IN CASE you were wondering whatever happened to LeShon Johnson,
projected as the Packers' breakaway threat of the future when he
was drafted in 1994, he's recovering from a torn anterior
cruciate ligament injury in his left knee. He has also gone to
the dogs. Literally. He keeps 18 of them at the house outside
Green Bay that he shares with fellow running back Travis Jervey.

"When I'm with my dogs, I'm happy," Johnson says. "If somebody
calls, I tell Travis to say I'm busy. I love my dogs. They make
me forget about my knee and playing time."

It should be noted that these are not just any old mutts. These
are pit bulls, the blitzing linebackers of dogdom. Everybody has
heard tales about pit bulls who have attacked, even killed,
humans. "They're not really mean," says Johnson, defensively.
"Anybody can pet my dogs, and all they'll do is roll around on
the ground."

Johnson knows mean. As a kid he dreamed of being a rodeo cowboy
because of his admiration for his father, Luther, who spent 23
years as a professional bullrider. LeShon rode bulls in amateur
rodeos until he was in junior college, when his football coach
at Northeastern Oklahoma decided the hobby wasn't such a good
one. It remains something that he might pursue when his NFL days
are over. "I miss it," Johnson says, "even though you can get
beat up just like you do in football. I've had a bull step on
me. That's scarier than getting tackled."

It was Johnson who did most of the trampling during his two
seasons at Northern Illinois. As a senior in 1993 he led the
NCAA in rushing with 1,976 yards. His two-year average of 150.5
yards per game ranks fourth on the alltime career list--behind
the marks of Ed Marinaro, O.J. Simpson and Herschel Walker. Yet
although he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, higher
than any running back except Marshall Faulk, Johnson was the
13th running back, and the 84th player, picked in the 1994 draft.

The questions that diminished his draft value--could he
block?...catch passes?...elude tacklers in the open
field?--still exist. As a rookie he was nagged by injuries that
limited him to backup duty in 12 games. His numbers (26 carries
for 99 yards and 13 receptions for 168 more) were inconclusive.
Then he tore up his knee in a late December practice.

"My mom tells me to be patient," says Johnson, who has appeared
sparingly in two games this season. "I guess I'm like my dogs in
that I have a big heart. A 40-pound pit bull will hit a
300-pound wild pig like it's nothing. That's me. If something
gets in my way, I won't back off."

A few dog stats: LeShon has spent almost $11,000 to purchase his
pets, and he lays out about $400 a month to feed them. All but
one live in an insulated kennel--Johnson calls it the Crazy Side
Kennel--that he had built for $2,600 outside his rented home.
(Meko, the exception, lives in the house because of her
favored-pet status.) The bulls give pause not only to burglars,
which is good, but also to Johnson's friends, which can be the
pits. "My friends get scared when they hear them barking," he
says, "but then they see how friendly they are."

Johnson and Jervey wanted to bring in a tame lion to give the
dogs some company, but coach Mike Holmgren quashed that idea.
Undaunted, they then considered a monkey. "But we ditched that
when somebody told us a monkey was like having a kid around,"
Johnson says.

--W.F.R.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN The Packer back says his 18 pit bulls aren't as scary as the beasts he grew up around. [LeShon Johnson holding dogs]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)