that hard work pays off. He's coming to the game again this year and I know he'll be right there hoping for us to pull out the victory."
Johnson's ties to OSU head coach Jim Tressel go back a few years. Tressel was an assistant coach with the Buckeyes during Johnson's playing days. As the father of a current player, Johnson took note of the furor made over off-the-field problems around the program. But it is his belief that Tressel will get through it.
"The cream always finds a way to rise to the top," Johnson said. "Coach Tressel, when he was at Youngstown State, was a winner. He came to Ohio State and wrenched things back up the way they should be. He brought a lot of the former players like myself back to be affiliated with the program.
"When rocky times come, you have to weather the storm. Some stuff happened outside the program, but he is a strong-minded person and I know he will battle through that."
Johnson has enjoyed working with former OSU defensive end Mike Vrabel, now a linebacker with the Pats.
"I coached the inside linebackers last year and I had Vrabel at times," he said. "Now I have the D-linemen and he's with us in some passing situations, so I still have some input with him at times.
"Mike Vrabel is one of those guys like a Tedy Bruschi. You can't get enough of those kind of guys on the field. He's a competitor on the field. He's an intelligent guy and that's important when you have to make adjustments on the field. He's a joy to work with as a coach."
Here are highlights from Pepper Johnson's bio on the Patriots official site.
* Thomas "Pepper" Johnson was born July 29, 1964 in Detroit, Mich. He was nicknamed "Pepper" by an aunt who observed his ritual of sprinkling pepper on his breakfast cereal as a youngster. After an all-star prep career at MacKenzie High in Detroit, Johnson became a scholar-athlete at Ohio State, where he majored in counseling and physical education.
* In 1999, his alma mater named him to the school's all-century team. In 2001, he was inducted into the Ohio State Hall of Fame. He formed Pepper Johnson Enterprises, a non-profit community organization that operates in Detroit to support youth and anti-crime programs. While in New York, he sponsored a charity golf tournament on Long Island to benefit a home for babies born to drug-addicted mothers.
* Pepper Johnson is enjoying his 18th season in the NFL. All four of his championship rings have been earned while teamed with Coach Belichick. In 2004, Johnson will brought his enthusiastic coaching style to the defensive line after spending three seasons as the Patriots' inside linebackers coach.
* Johnson originally joined Coach Belichick's staff as part of the NFL's minority coaching fellowship in the summer of 2000. He spent the season with the Patriots as a defensive assistant, working primarily with the linebackers. In 2001, he joined the staff as the inside linebackers coach.
* As a player, Johnson started 158 of 193 regular season games and played for four different teams during his 13-year NFL career. The two-time Pro Bowl performer won two Super Bowl titles as a member of the New York Giants in 1986 and again in 1990. His presence helped form one of the most dominant defensive units in the history of the game.
* In 13 seasons, he totaled over 1,200 tackles, including 25.5 sacks. He also forced 12 fumbles, recovering eight, and intercepted 14 passes, including two that he returned for touchdowns. In a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1991, he set a franchise record with 4.5 sacks. He played seven seasons with the Giants (1986-92) before joining the Cleveland Browns in 1993. In 1994, he recorded a career-high with 207 tackles for the Browns. He signed with the Detroit Lions for one season in 1996 before being reunited with Bill Belichick in New York when he signed with the Jets in 1997. He played two seasons with the Jets before retiring in 1999. In his first season with the Jets, he was voted team captain before the start of the regular season.
* A two-time co-captain and defensive MVP at Ohio State, Johnson was drafted by the New York Giants in the second round of the 1986 NFL draft after an All-American campaign as a senior in 1985.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Special thanks to Bucknuts.com contributor Terry Gilliam for setting up the interview with Johnson during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day in Jacksonville.