Ron Johnson, Steelers Cornerback, 1978-1984
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since the NFL and how you got involved in your post-NFL career?
My college degree is in Communications and Marketing. Since the NFL, I have been in sales and marketing primarily working with education publishing companies. I also coached little league teams in football, baseball and basketball for a number of years. I helped coach my son’s high school team that sent nine players his senior year to division one college programs and several on to the NFL.
You were a first round pick in ’78 – how much pressure did you feel coming to a team with the reputation and recent success that the Steelers had and how did you prove yourself to the team/coaches?
I didn’t feel any added pressure to perform as I had just recently been named MVP in the Senior Bowl and had played a solid game in the East/ West Shrine Game. I proved myself by showing up to training camp in great shape and being ready to run and hit.
What did you see as your strengths as a defensive back – and what did you feel you needed to work on most as you adjusted to the NFL?
My strength as a defensive back was quickness and strength and my ability to make receivers think about getting hit as opposed to just running patterns and catching passes. As a rookie in the NFL, I knew that I needed to work on covering guys deep down the field.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and helped show you the ropes – both on and off the field. How did they do so?
Dave Puriefory, who also went to Eastern Michigan University, helped me with the mental part of playing in the NFL and he talked a great deal about intimidating people.
Mel Blount has always been like an older brother to me. Mel and I studied film nightly on the opposing team and their tendencies. I am going to take this opportunity to mention Mike Wagner. When we played teams like the Dallas Cowboys and they were constantly changing formations, Wagner always made the adjustments to our defense and put us on the same page.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those teams you played for and what made them so? Any examples?
When we talk about characters or personalities on the team, Dwight “Mad Dog” White has to be mentioned. Dwight would curse out opponents and his own teammates during the heat of the battle. However, during a game in my rookie season, I had yelled at Dwight and the defensive line because we were getting manhandled. Dwight came to my locker after the game and said “Johnson, I started to jump on your ass out there today”. My response to Mad Dog was”.. how many Super Bowl rings do you have?” He said he had two rings. I told him that I didn’t have any Super Bowl rings and that I was trying to get one, so if we get manhandled up front again, I would do the same thing.
Jack Lambert was truly a character and a team leader. Lambert would come to my locker and say things like “…Johnson don’t get scared now because Earl Campbell is going to run your ass over..” or “.. Kenny Burroughs is going to run past you”. That was Jack Lambert’s way of testing your heart and to get you motivated. I always told Lambert to just do his damn job and we won’t have any problems.
Who were some of the toughest guys you lined up for both in practice and on other teams? What made them so?
My teammates in Pittsburgh were the all world receiving group; Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Bennie Cunningham, T. Bell, Jim Smith and Calvin Sweeney and Randy Grossman.
I played against so many great offensive players, I am not going to try to remember all the names.
I will talk about Olympic Sprinters Wesley Walker and Lam Jones who played for the Jets. I remember that the Steeler coaches were nervous all week that “Blount and Johnson” might not be able to run with these two2 guys. Blount stood up in a defensive team meeting and said this is not a track meet, this is a football game and that the meeting was officially over for the day. Needless to say we shut the Jets receivers down and won the game.
You were moved to safety at the midpoint of your career in Pittsburgh. Were you happy about the move and how difficult of an adjustment was that for you?
It was not a difficult adjustment moving inside because I could recognize formations quickly and get the cornerbacks and the rest of the defense set. I studied constantly and watched a great deal of film in preparation. I had the ability to play every position in the secondary. The primary reason that I was moved inside was because I had knee surgery to repair a torn ACL.
You were let go by the Steelers in ’84. What did the coaches tell you was the reason for their decision to do so and how upset were you?
I recall being released just weeks before training camp opened. If it had been earlier, I could have possibly made another team. As I am a very competitive person, I had worked very hard in the off-season and could have worked out for a few teams. If I had been invited to training camp and gotten released during camp the chances of me going to another team was extremely high. The primary reason I was released was because I continued to have problems with my knee.
What do you think of today’s NFL in terms of the new rules and pass-focus? How do you think you would have fared with these new rules?
I know the rule changes are intended to eliminate helmet to helmet contact which is the best change for the game and for the health of players after they retire from football.
The defensive backs responsibilities have not changed a great deal regarding the passing game. The bump and run rules are the same and the rules regarding rolling up in cover 2 for the corners are the same. The interpretations and understanding of the rules are important.
Today’s receivers are having a field day because they are frequently running down the field untouched. If I am not mistaken, the rule says don’t touch them after five yards. A defensive back can do a lot within five yards.
I believe the offensive formations that teams are running now is the biggest reason for all the accumulated yards. Imagine if Stallworth and that group were lined up as offensive teams are now.
What are some of your greatest memories as a Steeler – both on and off the field?
My greatest memory as a Steeler was meeting and talking with Art Rooney Sr. in the Allegheny Club when I was first drafted. I have many, many memories as a Steeler player, but taking my son to Pirate baseball games and sitting in the box with Mr. Rooney was really cool. It was also great to line-up in the huddle with those super human football players.
Any last thoughts for readers?
There is nothing that I can accomplish in my life that will compare with being part of the greatest defensive football team that this world has ever seen.