Wed Nov 10 03:17pm EST
Some of the CFL's greatest characters over the years have been punters and kickers. From Lions' legend Lui Passaglia to Saskatchewan's Dave "Robokicker" Ridgeway, Edmonton's famed Hank Ilesic and Winnipeg's ageless Bob Cameron and controversial Troy Westwood (now attempting to take his talents to Wipeout, there hasn't been a shortage of colourful CFL players in those roles. It looks like we might have an excellent new addition to the ranks, though, in Saskatchewan's Eddie Johnson (the punter, not the American soccer star who plays in England, the English soccer star who plays in the U.S., the Civil War general, the NBA player, the tenor or the corporate titan).
Rob Vanstone of The Regina Leader-Post had a great feature on Johnson (pictured, right) yesterday, and he's a fascinating subject. Johnson didn't exactly have a conventional path to the CFL; born in Newport Beach, California, he played his college football for the relatively obscure Idaho State Bengals, who compete in the Big Sky Conference in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA). He turned heads with his play, though, and was chosen as a first-team All-American in 2001. He was then drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL draft, but was benched by them after regular-season struggles and was cut in 2004. That led to a five-year NFL odyssey, where he bounced from Cincinnati to the New York Giants to Jacksonville to Washington to Denver to Detroit, but never got to play in another regular-season game.
In 2009, Johnson decided to head north. His CFL career didn't get off to an auspicious start, however; he beat out Justin Medlock for the kicking job in Toronto, but separated his shoulder making a tackle on the opening kickoff return in the Argonauts' first game. He somehow kept playing after getting his shoulder popped back in, and finished the game by averaging 45 yards on 11 punts. He also hit a field goal and a conversion, and made a touchdown-saving tackle. That wasn't enough to keep him from losing out to Medlock for the next week, though. Johnson got some playing time later in the season, and averaged 46.4 yards per punt on 16 attempts. He wasn't able to survive Toronto's off-season roster purge this year, though, and it looked like Johnson's stint in the CFL might be done.
Still, life in general was looking pretty good for him. As Vanstone relates, Johnson returned to California's Laguna Beach after being cut by Toronto. He wound up working at a sushi bar and nightclub in the evenings, which left him plenty of time for hanging out on the beach, checking out the waves and playing volleyball:
"We'd just take the volleyball out and the net, and invite anybody who was in the area who looked like they could play beach volleyball a bit," Johnson continues. "It was a fun workout. I'm not very good at beach volleyball. It's just fun to do, though, and you get some nice rays while you're out there. You'd hit the gym, relax a little bit before work, and then go off into work at a high-pace, DJ-spun sushi restaurant - at Mo Sun down at Laguna. That's a beautiful tourist spot."
"You have a quiet, beach 'me' day half the day. The other part, you serve the tourists who come in from out of town during a nice night, with a nice experience in the restaurant with good cocktails and a great atmosphere. It was a great deal. I was totally happy doing that before I got the call, and it's always something that will be there."
Even Johnson admits that kind of existence sounds awfully familiar:
"It's kind of the Corona commercial, mixed with the Bud Light commercial, mixed with the Keith Stone commercial, with a little bit of the World's Most Interesting Man commercial - Dos Equis,'' Johnson says with a chuckle. "It's a little conglomeration of all of them."
If you've somehow missed those commercials, here's one particularly good one and a collection of some of their best moments:
What differentiates Johnson from the beach-dweller of a typical beer commercial and brings him closer to The Most Interesting Man In The World is that he voluntarily gave the surf-side existence up for another shot at the CFL. You don't see too many people deserting the beaches of California for the wind and snow of Regina (even if the Riders do practice indoors at times). It's even more notable that he was given no guarantees; the Riders made the late-July move to bring him in because Louie Sakoda was struggling, but kept Sakoda on the roster at first.
Johnson performed well enough to earn the punting job outright, and Sakoda was released on Aug. 2. Johnson's also handled the Riders' kickoffs, and briefly took over field goals as well after Luca Congi suffered a season-ending knee injury. He's now splitting those duties with Warren Kean, but continues to excel on punts and kickoffs; he's third in the league among regular punters with a 43.5 yard punting average. He's also executed great punts in tough situations, like the Sept. 5 one pictured at right, where he got a punt away just before Winnipeg's Jamayel Smith could block it.
In fact, Johnson's punting has been so good that Roughriders' head coach Ken Miller controversially opted to have him try and pick up a long game-winning punt single in a September clash against Calgary. That attempt didn't work, but the Riders wound up winning the game. It says a lot about Johnson that Miller put that much faith in him less than two months after he joined the club. He's also been one of the few consistently-solid performers on a special-teams unit that's been heavily criticized this year (although it has performed better lately and proved crucial against Edmonton Saturday), and in recognition of that, he was chosen as the Riders' candidate for the CFL's most outstanding special-teams player.
Johnson took that honour in stride, though, and was rather hilariously self-deprecating about it, as the Leader-Post's Ian Hamilton wrote last week:
Saskatchewan Roughriders punter Eddie Johnson said Wednesday he was "happy and honoured" to be the team's nominee for the CFL award as the most outstanding special-teams player.
And he wasn't just paying lip service to his nomination.
"I wear a great moustache," Johnson said with a grin when asked why he thought he was the choice of Regina-based members of the Football Reporters of Canada.
"Sometimes people can overlook your faults if they see a nice moustache: ‘That guy's all right.' That's probably been the reason, let's face it. It has got me a long way. I'm just going to ride this thing and this moustache as far as it takes me."
As a fellow moustachioed human, I approve of that sentiment. It's worth noting that Johnson is using his moustache for great causes other than winning awards, however. He's taking part in the "Movember" campaign and raising money for prostate cancer research, while encouraging CFL and Rider fans to join him. You can donate to his campaign here and check out and submit photos to the "Eddie Johnson's Movember Contest" album on the Riders' Facebook page as part of a contest that will see one fan come away with a mystery grand prize at the end of the month.
This effort is only one of the endless great causes the CFL's players and teams are involved with, but it is notable that CFL players like Johnson are raising money for cancer research despite the controversy over the league's policies on pink apparel. Besides, it's awfully hard to turn down The Most Interesting Punter In The World. He doesn't always ask for donations, but when he does, they're for a good cause.