When you wind up breaking the Southern Illinois career passing record held by the legendary Jim Hart and lead your team to the national championship, how many people would guess you nearly gave it all up and walked away before it began?
Yet, that’s precisely what happened to Rick Johnson.
Johnson came from a long line of star quarterbacks at Wheaton North High School.
“I was the starter when a guy named Chuck Long was a sophomore,” Johnson said years later. “Kent Graham came along after us.”
Long, of course, later finished as the runner-up to Bo Jackson in the closest Heisman trophy race in history. After originally signing with Notre Dame, Graham transferred to Ohio State and later played in the NFL.
“There were three schools recruiting me,” Johnson recalled. “Oklahoma State, Indiana State and Southern Illinois.”
Johnson most likely would have gone to Oklahoma State, but the entire staff got fired.
“Jimmy Johnson, who later coached at Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys, came in and he didn’t recruit me,” Rick Johnson said.
That left rivals Indiana State and Southern to battle over the quarterback. SIU won out due to the strong-armed tactics of head coach Ray Dempsey.
“He basically said, ‘Why would you consider going anywhere else when I’ve recruited you?’” Johnson said.
Was this the right choice?
However, after signing with the Salukis, Johnson soon regretted his decision.
“I thought it was a huge mistake at first,” he explained. “I wasn’t even the best player on my high school team, but I was pretty good. To go from that to being a peon was tough.”
Dempsey made it even tougher.
“Coach Dempsey ran things much like the military in that he would break people down first and then build them back up,” Johnson said.
Johnson almost immediately called his father with his concerns.
“My dad was always supportive. He didn’t push me one way or another,” Johnson said. “The decision was mine.”
For a time, he considered going to Northern Illinois.
“Two of the guys from my high school team were there,” he said. “But the Northern coaches weren’t really interested.”
Johnson spent his freshman year on the scout team. He vividly recalls running a bootleg and throwing an incomplete pass in practice.
“The defensive coordinator was screaming at me,” Johnson said. “He had helped to recruit me. Anyway, he was yelling that he couldn’t believe he ever saw anything in me on film. He said, ‘You ain’t got it!’”
Thoughts of quitting ran through Johnson’s mind, but he kept those to himself.
“If the coaching staff knew, they probably would have encouraged me to do so,” he said.
Back on track
Despite the rough start, things began to turn during his sophomore year. While the Salukis were struggling on the field, the SIU coaching staff was banking on another sophomore named Arthur Williams for the future.
“There were two seniors (at quarterback), but one got hurt,” Johnson said. “They had Arthur Williams on the shelf. He was the future.”
Though Johnson got three starts down the stretch of a losing Saluki season his sophomore year, the quarterback battle was set for spring ball.
“Arthur and I went toe-to-toe,” Johnson said. “Coach Dempsey wanted it that way. He put tremendous pressure on us. One day, Arthur snapped and ran off the practice field. To this day, I’ve never seen a guy throw better than Arthur Williams.”
Strong arm or not, Williams was gone from the Saluki roster. Rick Johnson was in as the SIU starting quarterback.
“The last two years were more like I envisioned it,” he said. “I was given more freedom. I was able to call plays. Coach Dempsey was now building me up.”
This continued no matter the circumstances.
“I developed this bad habit after throwing an interception of getting down on myself,” Johnson said. “One day, Coach Dempsey runs up to me and yells, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ I liked that.”
Not only didn’t Johnson worry about the interceptions, there were fewer of them to be concerned with.
“I had confidence,” he said simply.
That confidence ballooned in 1983, the season SIU captured the Division I-AA national championship.
While the Saluki offense finished the year averaging nearly 33 points per game, Johnson singled out the defense as a major factor in SIU’s title.
“They really gave us good field position to work with nearly every possession,” he noted.
Nat'l championship & beyond
In the national championship game, Johnson and the Salukis overwhelmed Western Carolina 43-7. Johnson went 19-for-25 for 213 yards and two touchdowns in the title game rout.
In the fourth quarter, there was a timeout for an injury.
“It dawned on me all of the sudden, we’re national champions!” Johnson said.
During his collegiate career, Johnson broke the all-time SIU record for passing yards by moving past a mark by Hart that had stood since the 1960s.
