Strawberry daiquiris might not seem to be the drink of choice among NFL linebackers, but that's what Cecil Johnson orders in a Tampa oyster bar. He's telling a story about ducks in his childhood. Some 6'2", 235-pound pro linebackers are reputed not to have had childhoods, much less remember them fondly, but Cecil isn't quite your regulation guy. He's the Jolly Roger of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The tale begins with Johnson's family sitting around the Sunday dinner table gnawing meat off bones.
"Mighty tasty chicken, Mil," Cecil says. Mil is his mother, Mildred.
"That's not chicken," says his brother, Earl.
September 5, 1982
"Whattya mean?" Cecil says.
"I mean, that's not chicken."
"Daddy," says Cecil in sudden anxiety, "where's Donald?" Donald is the cherished family duck.
"I don't know," his father hedges.
"Daddy," Cecil repeats, "where's Donald?"
"O h, he died," says Daddy finally. "You eating him, Cecil."
This is the kind of barroom chat that Cecil puts out. He'll say anything that pops into his head. And his football career has followed an even more random pattern than his conversation.
Johnson, who's 27, came out of a Miami ghetto with 4.7 speed in the 40. At Miami Jackson high he was a starter but not a star. Few colleges were interested. Pittsburgh discovered him only when a Panther scout came to look at four of Johnson's teammates. At Pitt he demonstrated little but versatility (or his coaches' vacillation) by playing five positions: noseguard, defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker and even a little defensive back.
Johnson's roommate at Pitt, Tony Dorsett, was a first-round pick in the 1977 draft, but because Cecil kept moving around on defense, NFL scouts couldn't get a line on him. The Eagles told him they'd pick him in an early round. "I waited and waited for my name to come up," Johnson recalls sadly. "I'm still waiting." Eventually, he signed with the Bucs as a free agent.
Johnson became a starter his rookie year, and in his first four NFL seasons was a fairly good outside linebacker, perhaps best remembered for tearing a ligament of Miami Quarterback Bob Griese's left knee with a blind-side tackle during a 1978 exhibition game. But after a disappointing 5-10-1 finish in 1980, the Bucs drafted Hugh Green and handed him Johnson's job. Ironically, Johnson had helped recruit Green at Pitt.
Johnson moved to inside linebacker reluctantly. "I knew there were going to be changes," he says, "but I didn't think I'd be one of them. I thought, 'I already know a position. Leave me where I am.' I was sort of humiliated."
Changing to a new position is always dangerous. "Being a middle linebacker," says Johnson, "is like walking through a lion's cage with a three-piece pork-chop suit on."
Some of his teammates privately expressed doubts that Johnson could make the adjustment. "I figured he was more of a 'finesse' linebacker than a power linebacker," says Quarterback Doug Williams. "But he changed my mind. He showed me he could do it." The switch turned out to be the making of Johnson as a football player and of Tampa Bay as a team. Johnson was the Bucs' defensive signal caller and their steadiest player, racking up 10 or more tackles in each of his last 11 games as Tampa Bay rallied from a slow start to finish 9-7 and win the NFC Central title. His 174 tackles were a team record and his five interceptions were the most by a Buccaneer linebacker in the six-year history of the franchise. The season ended for Johnson when he was thrown out of the Bucs' playoff loss to Dallas for fighting. "I guess I was playing a little too rough," he says. But Coach John McKay liked Johnson's aggressiveness enough to make him a defensive co-captain this year.
Johnson's manner on the field is light and loose and lively. "We'll be backed up against our goal line," says Defensive Back Norris Thomas, "and Cecil will still be in a joyful mood, cracking jokes to ease the tension. And his attitude just drips off to the other guys." Texas A&M Coach Jackie Sherrill, an assistant at Pitt when Johnson played there, says he is" probably the best "locker room player" he ever had. "He had a great knack for keeping everybody in the right frame of mind," says Sherrill. "A football team needs somebody around to keep people loose, and that's what Johnson did better than anyone else."
Johnson's teammates think he's slightly more swampy than the Okeefenokee, and he is. "He's not the craziest person I know," says Defensive Tackle Dave Logan, "but he's definitely in the playoffs."
Some of Johnson's fellow Bucs detect a Mr. Hyde component in his joking Dr. Jekyll. "I think there are at least three or four Cecils inside me," he says.
First, there is the quick and deadly linebacker that running backs find in their paths as they cross the line of scrimmage. "He was the only guy I ever saw knock Tony Dorsett cold," says Johnny Majors, Johnson's head coach at Pitt. "He did it as a freshman during a scrimmage in a half-line drill. A straight shot. He hit him like a rattlesnake."
