Tre Johnson is waging war on mediocrity, the bane of a football career that began at age 8.
It has been a long road from Peekskill, N.Y., where basketball ruled, to Temple University, where the Owls lost so often they were inured to defeat, to this moment, which finds the Washington Redskins the champions of the NFC East and bound for the playoffs for the first time since January 1993.
At 28, Johnson feels it was past time the Redskins accomplished what they could have done weeks ago--if not years ago--given their talent.
Johnson has been an integral part of the resurgence of the offensive line--and the entire team--this season. At 6 feet 2 and 324 pounds, he is the biggest and strongest Redskin--he wears a size 60 suit jacket. With Johnson manning right guard, the line has held opponents to 29 sacks, compared with 60 through 15 games last season. His forte is "pulling," dropping behind the center and running to the opposite side of the field to plow openings for Stephen Davis, who has rushed for 17 touchdowns and a team-record 1,405 yards.
Johnson was rewarded with his first selection to the NFL's Pro Bowl, as were Davis and quarterback Brad Johnson. He plans to share the trip to Hawaii for the Feb. 6 game with those closest to him--his father, Edward Stanton Johnson Jr.; his mother, Saundra; and his son, Nygel Malik Johnson, 6.
Between now and then, there is much to be done on the field and at home.
For most players, Tuesday--their one day off each week--is errand day. A recent Tuesday found Johnson at his Mitchellville, Md., townhouse. One of the Redskins' few bachelors, Johnson requires a team to manage his affairs: a personal assistant; an agent; a pair of financial advisers; and a much-loved cousin, John D. Patterson Jr., who recently moved in with him.
On this day Johnson has the use of a limousine and chauffeur, courtesy of the Redskins Quarterback Club, which will honor him (along with four teammates) at its Player of the Year banquet in the evening. Because he hates to drive, Johnson gladly has accepted the gesture, which means his 10-week-old English bulldog, Thug, will ride in style to his veterinarian's appointment.
As the limo whizzes along the beltway, Johnson, who has left Thug's chew toys at home, gropes in his pocket for a set of car keys or anything that might distract the puppy from shredding the floor mat. Johnson toys briefly with the idea of hiring a driver for his daily commute to Redskin Park in Ashburn before dismissing it as a foolish expense that only would reinforce stereotypes he finds laughable.
"I think they think we have an endless supply of money, we have a maid--that what we do is not work," Johnson says.
The alarm goes off at Johnson's townhouse between 4 and 5 most mornings. Three taps on the snooze-bar later, the day begins. He takes Thug for a walk, is in the Cadillac El Dorado by 5:50 and at Redskin Park by 6:30.
In his six-year career, Johnson often has been tagged as less than hard-working. The label is grossly inaccurate, according to trainers and teammates.
"You've got to realize something: Tre didn't come from a big Division I powerhouse," fellow guard Rod Milstead says. "He came from Temple University, and he's had to work and scratch for everything he's gotten. He's having a Pro Bowl year, and all the people who doubted him can't doubt him anymore."
Johnson awakens to a low-bore headache each morning, the inevitable hangover of ramming 320-pound defensive tackles for a living. His shoulders, back, hands and fingers are sore, his knees and elbows swollen.
After particularly rough games, Monday's workout is light--90 minutes toning upper and lower body. That's followed by an hourlong practice, then a team meeting to study game film and an offensive line meeting to critique the unit's performance.
Every other Monday night, Johnson hops a train or plane to New York to visit his son, who lives in Peekskill during the season. The child can't wait to play football, which clearly troubles his father.
"Football is rough," Johnson says. "That's a lot of pain. It gives you tolerance for pain and mental toughness, but he can get that in another sport--or no sport at all."
There's also the matter of heightened aggression Johnson has noted in football players he has known.
"You have to put on that facade, and it can get you in trouble trying to be something you're not," he says. "I don't want him to get roped into that."
If Johnson can leave Redskin Park before 4 p.m., he makes a mad dash over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and is at his Prince George's County home in an hour. If practice runs late, he'd sooner catch a movie or run errands in Virginia than fight traffic.
