Norm Johnson: Mr. Automatic Looks Back, Pt. 2

In the conclusion of our exclusive interview with ex-Seahawks kicker Norm Johnson, he recalls his years with the Falcons, Steelers and Eagles, when he knew his time in the NFL was over, and how he's successfully made the transition to life after football.

When last we left our hero, kicker Norm Johnson was about to be cut by the Seattle Seahawks after nine years and 810 regular season points scored. Seattle had selected John Kasay in the fourth round of the 1991 draft, and the team told the two players that a training camp competition would decide who would suit up for the Seahawks that season. Johnson believed at the time - and to this day - that the front office lied to him about his chances, kept him around as an injury contingency only, and severely impacted his ability to play for another team by waiting until final cuts to release him.

"That could have easily ended my career," Johnson told Seahawks.NET. "If you don't get lucky in the NFL, and some team's not looking for a kicker with experience because of an injury, or someone fouling up, that can really jeopardize your coming back. Even if you're #1 on the short list – if people don't need the short list…"

Johnson was released on August 26, 1991, along with a few other names known to Seahawks diehards (receiver Paul Skansi, linebacker Darren Comeaux, and defensive end Michael Sinclair, who would land back on the practice squad two days later and play 11 years for the team), he told the Seattle Times that it wasn't exactly a surprise. "I think we all knew what was going to happen when they drafted Kasay back in April," he said. At the time of his release, no team was looking for a kicker - rosters were basically closed. It took three weeks before another team came calling - the Atlanta Falcons, led by Jerry Glanville, one of the more intriguing football coaches ever to draw breath.

Famous for leaving tickets for Elvis at the will call window, engaging in alleged cheap-shot retaliation battles with Bengals coach Sam Wyche during his time in Houston, and telling a game official that "NFL" stands for "Not For Long", Glanville was (and still is) a firebrand and a true original. He's also still a coach - at Portland State University. When Glanville called Norm Johnson in the face of disappointing performances by rookie kicker Brad Daluiso, Johnson admitted to being a bit spooked by the man's reputation. What he found was that behind the rebellious face was a heart of gold that beat pure football.

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 18, 1992: Kicker Norm Johnson #9 of the Atlanta Falcons attempts a field goal during a game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on October 18, 1992 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 56-17. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

"It was a blast," Johnson said of his time with Glanville. "I was scared before I got there – not sure I wanted to play or him from the bits and pieces I knew – but once I got there, I called my wife after two weeks and said, 'I'll follow this guy anywhere.' He was a lot of fun, he appreciated the veterans, and he re-energized me for playing football. He took the kicking game seriously, because he came from a special teams background.

"I had a great special teams coach – Bobby April, who was brand new to the NFL, and we just had fun. (Glanville) was just a hoot – that was very enjoyable. At least it was enjoyable while Jerry was there. They fired him (after the 1993 season, the Falcons' second straight 6-10 record) and brought in June Jones, and that was a very poor decision."

One thing that his time in Atlanta, being coached by Glanville, and working with April did for Johnson was to dramatically increase his efficiency. His 70 percent field goal rate through nine seasons with the Seahawks jumped up to 87 percent with the Falcons. When asked why he was able to improve so quickly, Johnson spoke about the effect that factors such as team stability, and personal validation, have on athletic performance.

"You know, I told a lot of people … once I left the Seahawks, for whatever reason, there was a big weight lifted off my shoulders. I really enjoyed being treated like a veteran when I came to Atlanta – they really took special teams seriously – it was fun again. Not "fun" as in a team that wasn't winning, or the media was down on us, there were times when it just wasn't enjoyable. Not to say that playing in the NFL is supposed to be a "fun" job – it's hard, it's serious, it's dedication, it's playing through pain – but to do all that and enjoy what you're doing is a lot better than to do all that and not enjoying it. There was a real burden on me in Seattle. I probably put it on myself, but I feel that it came from some of the outside things, and I got re-energized. It made everything better."

What Johnson didn't know is that despite his efficiency, he would last only one season longer in Atlanta than Glanville. June Jones brought special teams coach Frank Ganz on board, which led to Johnson's "dead man walking" status once again.

