by C.J. Bowles
"It's important always to fight back, no matter what," says Terry Johnson, a look of intensity taking over a face more accustomed to a smile.
"No matter what, don't ever let anybody punk you, because when people punk you, you lose respect with others, and you begin to lose respect for yourself."
Johnson learned this lesson the hard way as a youth in Gary, Ind., renowned as one of America's toughest cities. Johnson estimates that he saw more poverty, despair, and violence in his first decade than most see in an entire lifetime.
This harsh upbringing impacted Johnson in two ways - it made his skin thicker than cowhide, and convinced him that he had to work hard to escape a life on the streets. At the end of young Terry's third-grade year, Terry Johnson, Sr. decided that enough was enough. The Johnson family was moving to Minnesota.
"I've been in every kind of extreme," the younger Johnson says. "I've been in the poorest of the poor and the nicest of the nice. My standards of comfortable is a little different. All I need is a place with a bed and food."
While Johnson's father led them out of Gary, it was his mother, Brenda, who kept him on the high road during those tough early years.
"My mom was always the angel on my shoulder, she always was my calming influence," he says. "I would be so mad sometimes, but being around her made it easier to handle everything."
After a brief move back to Gary, the Johnsons relocated permanently to Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. It was there, at McClintock High School, where Johnson found a means for letting go of his anger, flying across the football field as a standout tight end and defensive lineman.
During Johnson's senior season, he tallied 47 tackles, three sacks, and three forced fumbles, while scoring four toucdowns on offense. The dominating lineman earned prep All-American honors, and was ranked the eighth-best recruit in the state of Arizona. The young man who had feared a life on the streets began receiving letters from some of the most prestigious colleges in America. To make his decision, Johnson only had to look in the trophy case at McClintock High, where a black-and-white photo of a former standout quarterback for the school was framed.
"Rick Neuheisel had played for my same high school, and he and Steve Axman were very good to my family," Johnson says. "I could dig Coach Neuheisel. He was really good to my pops and my mom throughout the whole process."
Once Johnson arrived on campus, it wasn't long before his teammates dubbed him "Tank." However, the nickname, given to him by former Huskies Larry Tripplett and Jeremiah Pharms, was not solely based up his physically intimidating 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame.
"My freshman year at Washington, I was reckless in camp," Johnson recalls. "I was fast off the ball, but didn't have much technique; I just ran over people and ran over things."
Another misconception would be that Johnson was always focused on gridiron success.
"I started football when I was young, about the third grade, but I was always feeling basketball and other sports that people in my neighborhood played," he says. "No one really played football because the weather was so hot, and there were never enough programs in Gary."
On top of basketball and football, Johnson also participated in two years of volleyball in high school, succeeding to the point that he received considerable recruiting interest from some of the West Coast's top collegiate programs. Johnson, however, feeds upon intense training, and only one sport would allow him to put in the kind of workouts on which he thrives.
"I can be big and play football; you can't really be big in the other sports," he says. "I like to eat and I like to lift weights. I still hoop, though; I'll go hoop any day. Throwing that ball in the basket is like therapy."
Even though Johnson chose to focus on football, he did not forget the lessons learned from basketball and volleyball.
"All of the different sports that I've played help me to play football," he says. "From basketball I learned quick feet, sudden quickness, and initial explosiveness. Bringing that to football, I'm able to cut really fast. From volleyball, I learned to bring strength through your hips. Jumping off of two feet helps me get off the ball like no other."
Now a senior, Johnson has utilized these advantages to become one of the leaders of the Husky defense. Through the team's first six games in 2003, Johnson led the Pac-10 with 13 tackles for loss and was second in the conference with seven sacks, despite near-constant double-teams. Averaging more than two tackles for loss per game in 2003, Johnson needs just nine more in the team's final four games to equal the most ever by a UW player in a single season, while his seven sacks are just one shy of the team's all-time single-season top-10.
Johnson is quick to credit those who have helped him during his time at UW.
Most influential, however, has been defensive line coach Randy Hart, whose toughness is legendary. While many young linemen initially fear the intense Hart, Johnson went on the record as saying that he will miss his position coach more than anyone else at Washington when his time here is done.
"Even though I'm still my own man, he has set the bar for me since I've been here," Johnson says. "The bar he sets is one that says, 'You can do anything.'"
If there was ever a time when Johnson surpassed Hart's bar, it was during the 2002 Apple Cup, a game the Huskies desperately needed to win to complete a dramatic three-game sweep of their Northwest foes. Johnson recorded two sacks in the game, including one that knocked out Cougars' quarterback Jason Gesser, and helped force overtime by stifling a late Washington State drive.
True to his ability to integrate aspects of his former sports into football, Johnson hasn't forgotten the skills that made him a standout tight end in high school. During the 2001 Holiday Bowl, Johnson showed his soft hands on a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown, a feat he matched against San Jose State in 2002.
Even as his star continues to rise, Johnson remains friendly and likeable off the field, where his humorous nature has made him both a fan and team favorite.
"It's just me being me," he says. "I'm not afraid of what people are going to say. I'm just a normal dude who likes to see people laugh."
Johnson's popularity with his teammates, and his leadership on the field, led the team to vote the senior one of three captains prior to the 2003 season. While flattered by the vote of confidence from his teammates, Johnson only wants to be remembered as "a person who went out there and did his job for the good of the team.
"Fans want to see players who grow into good people, and I think that I've done that," he adds. "Being at UW has changed me in a lot of ways. I appreciate that, so I hope everyone can see that."
Johnson certainly has changed, from a young man with few opportunities to escape the streets, to one for whom the opportunities seem endless, including the possibility of a professional career.
"The NFL is a land of opportunities," he says. "It's the opportunity to become the best that you can possibly be at your skill, and an opportunity to take care of your family."
Terry Johnson seems destined to complete a real-life rags-to-riches story, but the story will not end with the end of his playing career, whenever that may be.
"Football is a very demanding sport," he says. "When I'm done, I'm going to have fun raising my family and my dogs. Coaching is something that I could get into, but I wouldn't want to get paid for it. I just want to teach somebody what I know. Hopefully, I can make them a better person."
As he knows from his years in Gary, however, there will always be bills to pay.
"Maybe for money, I'll start my own pit bull farm and sell purebred dogs at outrageous prices," he says, laughing.
Pit bulls? Yes, in fact, Johnson has been taking care of pit bulls his entire life.
"They're my dogs, they understand how I am," he says. "I was raised tough and I came out pretty good, by my standards. I raise my dogs tough, that's my mentality.
"It's how I am, and it's how I always will be."