If Hard Knocks, the HBO series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the training camps of professional football squads, has taught us anything, it’s that it’s usually not a good sign for players when they’re paged by front office officials in the lead-up to a season-opening contest.
Belton Johnson, who spent the past two CFL campaigns with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, recently learned firsthand that good news isn’t often delivered by the powers that be during training camp.
“When I got that text, I was like, ‘Man, that’s weird... ” the 31-year-old Mississippi native said, referencing a text message he received late last week. “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, I knew I parked in the right place. We had the day off. It was strange.
“I went downstairs and (Tiger-Cats head coach George) Cortez called a group of us in and told us we were released.”
The former Ole Miss Rebel, who has made his livelihood in professional football since 2003, noted that he saw “the hurt” in a few of his ex-teammates’ faces. Johnson was admittedly surprised by the news himself—“I told Brian (Simmons) I felt like I was on an episode of Survivor, I got blindsided,” he noted—but he wasn’t exactly as taken back by the impromptu meeting as some of his younger colleagues.
“With the offensive linemen, you’ve got me, Brian Simmons, and then you have three other younger tackles that did very well in the camp,” Johnson explained. “I told Brian from the start, I said, ‘Somebody is gonna get cut, traded or released. Something is going to happen. I don’t know what it is, but one of us is going to get the axe.’
“I kind of assumed that it was me, because I made more money and I’m a bit older than the rest of the guys. I’m not that old—I’m only 31—but in football, once you start crossing that 30-year-old mark, people start calling you old.”
Johnson has been around professional football for a decade and his younger brother, Marcus Johnson, also had a run in the professional ranks, so he knows all too well that, at the professional level, football is in many ways more business than sport.
Despite that, it would be hard to fault Johnson for being upset about his release—the news did after all come about a week before the team’s regular-season opener. But the ‘6’5”, 315-pound lineman insisted that he is by no means bitter over the news.
“This is my 10th year playing pro football,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’ve been cut before. If I was younger, I probably would’ve broken down and cried or something, but once you’ve been released and you know stuff like that can happen, I feel like it just makes you tougher...This is my 10th year playing professional football, so it was kind of like water running off a duck’s back.”
Further, Johnson noted that—despite his untimely release—he has nothing but great things to say about his two-year stint in Ontario.
Perhaps he took his walking papers in stride because he’s a true professional or maybe it’s because Johnson, who more often than not takes time to interact with his fans via social media, is just a good guy. Both of those reasons are valid, but it could be because Johnson insisted that he feels that his departure from the Ti-Cats doesn’t necessarily signal the end of his run in the CFL.
“I’ve still got it,” offered Johnson, who said he plans on playing a maximum of two more seasons in the league. “I was out there out-running some of the 24-year-old guys. I’ve still got it. And I’m telling you, knowledge and experience is worth having up here, especially with some of those defenses.”
Johnson noted that although he’s not sure which teams will be interested in bringing him into the fold to bolster their offensive front, he’s “very confident” that he’ll be playing football in 2012. But he also emphasized that he, unlike many athletes, won’t have any problems leaving the world of professional football—whenever the time to hang up his cleats ultimately comes.
“For me personally, I don’t think it will be difficult (to walk away from professional football),” said Johnson, who has worked for SGI in Regina for the better part of the past two years. “I feel like I’ve had a great career so far and I’ve accomplished things. I don’t think it will be hard to walk away at all.”
Ed Kapp is a contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.
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