Getting To Know: P Lee Johnson

Even before the Vikings' season ended, Lee Johnson knew he didn't have much of a chance of unseeding Mitch Berger as the punter in 2002. And that seemed just fine for the experienced veteran with a family to spend time with.

At the time, Lee Johnson considered himself a victim of circumstance. In hindsight, he may have been a lifelong benefactor.

Johnson was a sophomore in high school. His family moved from their home in Dallas to a new locale in Houston. Normally, a geographical move for a teenager would be devastating enough, considering the sudden change of social circles at school and virtually every other aspect of life being turned upside down.

But this in-state transfer for the Johnson family was more than that. For Lee Johnson, it was much more.

Johnson was actively involved in high school soccer programs in Dallas. Soccer was not simply the sport du jour, it was his daily dose of passion. Ever since he could remember, Johnson loved playing youth soccer and school soccer and city soccer and …

Football, on the other hand, was foreign to Johnson. Like most soccer players, football fields offered no temptation, no persuasive influence to switch sports and go for touchdowns rather than goals. Johnson knew fully well soccer, not football, was the universal sport. But that axiom didn't hold true in Houston. In fact, McCullough High School — Johnson's new school as a 10th-grader — didn't even offer boys soccer.

"I played soccer all the time growing up as a kid," Johnson said. "I really had no interest in football at all. But when we moved to Houston, I could only play city soccer because there was no high school team."

City soccer sufficed during the summer, but what was Johnson to do in the fall?

"I was really searching for something to do. Some buddies in high school talked me into going out," Johnson said. "We'd needle each other about football vs. soccer and I would always tell them, ‘Football players slobber over themselves, soccer players know where it's at.'"

So Johnson and his buddies went out to the football field and conducted their own unofficial quasi-workout. "I kicked it pretty far," he said. "Four games into the season, they talked me into going out for. I punted very well and kicked off very well, but my field goals were average."

The evolution of Johnson, the soccer player, to Johnson, the "slobbering-all-over-himself" football player had begun. Two years after joining his high school football team in midseason, Johnson joined the Brigham Young University football team as a walk-on. "I wanted to go to the University of Texas, if I was going to go on, but BYU ended up giving me a deal," Johnson said.

Moving from the plains of Texas to the vast mountainous region of Provo, Utah, Johnson felt as if he'd landed on another planet. "BYU was incredible," Johnson said. "Provo is right in the middle of the Rocky Mountain range. It looks like the mountain was built to highlight the city of Provo. Coming to Utah was pretty amazing, how beautiful it is."

But the true beauty of Johnson's collegiate experience didn't come until 1984, when Johnson and the BYU Cougars traveled to San Diego and beat Michigan 24-17 for the national championship. Despite Bryant Gumbel referring to BYU on national television as, "B-Y-Who?"

"It was pretty cool," Johnson said. "But what makes it more special is the university that you win it from. BYU is a focused university and it's a religious school and they don't make too much out of anything. It was neat, it was great and no one thought we should've done it."

But they did do it. They were national champs for the world to see.

It appeared as if his collegiate career had been capped. Nothing could top winning the national championship, Johnson figured. But then came the NFL draft that April.

Johnson, a soccer player who seven years before joined the football team in Houston simply because his high school didn't offer his favorite sport, was hearing rumblings that he might get selected in the draft.

He did, in the fifth round by the Houston Oilers, in 1985.

Johnson opted to punt shoeless in the NFL. For the first couple of years of his pro career, Johnson punted sans shoe. In fact, he was believed to be the first barefoot punter since Henry "Hawaiian" Hughes of the 1932 Boston Braves. After joining the Cleveland Browns during the 1987 season, the barefoot gimmick didn't appear too intelligent anymore. The temperature was much colder in Ohio than it was in Texas, and the ball felt more like a brick than a football. By the time he was punting for Cincinnati a year later, in 1988, Johnson admittedly came to his senses and laced up a shoe, then punted.

"It was silly," Johnson said. "It was OK in the warm weather, but you always worry about the weather. You get leg speed, because you're not carrying a shoe. You're hitting it off a more solid surface. But it did hurt, mainly when it was cold. So I switched when I was in Cincinnati."

Johnson spent the next 10 years punting for the Bengals. He then went to New England, where he'd spend the next two-plus seasons before joining Minnesota earlier this month.

But at Winter Park he doesn't bother fooling himself. Johnson, with 17 years of NFL experience as a punter, knows the situation well. Mitch Berger is out for the season, but Berger is the established kicker and punter for the Vikings. Johnson's time in Minnesota, without little doubt, will be short-lived.

For that reason, Berger chided Johnson during his first day on the job. "Get outta here and get your own job," Berger jokingly shouted across the locker room to Johnson, who was holding court with the media.

"Mitch and I go way back because we competed for the same job in Cincinnati," Johnson said. "I couldn't take Mitch's job because he's a better player than I am right now."

There's a peacefulness and serenity that surrounds Johnson. Stress doesn't seem to exist. He knows his role in Minnesota. And he knows who's waiting for him at home when he's done with the Vikings.

His wife, Shelly, and his twin daughters, Kelsey and Alexandria, give Johnson more joy than any pro football career every could.

"They've always followed me wherever I've gone," Johnson said. "They were born into the game. They've developed a lot of relationships over the years.

"It's incredibly rewarding. Families are beautiful. It completes life. It's a foundation that solidifies everything you do in life. Everything's based on that."

Family and religion. It's what Johnson is all about.

"People are realizing more and more that if you don't have God in your life, then you're really pretty empty, pretty shallow," Johnson said. "You have to find purpose."

Johnson seems to have his purpose, and it has nothing to do with soccer versus football or a bare foot versus one covered with a shoe. VU


JOHNSON EXTRAS

FIRST CAR: Brown Toyota Corolla
CURRENT VEHICLE: Ford Expedition
FAVORITE VEHICLE: Dodge Viper
HOBBIES: Mountain biking, hiking, competing in triathlons
TOUGHEST PLAYER EVER FACED: Punt returner Eric Metcalf
FAVORITE TV SHOW: CNBC Market Wrap
FAVORITE MOVIE: Sound of Music
FAVORITE MUSIC: Easy listening, Top 40
FIRST JOB: Arby's
BEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Camping at Guadeloupe River in San Marcus, Texas with his family

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