Tragedies sticking with RB Johnson

Running back James Johnson, who signed with the Vikings in January, is looking forward to putting the Bengals' tragic 2009 season behind him and competing for playing time in Minnesota.

To even some of the hard-core Vikings fans, the name of running back James Johnson isn't familiar to them. When the Vikings signed Johnson in January, they were still in the midst of a Super Bowl run. In four career NFL games, he has nine rushes and six receptions, so it's understandable that his name doesn't automatically ring bells with Vikings fans.

But Johnson is hoping to put himself into the mix for the job of replacing Chester Taylor as the primary backup to Adrian Peterson. He is hoping that 2010 is a big year for him and a chance to forget the 2009 season, which was marked with tragedy.

Johnson was a member of the Cincinnati Bengals the last two years and the frustration of returning to the practice squad for a second year was compounded by the profound sense of sadness the Bengals organization suffered through in 2009. On Oct. 8, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer came home from a team meeting to find his wife dead on the floor of their home. On Dec. 17, wide receiver Chris Henry died after falling from the back of a pickup truck and being left in the street.

For years, Henry had the scarlet letter of being an NFL bad boy, with a rap sheet that included assault, DWI and marijuana possession. He was suspended twice by the league for conduct unbecoming and had already been released once by the Bengals. Although he was on injured reserve at the time of his death, his career and life turnaround had been epic. His future was brighter than it ever had been, and the double-blow of the death of Zimmer's wife and Henry's accidental death were the kind of tragedies that can destroy a locker room.

In 2000, the Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three years. The following summer, Korey Stringer died after being taken by ambulance from the practice field area at training camp in Mankato to a hospital. The 2001 season was a struggle for the Vikings in which blowups between Cris Carter and Daunte Culpepper on the sidelines were caught by network cameras and, by the time the season ended, Dennis Green was out as the Vikings head coach.

Johnson and his Bengals teammates faced a similar crossroads. It wasn't easy dealing with the death of a teammate, but the Bengals were able to band together and win their first AFC North title after years of mediocrity.

"It was very hard," Johnson said. "My locker was right next to Chris. For two years (that I with the Bengals), he was great. He turned his life around for the best. That was a hard thing to take in."

The Bengals offense struggled without Henry, which made his passing even harder to take. In an emotional sport like football, the circumstances of his death and his expanding role on the team were losses of both a personal and professional nature. But the Bengals used the tragedy as inspiration to advance to the 2009 playoffs.

"I think we came together, but it was hard," said Johnson, who said the emotional pain translated into problems on the field that needed to be overcome. "We missed his deep threat on the field. The passing game just stuttered a little bit because he had the deep threat, he could run, he could catch, he could do whatever."

Johnson said he hopes for a fresh start with the Vikings and that 2010 will help erase the tragic memories of the 2009 season he and his Bengals teammates endured. He said he has earned a ton of respect for his teammates from Cincinnati, who could have buckled as the 2001 Vikings did. Instead, they rallied together from the tragedy and honored the dual losses to their team family by winning their division title and putting the Bengals back on the NFL map.

"Something like that could make you or break you," Johnson said. "It brought us together."


  • The NFL was supposed to announce its 2010 schedule two days ago, but announced Wednesday that the annual live coverage of the unveiling of the schedule will be held next Tuesday. The rumblings continue that the Vikings will open the season with the Thursday night Kickoff Game at New Orleans.

  • The momentum for the Vikings to get a new stadium continues to grow support. However, they aren't all running off the same playbook. On Wednesday, it was reported that as many as a dozen different funding proposals, ranging from a tax increase to the racino option at Canterbury Park are being proposed. While it still seems "unlikely, but possible" a stadium proposal will pass this session, according to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the increased number of options being thrown out could well result in lawmakers agreeing on what is deemed the most palatable proposals and passing legislation that will keep the Vikings in Minnesota.

  • The rumor being floated in St. Louis is that Stan Kroenke, who is attempting to purchase the 60 percent of the franchise he doesn't already own, could be angling to move the Rams back to Los Angeles as early as 2015.

  • The Vikings finished fourth in merchandise sales in the NFL, according to league data from April 2009 to March of this year. The champion Saints topped the list, followed by the Steelers, Cowboys and Vikings. The Bears were eighth.

  • Brett Favre sold the most jerseys of any player in the league, which he also did last year when he went to the Jets. Drew Brees of New Orleans was second, followed by Peyton Manning and Troy Polamalu. Adrian Peterson finished fifth.

  • Former No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf, taken after Manning in the 1998 draft, was sentenced to 10 years probation Wednesday for drug charges. The penalty likely would have been stiffer, but Leaf was guilty of trying to deal bogus cocaine. He pleaded guilty to seven counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and, more interestingly, one count of delivery of a simulated controlled substance.

    John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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