"I was 20 of 24 on 1994, and the only four I missed were over 50 yards. So, with the Falcons, I go 26 of 27 one year, I make everything under 50 the next year … and they cut me. They brought in Frank Ganz, and Frank Ganz always brings in his own people. I was warned by Eddie Murray – he said, ‘Watch out for Frank Ganz – he'll try to bring somebody in so that he can put his tag on ‘em. He did it to me in my 14th year, he did it to Jan Stenerud in his 13th year." And I thought, 'Oh great, I'm going into my 14th year." I later found out that Ganz wanted to cut me after 1993, the year I went 26 of 27, for Todd Peterson, who was in camp that year. He kept me reluctantly, but got rid of me after I didn't miss anything inside of 50.

"It's tough," Johnson said about the instability of the NFL life for most players. "Some kickers are in extremely envious positions, and I had that for a while, I loved playing for the Seahawks, but once Ken Behring came in, it wasn't much fun anymore. He kinda ruined that. I loved playing in Atlanta until they got rid of Jerry, and then it wasn't fun anymore. I went to Pittsburgh, which was fun until the end. You look at other guys who play in one place for a long time, and their coach is consistent, and they really appreciate the players and what they do. Jason Elam, Matt Stover, there's a handful of them."

While his performance in Atlanta may have been his best from an individual perspective, his next stop would catapult Johnson to entirely new heights. Signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 1995 season, Johnson put up a career-high 141 points, and the Steelers represented the AFC in Super Bowl XXX, losing to the Dallas Cowboys. He would exceed 100 points in the 1996 and 1997 seasons as well, and the Steelers won playoff games in both seasons, but the clock was ticking.

After a 98-point performance for the Steelers in 1998, Johnson signed a two-year contract with the Eagles in August of 1999. ''Norm, we felt, has proven his consistency and so we decided to bring him in and compete with David Akers for that position,'' first-year coach Andy Reid said at the time. Johnson's decrease in scoring belied his continued efficiency - in '98, he converted 26 of 31 attempted field goals, and 11 of 14 from the 40-to-49-yard range. After one average season, Johnson would be battling it out with another young player - third-year kicker David Akers - but as he said, the Eagles were a great deal more honest about the situation than the Seahawks had been.

"(I) didn't have a very good season in 1999," he said. For the first time since 1989, his field goal percentage slipped under 70 percent. "David Akers was there as well – he was doing kickoffs, I was doing field goals, and I knew my days were numbered. I liked Dave, and I think I helped him transition into the NFL. We became close, and part of the reason they kept us both is that I think they saw him as raw talent, and me as the veteran. If they could get us together with my experience, I could help him get into the NFL, and I was fine with that. I knew I was done in Philly, and I knew I'd be looking for another team when they handed the reins over to Dave. I loved my time there. I loved Andy Reid, and it was Donovan McNabb's first year there. John Harbaugh, my coach, was great. I have nothing bad to say about that.

6 Jan 1996: Kicker Norm Johnson #9 of the Pittsburgh Steelers focuses on the ball just before impact on a field goal attempt during the Steelers 40-21 AFC Divisional Playoff victory over the Buffalo Bills at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

"Looking back now, I probably should have tried to land in a training camp the following year, but I chose not to – I just walked away. I didn't have any regrets until recently, and I certainly could never go back now, but there could have been the right situation for me."

In truth, Johnson knew his time was up. He had seen the fates of players who couldn't accept the hard truth, and he didn't want to land there. "It's funny you ask, because I had this discussion with my wife last night," he said when asked when he realized his NFL career was over. "I could tell that I couldn't do some of the things that I wanted to do. I felt that I could still kick, but probably not to where my abilities should be, or what I had done. I watched and admired Steve Largent – he walked away from the game in his 12th season when he was still on top and could play, but he wanted to move on. And I saw other guys just hang on because that's all they had. The other players would kind of laugh at them – make fun of them – because they couldn't play anymore. You'd watch film, and these guys just couldn't play. They were there as hangers-on. So I was in the locker room, and I saw both examples, and I said (about Largent), "That's how I want to be; I don't want to be like (the hangers-on).

"So, when I could not play at the level I needed to play at, and I was losing my drive to continue playing, it wasn't going to happen. That's when I knew. I said, ‘Enough's enough – I'm done. I'm not hanging around for any records, I'm ready for a more stable life with my family,' and I could tell in my heart that it was time."

