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No stopping his run

Story of Johnson's resurgence at inside linebacker is pretty good stuff

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Something wasn't quite right. The field didn't look the same to Ted Johnson. He was lining up wrong. He was calling all the defensive signals from his middle linebacker position, but wasn't executing the play.

It was the preseason in 2002, just months after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. Johnson had suffered a concussion in an exhibition game, and then suffered another a few days later. Though he was cleared to play, he felt foggy. Johnson had undergone neurological testing at Massachusetts General Hospital, searching for an explanation.

He felt terrible, and it was reflected in his play.

His coaches certainly noticed.

A couple of days before opening night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson learned he was going to be inactive. What? He had been a solid starter at middle linebacker, the ultimate warrior who had overcome major injuries, including two biceps tears and a broken foot.

He had dealt with salary cap issues, and taken a major paycut to stay with the Patriots -- more than once. He had been left unprotected on the expansion list.

And now he could feel it all coming to a head. All he had done. All he had overcome. Not dressed for opening night?

Johnson couldn't take it. He left. He went AWOL for two days. He was angry at coach Bill Belichick. He was angry at himself. He spent two days soul searching, wondering how the team could do this to him. Didn't they understand he wasn't himself? Couldn't they cut him a little slack?

"I had just had it," recalled Johnson. "I thought in my mind it was time to maybe move on from New England and try something else. It was obvious we weren't on the same page. I wasn't in the plans. Considering the start to my career and where I'd been to not even dress after the first game of a Super Bowl season. It was a major blow. I didn't think something like could ever happen."

In those 48 hours, he contemplated quitting.

"I don't know if I had it in me to actually pull the trigger, but it crossed my mind," Johnson recalled. "It was so disheartening where I was. And really it was still relatively early in my career. I know I didn't have a lot of options. I was at the mercy of the organization, not free to pick and choose where I could go."

Regaining coach's trust Johnson knew the dropoff in his play could be attributed to the concussions.

"I had a serious problem," he said. "I had trouble remembering the plays. As a signal-caller, I couldn't have an off day on the field. I lost confidence in my ability. My perception was way off. I was playing as hard as I could, but something wasn't right.

"I could feel that I wasn't going to be a part of the game plan. I knew I had lost [Belichick's] trust. It was a huge blow for me. There's nothing worse for an athlete when the coaches lose confidence in you. It was the lowest point in my career."

Having no options -- with no possibility of a trade -- Johnson returned to the team.

Things weren't really settled after a brief conversation with Belichick, but Johnson knew he had a contract to honor and teammates to help, so he put his feelings aside.

Johnson played sparingly the next week against the Jets, and he knew he didn't play that well. His focus was still off. And then the next week vs. Kansas City, Tedy Bruschi was a game-time scratch with a shoulder injury, forcing Johnson to start at middle linebacker. Despite making 13 tackles (8 solo), Johnson felt he played another subpar game. Priest Holmes ran roughshod through the middle for 180 of the Chiefs' 221 rushing yards in a 41-38 Patriots win.

"Put it this way," Johnson said. "It was a bad first five weeks. There wasn't a lot of progress being made. I had contract obligations to meet and I didn't want to compromise what my teammates had worked so hard for all season, and that's what I was doing."

He was not dressed for the San Diego game in Week 4, another blow to Johnson's psyche, but he returned to play sparingly (but well) against Miami in Week 5. It was after that game that Johnson and Belichick finally hashed things out.

"Belichick came up to me in the weight room and we had it out," recalled Johnson.

"He asked me, `What are we doing?' He told me we might have to go in a different direction. He told me he didn't like my attitude. My body language was lousy. Mentally, I was a million miles away and I wasn't able to overcome that. But he did say to me, `You played one of your best games.'

"I appreciated his honesty. I've always been a guy who appreciates you telling me something to my face, good or bad. I felt he was leaving himself vulnerable, being open and honest. It struck me right there how much I appreciated him initiating an open and honest discussion. I was tired of going to work and not putting 100 percent of myself into it."

It was after both poured out their feelings that Johnson said he looked his coach in the eye and said, "You'll never have another problem with me."

Johnson's play picked up. His head cleared.

"Even though it was a season forgotten in this unbelievable stretch we've had [a 9-7 campaign and no postseason berth], for me, the '02 season was the most gratifying and rewarding season I've ever had," he said. "For me, it was probably the most professional growth I've ever had."

Situational excellence Johnson fell into the role he now plays. Though he was once a full-time middle linebacker who rarely came out of the game, he now takes a seat in passing situations. He's fit well in the middle linebacker rotation and maintains his role as the most physical run stopper on the team.

"I think we're all competitive as football players and we don't want to come off the field," Johnson said. "I also think if I had to play more I could handle it."

Johnson has learned to accept his position.

"I'm not going to make the Hall of Fame or maybe not even a Pro Bowl, and those are things I aspired to and I thought were possible when I was younger," said the former University of Colorado star. "I've come to be at peace with my role. I don't always agree with it, but I'm so proud to be a part of this team.

"I've had to make some tough decisions with my contract and I did it and now I'm happy I did it. It makes me sick to hear guys complain about the money they're making, or that they don't have a suite on the road or a private plane to pick them up. I'm sick and tired of athletes who have this sense of entitlement. Trust me, I count my blessings."

Because he feels so well physically, "I feel I have at least another year of playing at a high level," he added. "If I can't contribute at a high level anymore, that would be a sign for me to walk away. The game dictates that. Very few athletes have the intuition to walk away at the right time, fully satisfied about their careers. I've seen too many friends walk away so bitter. I don't want to be one of them."

Johnson will be in the final year of his contract next season, and the salary cap issue may be raised again.

"You never know what management thinks," Johnson said. "I hope there are no issues with my contract, but that's my side of the story. If I could a write a script for the rest of my career, I'd end it here. If management wants to go in a different direction, there's not much I can do about that."

There's been much sweat and many tears of pain and sorrow, yet so many happy moments. "It's been 10 years of a career that's been extremely gratifying," Johnson said. "To be with the same team, to have made the friendships, living here and making this my home and finding my wife and kids. It's been awesome. From a professional point of view, it's been a struggle, with all the injuries and the ups and downs. But I think those experiences will serve me better in my life.

"I feel I'm just getting started in my life. I feel there's something out there for me even more powerful than what I'm doing now. I'm the type of guy who will find something. I'm not sure what just yet. I know that right now, at this moment, it's football." 

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