If it were up to Eddie Johnson, football would probably be played on a beach.
The sand, the surf, the sailboats — all part of a place that Johnson considers heaven on Earth, also known as Newport Beach, Calif. Johnson grew up cruising the beach boardwalks of Orange County and riding the Pacific Ocean waves. He could have never guessed he would eventually be attempting to survive a series of roster cuts on a team whose mascot is a pirate from the chilly waters of Scandinavia.
But it doesn't bother Johnson, a punter who — what's new? — marches to his own music.
As the Vikings converted the Gage Hall parking area into a showcase lot full of souped-up Ford Expeditions, Hummers and Lexuses, there in the back corner appeared to be a car left over from a Minnesota State, Mankato student who couldn't afford to have his broken-down vehicle towed. Instead, that was Johnson's preferred mode of transportation — a 1972 El Camino, the only vehicle in the Vikings dormitory parking lot that had 10 years on many players.
"I had it shipped here from Idaho," Johnson said. "I couldn't drive that thing cross country. If I drove that from Idaho to here and it broke down, I'd probably get stuck in a town that doesn't have the parts, you know what I mean?"
Punter with an attitude? Meet Eddie Johnson.
"I've never been around kickers with an attitude," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "That's nice to see."
In case you're wondering about Johnson's résumé, no need to reach for the Vikings team information guide. A quick synopsis of Johnson's senior season at Idaho State, a Division I-AA school:
"My season went well," he said. "Our team had the best net for the whole nation for I-AA and won the net punting title again for the third consecutive year, the second since I've been punting there, which is huge for us. It's a big title for us. I averaged almost the same as I did my junior year, just a point off — 46.2 this year and I was 46.3 last year. I set a national record against Cal-Poly San Luis Obisbo for national I-AA record for punting in a game which has six punts for a 61.5-yard average. I had almost 75 percent touchbacks and held for placements."
He sounds like the Mel Kiper Jr. of punters.
Johnson realized his kicking leg stood out at an early age. Whether he was playing soccer, kickball or football, Johnson's ability to boot the ball always surfaced. At Newport Harbor High, Johnson earned all-state honors by averaging 42.3 yards per punt. He continued to kick in junior college at Orange Coast College, where he was also a backup quarterback.
But after two seasons of junior college football, Johnson transferred to Idaho State, where he not only was the beneficiary of lighter air, but no wind as well, considering the ISU Bengals played football indoors. Those are two musical notes to a punter's ear.
"Honestly, the altitude is about 4,000 to 5,000 feet up there," he said. "I think if anything else, it's the dome which is really nice because punting is all in the drop. So when you have no wind dealing with the drop, it just makes it that much better. I didn't really notice the altitude very much up there as I did when we played (Northern Arizona University), which is like at 8,000 feet. Or I've kicked in Colorado before and I really noticed it out there. But I don't really notice it as much in Idaho for some reason, but definitely the dome helps out because it's really windy in Idaho."
The altitude is as much a non-factor in Minneapolis as hurricane winds are on Chicago Ave. But punting under the friendly confines of the Metrodome's Teflon top should help, Johnson said.
Johnson's preseason performance is at halftime. Admittedly, he wasn't spectacular against Jacksonville in the first preseason game but did better against Kansas City last weekend. But, he said, he is holding his own, which is all he could hope for during the first month of training camp.
He likes his chances of making the team, although he considers himself far from a lock to make the team that heads east Sept. 7 to open the season at Lambeau Field. What he knows is this: The Vikings need a punter.
"I was looking for a place where I'd have a good shot to make the team, where it'd be a fair competition," Johnson said. "There were a few teams out there in that area who didn't have an established veteran punter. But I still had no idea until the last minute. As the draft started to wind down I had a feeling that (the Vikings) were going to pick me up."
The Vikings' punting position is a two-person race in August, between Johnson and Nick Murphy, a 2003 All-NFL Europe recipient who averaged 42.4 yards per punt for the Barcelona Dragons. Because of that, Johnson — even though he became the Vikings' first punter drafted since 1978 (Mike Deutsch) — doesn't consider the job his to lose.
"I'm just looking at it competitively," he said. "I want to be the guy and I'm sure (Murphy) does, too. When I punt, I don't look at it as trying to beat someone out. I try to stay within myself. May the better man win, and that's just how it works. Let's not be weird about it."
Vikings special teams coach Rusty Tillman likes what he sees.
"He has a big-time leg," Tillman said. "He punts, he kicks off, and he was kicking inside at Idaho State. I thought he was the best punter in the draft. (Johnson) hangs the ball and punts over 5 seconds and kicks off in the end zone every time. It's a valuable commodity."
As a sixth-round draft pick, Johnson isn't even assured a roster spot with the Vikings. Yet, during a recent scrimmage against the Kansas City Chiefs in River Falls, Wis., Johnson looked at Chiefs kicker Morten Andersen, whom he had watched for years on TV, and realized the NFL could be a place he calls home for a decade.
"I'd love to be a guy like Morten who plays 20 years," Johnson said. "But there's a lot of luck and you have to be really good for a long time. I went up and talked to him and he was a really good guy. He said he was trying to play as long as he could."
On a different scale, Johnson knows the feeling.
Hobbies: Snowboarding, skiing, riding on the beach cruising the boardwalk.
Favorite movie: Swingers
Favorite actor: Johnny Depp
Favorite actress: Pamela Anderson (Baywatch only)
Favorite TV show: Blind Date
If I wasn't playing football: "I'd be on the beach somewhere."
Getting To Know: Punter Eddie Johnson
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