Johnson retired with a sense of pride about his accomplishments - this former undrafted free agent still stands as the NFL's fifth all-time leading scorer with 1,736 points. "Oh, yeah. I'm proud of that. I think I was always kind of a ‘no-name.' The Class of '82 as far as kickers was Gary Anderson, Morten Anderson, and me. They were high draft picks, and bigger in the media, and I always saw myself as kind of a sleeper in the background. I don't know that people put me up there (historically) very high.

Johnson didn't watch much football while he acquired other business and philanthropic interests. He has become a successful real estate agent in Kitsap County, he was named to the Board of Directors of an internet connectivity company called DONOBi in 2005, and he was well-known for his sports card dealership. "As a matter of fact, I didn't watch a game for two years after I retired - I had stuff to do," he said. "I don't think I watched many games at all, unless there was a game with (a team) I was recently with, and I still knew the guys. I slowly got back in to watching football a little later, but I didn't call very many (ex-teammates) or anything like that. I just moved into the second half of my life."

Word Association
We asked Norm Johnson for a few quick-hit associations about players and other figures from his past.

Jack Patera: "Hmmmm, Jack… I was going to say 'Coach,' but 'Jack.'"

Mike Mcormack: "Solid."

Chuck Knox: "Serious."

Steve Largent: "Fabulous."

Dave Krieg: "Fun."

Brian Bosworth: "Can't print it…"

Curt Warner: "Electric."

Tom Flores: "If I had to guess, the words wouldn't be too kind."

Rusty Tillman: "Intense."

In February of 2006, two parts of his life coincided when the Seahawks and Steelers met in Super Bowl XL. Though a former member of both teams, Johnson was steadfastly on the Seattle side. As he told the Seattle Times the day before the game, "Pittsburgh may outnumber us in fans, but nobody has the heart and soul that a Seahawks fan has."

Johnson has seen the recent incarnations of the Seahawks, and he said that the level of sheer talent in comparison to his old teams is mind-boggling. "You asked me some questions earlier about comparing teams," he said. "You look at this team, and they have quite a few superstars, people that you could really point out to be superstars, really game-breaking guys, Pro Bowl players and compare that back to those years we were talking about, 1983-1984, and it seems like these guys really have a lot more weapons than we really had. And I think with those weapons and Mike Holmgren at the helm anything can happen, and I'm really excited. I'm sure our defense is going to get stouter and I'm expecting great things."

Johnson's life after football is full and happy, and there's little question that one of the things that had brought him the most pride is his involvement in the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kitsap County. In fact, it's fair to say that without his time and dedication, that organization wouldn't exist.

"I wanted to figure out how to give back to this community and get involved, and quite a few years ago I got the idea to start a Boys and Girls Club in the area," he said. "There wasn't really one, and that was a three-year process, and I got some other people that wanted to do the same thing. Our mayor (in Bremerton), who used to be the mayor of Bellevue, Cary Bozeman … he was the Boys and Girls Clubs' Executive Director, and kind of put the bug in my ear and said what it was going to take. He said it was going to take seven to 10 real dedicated people who wanted to see it happen and just fight to make it happen. I started it with one partner, just us two, and now it's thriving. Now, there are two that are open in Kitsap County that are going gangbusters, and it's exciting.

"I haven't been involved (as much) lately, once they got up and running. I'm involved from the board standpoint, I'm not involved with the day to day stuff, they have people in place that do that, and there are, I don't know what our numbers are, but there are probably 75 to 80 kids in the Bremerton one and there's even more than that in our newer one in Port Orchard, In Port Orchard, that thing happened really fast and there was a tremendous need down there, and before we opened our doors we had 75 kids. Business is booming, more kids than we've had almost … I think we've had to turn kids away because we don't have enough of a facility yet, so it's something were working on, but funding's always tough."

Norm Johnson has beaten the odds several times in his life - through his undrafted status and roster cuts and dysfunctional franchises and the strange ways in which the NFL life can turn. The most important challenge that he has met head-on, and his most important victory, is the creation of a happy and fulfilling life after football.

If you'd like to help with the Kitsap County Boys and Girls Clubs, please visit for more information. Many thanks to Norm for his time, patience and candor.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail him here. Top Stories