Dorsett remembers a lot of Johnson's strikes. "Cecil's favorite was the head slap," he says. "Sometimes after practice his hand would be so sore from those slaps that somebody would have to help him get undressed. But he'd be out there the next day—whap! whap!"
"The explosion Cecil could put into a hit amazed me," Sherrill says. But Sherrill wasn't surprised that Johnson went undrafted by the pros. "He hadn't the size that pro teams like in linebackers," he says. "And no team can measure a heart."
Then there is plain-clothes Cecil, the friendly, down-home baby of the family, a guy who is soft-spoken and extraordinarily cordial. He has the look of a drowsy alligator. He wears a squashed Afro with tendrils escaping in kind of a fuzzy halo. And he appears to have dressed himself in the dark. His suburban Tampa split-level bachelor pad is replete with two waterbeds, seven color TVs, five stereos, 26 speakers and a Jacuzzi. His bedroom is mirrored on the ceiling and three walls. On the fourth wall is a phosphorescent painting that purports to be of a tropical sunset, but looks more like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.
Johnson's teammates congregate daily at this pleasure palace. The players sit around and watch tapes of horror movies; sometimes there are two films going at once on Johnson's enormous video consoles. His collection runs the gamut from Frankenstein to My Bloody Valentine. He's especially fond of Dracula. "Dracula's my main man," says Johnson. "I've got about every film he's been in. He's all right with womenfolk. I like the way he sneaks around, plus he comes out at night."
Johnson says he uses the films to prep for teams like the Raiders. "There are some real monsters on the Raiders," he says. "They're large. They're very large. Their guards are such big crabs that I can't see who they've got in the back-field. I wish I could; I'm probably missing a good game of football."
Johnson acts like an older brother to some of the rookies. "My mother always told me that if you think as much for others as you think for yourself, you'll never have to take care of yourself." He often lends the younger Bucs cars from his collection. He's got matching Mercedes, contrasting Cadillacs, a Lincoln, a Rolls and a Buick. "I started buying them when I joined the Bucs," he says, "And I didn't know when to stop."
There is also the brash, stinging Cecil of the clubhouse, the master of deadpan humor who can lace the mouths of his Tampa Bay teammates shut with strings of one-liners.
"I'm an equal opportunity needler," Johnson says. "I get them if they're black, white, poor, rich, linemen, free safeties, rookies or holdouts."
Johnson has given everyone nicknames. He calls the big-footed Logan "Sasquatch." Offensive Guard Ray Snell is "Martian." "He must be one," Johnson insists. "He's black and got green eyes. They sent him down on some mission. Got to dye his eyes." Then there are the "faces"—Moon-Crater Face and Barney Rubble Face. Johnson calls 6'3", 260-pound Offensive Guard Eugene Sanders, whose hair, he says, stands on end, "Godzilla." Not Godzilla Face? "Hell, no," says Johnson emphatically. "You see how big he is? I call him Godzilla straight up. There ain't no face in it."
On the playing field, Cecil, who's variously known around the Bucs as Big Daddy and Cecil the Diesel, is equally imaginative. "I can't repeat what he says during a game," says Doug Williams, "because a lot of it isn't legal." The language is, to put it charitably, colorful, and as Cecil's idol, Boris Karloff, used to say, there are some things that it is better not to know.
"He's a fool," says Linebacker Andy Hawkins, "but he's a guy you can depend on." Hugh Green recalls Johnson the recruiter as a "wild dude, but he told me the truth about how things would be at Pitt and what to look out for. Cecil inspired me and made me eager to go there."
When Green learned he had been drafted by the Bucs, the first thing he said on live national television was "Hey, I'm gonna be with Cecil." Now teammates jokingly refer to Green as Johnson's personal valet. Even Dewey Selmon, who lost his starting inside linebacker spot to Johnson in last year's exhibition season and was eventually traded to San Diego, has only nice things to say about him. "You can't hate someone you laugh at," he says. "Cecil is saying forget sophistication; it's a game, let's play it like a game. But under all the jokes is a highly moral, intelligent human being."
Johnson has never been married, but he supports a 7-year-old daughter, Latarsha. He has a great emotional generosity, and establishes an easy rapport with children, whom he enlists in a kind of conspiracy against seriousness. He regularly visits the children's wards of Tampa hospitals on his own, or, sometimes, dragging a teammate along. He practices his jive bedside manner on severe burn victims and cancer patients, not just kids in for tonsillectomies.
"Most players have an aversion to dying children," says Sandy Cottrell, a Bucs administrative assistant. "They'll pat a child on the head and leave. But Cecil will hold the child's hand and talk. It sounds as if I'm talking about somebody not real, but Cecil has a very special relationship with kids."
