At 90, Giants trainer decides to wrap it up

Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, who broke his leg in Week 15, made it onto the field for the Super Bowl, albeit on crutches. Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, who broke his leg in Week 15, made it onto the field for the Super Bowl, albeit on crutches. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By John Branch
The New York Times / February 4, 2008

CHANDLER, Ariz. - In 1948, the Giants had an opening for a trainer. A young man named John Johnson filled it.

He is 90 now, his face wrinkled and his mind crisp. He has devoted most of his life to trying to make the Giants feel better, one sore body part at a time.

The Super Bowl against the Patriots last night was his last game.

"I think it's time to finish up, really," Johnson said. "It's been 60 years, and I'm getting along in age."

He laughed, and his eyes twinkled. Generations of players called him "Mr. J," and they shared secrets and stories in the sanctuary of the training room. He will miss that the most, he said, but Johnson cannot be talked out of this retirement decision.

"Oh, no," he said, sitting on a bench in the team's hotel. "I won't change my mind. I might come around now and then, make sure that they're doing things right."

One of the interns who worked under him more than 30 years ago, Ronnie Barnes, eventually became his boss. Barnes is the team's head trainer (officially, the vice president for medical services), and Johnson is part of a staff of assistants.

For most of his career, Johnson was a trainer for both the Giants and Manhattan College. A graduate of the Swedish Institute of Physiotherapy, he started the college job first, in 1947. The doctor there asked if he wanted to come with him to the Giants' training camp the next summer. Johnson did, stepping into a dual career.

"In those days, you could have two jobs," Johnson said. "Football would be in the morning, and I'd go up to Manhattan College in the afternoon."

Johnson is in the Hall of Fame at Manhattan College, which features the John "Doc" Johnson Athletic Training Center. He had open heart surgery about four years ago and retired from the college. About midway through this Giants season, he decided it would be his last in the NFL.

"I kind of felt it was time to give up," Johnson said. "The stairs on the airplane are getting a little difficult to get up. And walking in and out of here, the long walks in the hotel and whatnot, you know."

He has little trouble taping ankles and rubbing sore muscles and doing the behind-the-scenes work that has kept the Giants running through the 874 regular-season games they have played since he started. The Super Bowl was his 34th postseason game with the team.

He is the only current Giants employee who worked for the team when it won the 1956 NFL championship, beating the Bears at Yankee Stadium.

"We went out, played the game, came home, and had dinner," he said. "That was it."

As he spoke, a nearby ballroom was jammed with hundreds of reporters, elbowing their way into position to interview players.

"Now, it's crazy," Johnson said. "Big entertainment. I think it's good. But the old-timers like to sit down and just get the game. That's what we're interested in doing. It's gotten to be real entertainment, I think."

Johnson would love nothing more than to finish his career with a championship. But, as befits someone who spent most of his life helping others feel better, he wishes it mostly for those around him.

"This organization is a great organization," he said. "They take care of their people. Look at me. They took care of me all these years."

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