One of the CFL's top Canadian stars over the last decade won't be returning to the field in 2012. B.C. Lions' defensive lineman Brent Johnson announced his retirement Monday, and with that, an era ends. Johnson spent the last 11 years with the Lions, winning Grey Cups in 2006 and 2011, and he was a crucial part of both teams. Perhaps even more notable than his significant contributions to the Lions are his contributions to the CFL, though; in many ways, Johnson blazed a trail for Canadian players, proving that non-imports can not only play positions traditionally reserved for Americans, but can excel at them.
At the start of his career, Johnson wasn't a guy many would have imagined becoming one of the best defensive players in the whole CFL. He had a solid career at Ohio State (although most of the stats out there appear to be for a different guy entirely, the Lions' Johnson did make an impact in several memorable ways, including blocking a field goal that led the Buckeyes to a win over Drew Brees' Purdue and being named to the media-selected second All-Big Ten team in 2000) , but he wasn't picked until B.C. took him in the third round of the 2000 CFL draft (20th overall). Given the substantially narrower depth of the Canadian talent pool at that time, most later-round picks didn't make a large impact (heck, most of the first- and second-round picks from that draft were pretty forgettable, excepting fellow defensive lineman Adriano Belli), and Johnson looked likely to follow that unremarkable path early in his career. He didn't get to play much in 2001, only recording one special-teams tackle, and his future with the Lions wasn't assured.
Things quickly started to improve for Johnson, though. He began to work his way into the defensive lineup and show his ability to rush the passer, recording 38 tackles and five sacks over the next two years. In 2003, his career really took off with a 10-sack season, the first of five straight seasons where he'd hit double digits in sacks. (For comparison, only five players recorded double-digit totals this past year.) Johnson's top years statistically were 2005 and 2006, where he recorded a stunning 17 and 16 sacks respectively (both league-highs), was named the league's Outstanding Canadian both years and earned the CFL's defensive player of the year award in 2006. He continued to be an important contributor long after that peak, though, recording 12, 10, six, seven and six sacks respectively over the last five years, and doing so in substantially limited playing time in the later years. It says a lot about Johnson's skill that unlike many aging veterans who wind up being released, he left on his own terms; as Lowell Ullrich writes, the Lions were hoping he'd return this coming year at age 35. Still, he leaves with a host of franchise records:
Johnson preceded Buono by two years when he joined the Lions in 2001 and initially grew frustrated over an inability to win a starting job. But frustration turned into perseverance. The Kingston, Ont., product went on to become the franchise leader in sacks, overtaking James (Quick) Parker.
Though a backup more than a starter in later years, he also effectively played 184 consecutive games until the streak was broken in subsequent weeks near the end of last season due to a concussion and the birth of his first son.
Only Norm Fieldgate and Glen Jackson played more games on defence in club history than Johnson, whose three individual league award trophies also ties a team mark.
Johnson's career is remarkable for what he meant to his team, and that's been shown in tributes from former teammates like Rob Murphy and Geroy Simon and bosses like Wally Buono, but what's perhaps even more notable is how he helped change the way teams thought about Canadian talent. For many years, Canadian players were generally thought of only as a restriction thanks to the ratio rules, and the emphasis was on getting guys who would hurt you the least and sticking them in non-essential positions. Johnson not only played defensive end, a position traditionally reserved for imported stars, he excelled at it, becoming one of the top defensive players in the whole league. If you can find Canadian talent like that, that's a lot more helpful than having players you have to find ways to hide. With the improving quality of the CIS game and the ever-deepening pool of Canadian prospects, it seems likely we'll see more Canadian stars at non-traditional positions like Johnson in the future. His role in clearing the way for them should be remembered, though.