Bears' Johnson stands up, faces full-scale media blitz

The Kickoff

January 31, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Miami -- In an atmosphere he couldn't possibly have enjoyed, Tank Johnson was about as convincing as he could have been.

With the exception of convincing his audience that he didn't actually have a cache of guns that a militia would envy taken from his suburban Chicago home last month.

And convincing it that he's not headed toward the same violent end as his best friend, whom Johnson called his brother, not long afterward.

And convincing it that Johnson's presence at the Super Bowl in light of all of this is fair and acceptable.

Johnson - the Chicago Bears' 25-year-old defensive tackle who lately has doubled as franchise lightning rod - deserves a lot of credit for standing up on the floor of Dolphin Stadium and facing what he faced yesterday at Super Bowl media day.

The assumption among the assembled horde was that the Bears would keep him out of sight, even at the cost of a stiff fine from the NFL for being a no-show.

All things considered, the league and the team have gotten a pass with Johnson, and yesterday was the perfect time for the public to revoke it - if it chose to. That was no guarantee, not in the Nonstick Football League. Few leagues, if any (not to mention any names, like the NBA), could remotely withstand the public relations nightmare arising from a player in the sport's marquee event facing several firearms felonies, who had a close associate murdered nearby him, who had been de-activated once and suspended once for his actions, and who had to get a special ruling from a county judge to leave the state for the game.

But, Johnson is in line to start Sunday, and when time came to face his fate, he stepped up. From the moment he appeared, he was wedged in by 25 to 30 reporters, and none of them were from Jay Leno's show or MTV or the wacky morning crew from the local all-sports station.

Nearly every question was about his "situation." Plenty were harsh, some he bristled at, and opportunities abounded for tensions to flare. By the time the one-hour media session had ended, he was ready - he counted down the seconds: "Ten, nine, eight, seven ... "

Yet such awkward moments were surprisingly rare. Against the standard for prickly crime-related Super Bowl media-day sessions - Ray Lewis' in Tampa in 2001 - this was pretty tame. And, more important to the image fostered by Johnson's newfound notoriety, far less divisive and damaging.

If his display of personality, sincerity and warmth yesterday were an act, then the Oscar committee missed a nominee last week.

Of course, the trap always awaits those who judge any person, such as a Super Bowl athlete, on his superficial appearance, words or demeanor in an interview. After all, this is the Super site at which one of the more devout-talking players in the sport, the Falcons' Eugene Robinson, entered Super Bowl lore for an illicit trip downtown the night before the game. Johnson even admitted, "I don't think you can learn anything about me in an hour."

He tried anyway. "To the bottom of my heart," Johnson said, "I wish you guys could ask me about Peyton Manning and the Colts and the Bears. But I know I've put myself in the situation where that isn't an option."

Johnson was asked about Manning and the Colts and the Bears - 20 minutes into his interview time, not long before he was asked if "the gang life" held any allure for him, and well after he was asked whether he and his tainted rep had hit South Beach yet.

Nope, he said of the gang question. And no, on Monday night he just ate and watched a movie, The Departed. "I've got plenty of time to go to South Beach," he said. "This [game] is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

He spoke of how he has re-thought everything about his social life, his personal safety, his role as father to two baby daughters, and to violence in American culture. "It hits home for me now," he said.

"I've gotten a lot wiser," he added. "Sometimes things have to happen for you to get wiser ... I'm looking forward to the opportunity to grow, be a better father and be a better man overall."


If only his actions hadn't canceled the benefit of the doubt he might have gotten.

Johnson knows that no matter what he says and how genuinely he expresses it, people will be snickering at Tank and his guns for a long, long time - or appalled by them. He knows he's lucky he's in Miami after all of this, particularly the judge's ruling. He came off as appreciative of being given a chance to play in a Super Bowl that large segments of the public will always, justifiably, believe he didn't deserve.

Still, sometimes, standing up and being even a little accountable for even the most reprehensible acts can go a long way.

This, Johnson said, has been "the best year of my entire life, and the worst month." But all things considered, yesterday was a pretty good day.

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