July 29, 2009
He had a way about him, whether he was coaching his players, or conducting an interview, or bouncing his grandkids off his knee or playing a round of golf with friends that defined Jim Johnson: Inviting, loving, demanding, respectful, generous. He was a man of men, someone who touched everyone whom he met. Jim Johnson, 68, passed away on Tuesday afternoon after a battle with cancer, news that shakes to the core all who knew him, his family, his loved ones.
You knew Johnson as a defensive wizard, a genius who for 22 NFL seasons and 10 with the Eagles dazzled offenses with his array of blitzes and unique combinations of personnel and strategies. I knew Johnson as a friend and a colleague who always had an open door, always had a hearty hello and who always gave it everything he had every single day.
That Johnson died on Tuesday was not a shock. He had, in fact, been ill for many months after a re-occurence of melanoma. Taking part in the post-draft mini-camp, wheeling around on his motorized golf cart, interacting with the players and the staff ... that was pure joy for Johnson. It was his final moment in the glory of the moment around the Eagles and it was something to cherish. He loved the game of football as much as anyone, and along with his family and his faith and his friends, built his life around those passions and dedications.
Johnson is to be remembered as a pioneer in the game of football. He attacked offenses from his unique perspective and wrote up on his chalkboard in his NovaCare Complex all of the different blitzes and names of defenses. The stories are legendary about how Johnson would sometimes think of a different wrinkle to his defense and jot down the notes on a dinner napkin, put it in his pocket and then bring the napkin to the office to bring it to life.
Andy Reid hired Johnson in 1999 because, well, he knew how difficult Johnson's defenses were. How do you go against a defense that changes on the fly, that lives to come from so many unpredictable angles and that has no apparent weaknesses? If you can't beat it, invite the coach to join your staff.
So that is what Johnson did, and for the decade to follow the Eagles enjoyed an unprecedented level of sustained defensive success. Year after year, no matter the personnel, the Eagles ranked among the best defenses in the league. As Reid built the Eagles into an NFL power, Johnson was right there alongside, not-so-quietly building a defense in his mold: Aggressive, passionate, intelligent and highly successful.
Johnson demanded that his players care about the game as much as he did. He lit into his players when they needed to be prodded, and he patted them on the shoulder pads when they deserved some love. More than anything else, Johnson earned the respect of every player he coached, whether or not that player made the roster. He gave his players a fair shake, no matter how talented they were.
Johnson leaves behind a loving immediate family and an Eagles family blessed to have known him. He was an honest man who was as comfortable sitting down and talking about his kids as he was talking about the "Okie" package. Football, family and friends. Those were the loves of Johnson's life, one that ended far too soon, one that lives on for the Eagles and the fans who admired what he brought to the table each and every week.
For those lucky enough to have met and call Johnson a friend or a co-worker, well, the memories will last a lifetime. How can you forget a man like Jim Johnson? Simply put, you don't. You don't ever forget him. Over the days and years ahead, this coaching staff and these players and all of those who have worked with Johnson will remember moments here and there about Johnson—about his coaching, about his golf game, about the way he walked and talked and joked and approached his rich and varied life.
We will all miss Johnson, a man who set an example in life that all should follow in his death.
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