The Redskins' game-day preparations begin in earnest Wednesday, a 10-hour day for Johnson that includes a full-body workout, team meetings and two-hour practice. Thursday's schedule is similar. Johnson's toughest workout is Friday, when he meets Milstead in the weight room at 6:30 a.m. for what they call their "Get-It-On-Before-Dawn Club." Focused on building upper-body strength, the session is capped by the grueling "elevator" drill--sequential sets of bench presses of well over 300 pounds executed to the point of exhaustion. Music blares, and they lift in the dark to Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley--even disco some days. "Anything thumping," Johnson says.
Friday afternoons are free for errands left undone Tuesday. Johnson follows the list that Lisa, his assistant, leaves for him--handling bills or papers that need his signature. "Without her, I could not exist," he says.
He has real estate investments to manage and a foundation to run. A benefactor of Temple University, he has underwritten summer camps for needy children the past two years. A strong student himself, Johnson was prodded by a mother who punished him for any grades below 80 and earned his master's degree in social work before entering the NFL draft.
"I definitely get all my positive attributes--my work ethic--from her," Johnson says of Saundra Johnson. "The sense of humor, the silly stuff, is from my dad."
Around the corner from his townhouse, Johnson's new home is under construction. At 11,000 square feet, it's easily mistaken for the gated community's clubhouse, with a pool and an apartment over the garage. Like Johnson's nine tattoos, which he designed, the home bears the imprint of his artistic hand. He took the builder's plan and modified the rooms to suit. The doorways are extra high; the rooms, showers and tubs are over-sized. It's an eight-minute drive from FedEx Field, a convenient location only a handful of Sundays each year.
Johnson's pregame ritual is geared toward serenity. He soaks in a tub about 20 minutes, puts on his uniform, drapes a towel over his head and stretches out on the floor in front of his locker for an hourlong nap. "You can't psych yourself out," he explains. "Being nervous eats up energy."
It takes until Thursday or Friday to recover from the punishment of the previous Sunday. It helps, he has learned, if he stays off his feet as much as possible during the week and doesn't beat himself up in practice early in the week. Most nights, he's in bed by 8 or 9 p.m.
Week 14 finds Johnson fighting a cold. The son of a former registered nurse, he is wary of medication stronger than Alka-Seltzer Cold Plus, his steady companion throughout the day. Little is going right at the moment. Milstead hasn't returned his page, and he needs his truck to move two motorcycles from his old home to the new. He checks in with Joe Patton, a friend and the Redskins' former left tackle.
At the vet's office, he holds Thug while he gets his distemper shot. The puppy feels nothing, thanks to his folds of skin. Once back home, Johnson flips on the cell phone, arranging for satellite hook-ups on his new TVs and catching up with his agent, Greg Ray, who's en route from Philadelphia for the award ceremony. With time growing short for lunch, he skips his favorite weekly ritual--a trip to the record store to check out new DVDs--in favor of takeout Chinese.
Johnson pared down in the offseason from more than 340 pounds to 318-324, which has helped him stay injury-free this year. His refrigerator testifies to the new regimen, stocked with diet soda, cuts of lean meat, melons, juices and fruit. He'd like to cook more, but admits: "When it's time to eat, I am not a patient man."
Most night, his cousin fixes chicken. The two were teammates on an undistinguished Peekskill High football team. Even then, Johnson was a specimen. "Really diesel," as Patterson puts it: A great swimmer and fast enough to crush him in a 100-yard dash even after spotting him 15 yards.
"The greatest thrill was to see Tre pulling, coming around the corner and plowing into guys," Patterson says with pride. "I've always thought Tre would have been a great bounty hunter."
Conversation stops when lunch arrives. Johnson locks on to his General Tso's chicken and beef and broccoli as if it's a defensive lineman making a beeline at his quarterback's knees.
Nothing in the townhouse suggests a professional athlete lives here, except for the giant furniture. A jacuzzi, elliptical trainer and recumbent bike are tucked downstairs. But like Thug, Johnson has no use for exercise without a specific purpose. The den's furnishings are beige and black, masculine and tasteful, with art work that reflects his interest in contemporary African American sculpture and black-and-white photography.
"Football is what I do," Johnson says, "but it does not define me. I get enough football at work."
Above the mantel hangs a sepia-toned photograph he had enlarged of the 1923-24 Storer College (later West Virginia State) football team. His grandfather, Edward Stanton Johnson, played for the Golden Tornado. Johnson's father played shooting guard in the American Basketball Association, which partly explains why Johnson, a contrarian by nature, resolved as a child to play football instead.
