Guard Tre Johnson is the Washington Redskins' self-proclaimed head-banger on the field and among the team's more headstrong members off it.
He is an individual amid a sea of conformity, his nine tattoos serving as a statement of a personal philosophy etched in a 318-pound frame. Among them are: "Might Makes Right;" "Learn to Fish, Eat for Life," a variant on the Biblical proverb; and "Fear No Man."
But when Johnson reported to the Redskins' training camp this season, he made a new statement. Most noticeably, he returned about 30 pounds lighter. He has modified his style of play slightly, focusing more on technique than mauling.
And he has refined his attitude, with a newfound appreciation of teamwork and a goal of playing in all 16 games--which he has yet to do since the Redskins drafted him in the second round (31st overall) in 1994.
While much has been made of new owner Daniel M. Snyder's get-tough policy toward players, Johnson resolved to resculpt his physique and mind-set late last year, as injuries again cut short his season.
"After all that went down, I said, 'Let me get in better shape and try to kind of change my style of play a little bit,' " Johnson said this week.
He has been among the more misunderstood Redskins, often characterized as prone to injury and indifference. Indeed, injuries to his ankles, knees and shoulders have kept him from nearly one-third of the team's games (30 of 94) since his arrival. But Johnson is one of the hardest-working Redskins and the undisputed toughest guy on the team.
In his sixth season, Johnson has become the leader of a resurgent offensive line that has been the linchpin of the team's success so far. But he refuses to get carried away.
"Right now we're 3-1 and everybody is riding high on us, and it doesn't mean a damn thing," Johnson said. "We were 7-1 at one time, and it went to death before our eyes."
If "beast" is the highest accolade in Johnson's lexicon (he has bestowed it this season on quarterback Brad Johnson and linemate Jon Jansen), it suits no one better than Edward Stanton Johnson III himself (he's nicknamed Tre for being the third Johnson to bear the name).
Guard perhaps is football's nastiest job, and Johnson fits the bill. He is huge, strong (able to bench-press 600 pounds) and surprisingly nimble, with quick feet and hands. The combination makes him an exceptional pulling guard--able to drop back, shoot outside, block hulking defensive tackles and bulldoze paths for running back Stephen Davis, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher this season, with 400 yards on 92 carries.
"As far as playing--he's as tough as they come," offensive line coach Russ Grimm said. "The injury part--with little things you've got to fight through them, and he has done that. But if you have a major injury, you have a major injury: That's in the luck department."
Added Brad Johnson: "For a quarterback, when you watch film, you really don't watch your guards and tackles. But [Tre] is highlight film. He's put a hurting on a couple defenses. It gives me a lot of confidence as a quarterback, playing behind him."
The athletic ability has come easily.
"I could always run like this," Johnson said. "I've always been strong. I've always been nasty, and I've always been quick. Nobody had to teach me these things."
But Johnson made a concerted effort to be huge.
"I was big, and nobody could outrun me on the line," he said. "So why not be as big as you possibly can--as strong as I was, and still be able to run?"
For much of his career, his bulk was encouraged.
"They liked the fact that I was heavy, that I could move people and was a physical, smash-mouth type of player," Johnson said. "Then I got hurt."
In his second season, Redskins strength coach Dan Riley suggested he pare down, mainly out of concern for Johnson's long-term health. Johnson stuck to his conviction that brawn and bulk made him better.
Last season, however, prompted a re-evaluation. He missed Game 7 against Minnesota because of a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve four games later because of a sprained knee.
Still, Johnson insists his weight, which crept as high as 344 pounds last year, has not been a factor in his injuries.
"Every injury that I have ever had has been collision- or trauma-induced," he said. "And I play rough. I play hard, and I'm going to get hurt. I'm willing to live with that. If I'm not upset about it, I don't think anybody else should be, either."
Nevertheless, he concluded it was time for a different approach.
Offseason surgery on a shoulder and knee limited his new regimen initially. But according to Riley, Johnson was the first Redskin to resume running in the offseason. His workouts included an hour on an elliptical trainer, which works the body aerobically while sparing the impact of running; an hour on an exercise bike and sprints in a four-foot deep swimming pool.
He refused to shed weight by dieting, but incorporated better eating habits into his workout routine. And he reported to camp in his best shape in years, well within his prescribed playing weight of 326 pounds, without losing speed or power.
"In hindsight, when you put all the ego stuff to the side, it would be better for the longevity of my career to play a little lighter," Johnson said. "It would be better on my joints and might help me to play better, longer throughout the game. From that standpoint, I would definitely like to lose more weight for next year--as long as I come in at my optimum strength."
Johnson has steered clear of the Redskins' newly enforced system of fines ($120 per pound for being overweight). While he believes the issue of his weight was overblown after Snyder's arrival, he said he doesn't object to the system of fines.
"If we're all treated equally, I have no problem with it," he said. "I am always willing to abide by the rules that are laid out before us."
Johnson attributes the offensive line's success this season to talent and chemistry. Andy Heck brings a decade's experience to left tackle; left guard Keith Sims, like Johnson, is more fit than he has been in years; Cory Raymer is more settled at center, and Jansen has been terrific at right tackle.
"Everybody is putting forth the effort, and we work together well," Johnson said. "We play five people as one. I think that's the difference."
The camaraderie is unlike any Johnson has experienced--with the Redskins or at Temple, where he was a star on a team that won only 11 games during his four seasons. "The downside was that because my team was so bad, I never really believed in or invested myself totally in the concept of team," Johnson said.
Still, his years at Temple left an impression. Johnson completed undergraduate and master's degrees there (in social administration and social work, respectively) and was headed for a career in law enforcement, ideally as an internal affairs officer, policing police, if he hadn't been drafted. Earlier this month, he donated $250,000 to Temple's football program, which responded by naming its weight room in his honor.
"I've lost all my life, and I still keep fighting," Johnson said, reflecting on his college career and the Redskins' recent struggles. "I don't quit. Losing doesn't scare me off. I'll keep fighting until I die."
CAPTION: A slimmed-down Tre Johnson has a new approach to line play, but adds, "I've always been strong. I've always been nasty, and I've always been quick. Nobody had to teach me these things."