"I feel I owe it to them," Johnson says. "I guess it's because I was so bad when I was young. Some people don't want to be bothered, but when I remember the things that were done for me, I want to do the same for everyone else."
Liberty City, where Johnson grew up, is a Miami slum best known for the riots of 1969 and 1980. His father, Charlie, owned Charlie's Pool Hall, a dingy cinderblock cantina in the center of the burnout area. It sat there like a target where everyone was shooting; shooting pool, shooting dope, shooting each other.
Charlie, a thickset fellow with a perpetually tired expression, ran the place for 27 years. Regular customers included Scarhead, Slime, Dead-Eye Dick, Seeing-Eye Mafia and Houdini. Cecil liked these characters, though his father hardly ever allowed him to mingle with them. Cecil marveled at their gangster getups: tailor-made suits, flashing diamond rings and shiny spats. "There was nothing I wanted more than to become a gangster," he recalls. "My favorite TV show was The Untouchables, and I thought my only problem was going to be to find a way to off Eliot Ness."
Three years ago Charlie got out of the business and rented his parlor to a guy who calls it Brown's Coffee Shop. Among the old signs still on the wall is one announcing that PRACTICING IS 150¢ A CUE A HOUR. Charlie and most of the regulars still show up. Houdini comes on crutches; he got winged standing too close to a floating crap game. About the only person who doesn't play is Charlie. "I never did learn the game," he says. "I figured I'd start to gamble."
As one of 11 children, Cecil had to fight for position. "He always wanted to compete with the other children," says his mother warmly. "He's thrown all kinds of things at them: eggs, shoes, bottles, bricks. He just loved to throw. I always thought he was going to be a baseball pitcher, but he wound up being a football player. Imagine that!"
Young Cecil would play football on a raggedy, rock-filled lot near his home. "Cecil loved to dish out punishment," recalls Archie Lankford III, Cecil's boyhood chum. "You were guaranteed a busted lip. We weren't playing like some ragtag team. This was tackle football."
All the kids in the neighborhood called his mother Mama, and Cecil didn't always like that. He'd say, "That ain't none of your mama, that's my mama." It was hard enough fighting for his mother's attention with his 10 brothers and sisters. "I never did want more than four or five," says Charlie, "but hell, they got here." Cecil's not the only success story in his family. One brother, Robert, used to play drums for the disco soul group K.C. & The Sunshine Band and a sister, Albertha, is an assistant principal of a Maryland middle school. However, brother Earl is doing 119 years in prison for the rape-robbery of an elderly widowed storekeeper.
If Cecil learned compassion from his mother, he may have gotten his funny ways from his father. On fishing expeditions Charlie used to tell Cecil to watch out for "scuttlers" (his term for octopuses) lurking under the waves. "They're nine or 10 feet long," he'd say. "And they'll reach up on giant passenger ships, grab three or four people by the neck, pull them off and eat them. And they have all kinds of heads and feets."
When Cecil left his family for the first time, to go to Pittsburgh, he suffered from chronic homesickness. He'd call his mother at least several nights a week, and fly back to Miami nearly every weekend. His mother finally got him to remain in college. She told her 190-pound baby son, "I think you need to grow up and be a big boy. You're not gonna learn nothing coming home and staying with me. But if you want to do the things you promised me, you stay in Pittsburgh."
He had promised to get an education, get his father a car and his parents a big house. And he did. He got his degree in four years, in child psychology, gave his father one of his Caddies (though Charlie disconnected the portable phone because he "didn't care for the beepin' ") and bought his folks a new home with a swimming pool and coconut trees away from the ghetto. There he keeps a big room for himself, in case of a relapse.
"I always lost faith in things people promised me," says Cecil. "That's why I try to keep my promises. I may not get around to them exactly when I said I would, but I always get around to them."
On a recent sunny afternoon, when Johnson arrived at the pediatrics ward at Tampa General Hospital, he generated enough energy to light a small city. He could hardly get to the children because the nurses were lined up eight deep for his autograph.
He plowed through to the room of a 6-year-old with a badly infected foot. A poster of Cecil hung on the wall, and tears ran down the boy's cheeks. Cecil greeted him with a high-five.
"You be frowning up?" asked Cecil.
"No," said the boy, brightening.
"You take care of that foot now, you hear?"
The boy smiled bashfully. "Will you sign it?" he said. Cecil feigned a scowl. "I'm tired of giving out autographs," he said. "How about giving me one?" They exchanged signatures and more high-fives. "Thanks, Cece," said the boy.
A couple of nurses peered into the room. One chuckled, and the other nodded and said, "That Cecil Johnson is sweet people."