Tre Johnson held all the strength records at Temple. His ability was so striking he quit practicing with the team his final season. He'd meet with his coaches Fridays and play on Saturday. "We never made any halftime adjustments, we never ran any new plays," he explains, "so there was nothing new to learn."
The NFL demanded an attitude adjustment.
Redskins like Raleigh McKenzie and Ed Simmons weren't any stronger than Johnson, but he immediately realized they were far better football players. Offensive line coach Jim Hanifan taught Johnson to read defenses. In time, he learned how to block a man by leveraging technique instead of plain brute force, which also has helped reduce injuries.
"Knowing that technique and understanding and experience will make just as big a difference as being able to bench 600 pounds? I didn't learn that until a couple years into it," he says.
He was a backup at first, playing mainly on kickoff returns under special-teams coach Pete Rodriguez. The unit, which was tops in the NFL, then celebrated as one each time Brian Mitchell ran back a 60- or 70-yarder. "That's where I first got my education of what it was like to be on a team," Johnson says.
Rodriguez was a man to be feared, who accepted no excuses and routinely humiliated players in meetings for missing blocks and tackles during games. Johnson believes the trait is essential to keep the egos of 53 professional football players in check.
"Nothing is more motivational than being embarrassed among your peers," he says. "You'd go into a meeting saying, 'He's not going to call my name out!' And Pete would never give you too much praise. It was, 'Good block. You did your job.' And that's all you needed: 'I DID my job!'"
Johnson has great admiration for Hanifan's successor, offensive line coach Russ Grimm. An original member of the storied Hogs, Grimm defined Johnson's position in his day. As a coach, he knows how to get through to each lineman, Johnson says, and forge a collective soul from disparate personas--the quiet Andy Heck, analytical Keith Sims, workhorse Cory Raymer, strong-willed Johnson and earnest rookie Jon Jansen.
"Russ Grimm has been the key in developing us," Johnson says. "You respect him. You can't call his bluff."
There's a display case in one corner of Johnson's living room, a modest shrine to the essence of pro sports. It holds three of the four Redskin game balls he has been awarded. It holds mementos of football's brutality: a tooth knocked out in one game; a piece of knee cartilage removed in surgery. And it holds relics of the greats: a football autographed by Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Lawrence Taylor, whom Johnson considers the best offensive and defensive players ever, and a basketball autographed by Dawn Staley.
Johnson's eyes grow wide and his voice booms as he explains his awe of the former University of Virginia point guard, as well as sprinter Marion Jones and the Washington Mystics' Chamique Holdsclaw, whose love of competing is so palpable.
Once every few months, Johnson watches an HBO documentary chronicling Tennessee's 1996-97 women's basketball team, called "The Cinderella Season." A friend sent him the video, and he loves the way Coach Pat Summitt demands so much from her players and how the Lady Vols give that passion right back.
"One girl describes how I feel about playing ball," Johnson says. "She said: 'I hate to lose more than I love to win.' And that's how I feel about it. If I had a daughter, I'd definitely want her to play basketball. Not to put any pressure on her, but I would love to have a WNBA-er. Those women believe in what they do! They give it up! They're so pumped, you gotta love it! They're warriors!"
It's the kind of passion he feels the Redskins are capable of, but for some reason are reluctant to express. In Johnson's eyes, the team needs to cut loose, like defensive end Kenard Lang, who does a wild dance after making big plays, or 5-6 Mark McMillian, who flexes like a pro wrestler after getting a sack.
"You know that mean-old dog on your block, growing up, that you and your friends always walked by that was chained to that tree? And after couple years the chain rusted through, and he snapped off that leash and ran terror through the neighborhood, jumping up on cars, until that owner came and pulled him back?" Johnson asks. "I think we're that dog chained to that tree, waiting to get loose."
CAPTION: Teammates say portraying Johnson as anything but a hard worker is not fair.
CAPTION: Not everyone goes to the vet in a limousine, but Tre Johnson says professional athletes don't have unlimited money.
CAPTION: Johnson's improved diet and fitness dedication have helped him get his weight down from more than 340 pounds to 318-324 and stay injury-free.