Johnson packed his bags and headed to camp.
"I was such a naive guy then, just a foolish kid really. I knew nothing about anything, even though I thought that I was quite worldly."
Shortly thereafter, Johnson received the Bears playbook which he remembers as being, "as big as an encyclopedia and about as hard to memorize." Then he met the head coach.
"Coming in as the new guy, it was impossible to tell how far I'd go or how long I'd last," Johnson said. "Halas was the one I needed to impress. He could be quite encouraging during practice, saying ‘nice hit, kid' every now and then. That made me feel that at least I had some kind of a chance."
As it turned out, Coach Halas liked what he saw and was ready to sign the young tackle. But for Johnson, his contract negotiations with the coach turned out to be almost as difficult as making the team.
"The rumor when I arrived in camp was that Halas would only keep one rookie. I had no idea whether or not I'd be chosen, so I played as well as I could and hoped for the best. When he said that I was in, I was ecstatic. That was before the reality of the situation hit."
Halas offered Johnson $7500 for his services that year. Not a princely sum, but not bad for a player just out of college.
"I told him ‘coach, my wife is expecting there's no way I can support a family on $7500 a year," Johnson said. "Halas seemed sympathetic, but not overly so. Eventually he offered me $8000. I said ‘coach, if you pay me more, you'll get more effort out of me.' That didn't go over well at all."
Halas finally raised his bid to $8500 as long as Johnson promised not to tell the Bears' quarterbacks how much he was about to be paid. The rookie refused the offer almost immediately.
"We had entered into a real bargaining war," Johnson said. "For both of us, it was a matter of pride. Nobody wanted to lose. Interestingly enough, my eventual career became human resources and psychological assessment. That path probably began the day we haggled over the contract."
Quickly rethinking his options, Johnson thought that his best chance for a lucrative professional career might be to head north across the border.
"I knew that I had a good chance to play in Canada," Johnson said. "I went to the pay phone and put in a call to a some football people I knew. I had an offer right away. If I got on the next plane out of Chicago and came to their camp, they were prepared to give me $10,000 a year. That was more than I'd hoped for. I called my wife and my parents. All of us agreed that this Bears thing wasn't going to work out and I'd be better off elsewhere."
Johnson gathered his things, walked down to Halas' first floor office and handed in his playbook. He wished his teammates good luck, and started down the hall.
"Getting to the front of the dorm took forever," Johnson said. "That hallway must have been over 40 yards long. I walked and walked then, when I was almost at the door, Halas called out, ‘OK kid, come back and I'll give you $9500. Not one cent more. You'd better be worth it.' I signed. It turned out to be one of the best business deals that I ever made."
Johnson found himself part of a dominant team that first season as the Bears won all but one of their regular season games. In late December, the team beat the Giants for the NFL title. Johnson became an impact player and stayed with Chicago as a n offensive tackle from 1963-68. He retired from football and began a career in executive recruiting and outplacement in Chicago.
"What if Halas hadn't stopped me," Johnson said. "I could have walked out of that door and my life would have been completely different. As it was, I became lifelong friends with many members of that team. I had experiences other people my age could only dream of. When I became a businessman, opportunities were numerous in part because I was a former Bear. Even today the first thing that clients notice when they meet me is that championship ring."