“Jim Hart was one of my heroes,” Johnson said. “I had his NFL posters all over my dorm room. It really meant a lot to me.”
When Johnson moved past Hart and into the SIU record book, the former Saluki great was on hand for the milestone.
“They stopped the game and he handed me the game ball,” Johnson said.
Johnson finished his SIU career with 5,804 yards. The mark stood for 22 years until Joel Sambursky passed it in 2005.
Johnson found his way into training camp with the Oklahoma Outlaws of the United States Football League.
“It was a two-day mini-camp of just quarterbacks and wide receivers,” Johnson said. “I was one of 11 quarterbacks.”
With starter and former NFL veteran Doug Williams fully entrenched as the starter, the remaining 10 were left to compete with each other.
“We were lined up to throw passes to the receivers,” Johnson said. “Well, I started jumping in and throwing every third one. The other quarterbacks were getting ticked, but I figured that was my shot.”
Johnson’s brash move paid off. He wound up landing the job as Williams’ backup.
“I got something like $40,000 and maybe a $5,000 or $10,000 bonus. That was pretty good money coming out of college,” he said.
When Williams went down with injuries, Johnson got four starts over the course of the next two USFL seasons. Next up was the NFL supplemental draft of USFL players.
“I was taken in the second round by the (Los Angeles) Rams. I think I was the second quarterback taken after Steve Young,” he said.
The Rams, meanwhile, offered Johnson less money than he’d been making in the USFL. With five quarterbacks already on the Rams’ roster, Johnson saw the handwriting on the wall.
"They all had NFL experience,” he said. “I tried to go back to the Outlaws, but their player personnel guy had been with the Rams. He knew what was going on. So, they pulled their original offer. They offered me less than the Rams were willing to give. I had lost all my leverage.”
Then, an offer came from the Canadian Football League. Bud Riley, the father of Oregon State head coach Mike Riley, called.
"He was with Calgary at the time,” Johnson said. “He told me they were 0-4 and to come up and finish out the season there.”
Johnson wound up staying five seasons in the CFL.
“My second year up there was a gas,” Johnson said. “I got to call my own plays. I had great wide receivers. I threw for over 4,300 yards. I played a bit like Brett Favre. I’d get back and wing it. Sure, I threw interceptions, but it was the most fun I had.”
That 1986 season saw Johnson lead the CFL in passes (604), completions (302) and yards (4,379). He also threw 31 TD passes and was named to both the West and All-Canadian All-Star teams.
Unfortunately, injuries soon began to hamper Johnson’s play. In fact, he briefly lost feeling in his arm after the ‘86 season. The remainder of his CFL career was injury riddled. Johnson noted that he suffered eight concussions.
“When your arm hurts that’s one thing, but when you’re talking about your brain, that’s a whole different situation,” he said.
Yet, Johnson did return to Los Angeles in 1990 for one more shot with the Rams. There, he was reunited with Long, his former high school teammate.
“That was the year Jim Everett took the Rams to the NFC championship game against the 49ers,” Johnson said. “But, many people will tell you that they’d have been better off with Chuck Long.
“The NFL is not much on coaching technique. It’s more about scheming. Jim Everett threw off his back foot all season long.”
Football soon ended for Johnson, a prospect he wasn’t prepared for.
"One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take my studies very seriously,” he said. “It was all about football. I knew that I didn’t want to be a coach.”
Johnson then came up with an idea.
You ought to be in pictures
“I’d always loved movies,” he said. “I go see a movie and then go back and see it again and again. I’d watch the actors. I’d watch the camera angles and directions. I’d look at things from all the different aspects of the movie industry.”
Johnson signed up for an acting class. The bug bit him hard.
"I knew this is what I wanted to do,” he said.
Johnson appeared in bit parts on both TV and in the movies, including roles in the football flicks Jerry Maguire and Any Given Sunday.
He also began directing and producing. In 2001, Johnson directed a movie called Rustin.
“It’s very loosely based on my own life,” he said. “It’s about a former player who has to grow up and change his ways.”
Though the movie was well received by critics and was honored by The Method Fest Independent Film Festival, it didn’t do well at the box office.
“The movie business is tough,” Johnson said.
While seeking funding for his second movie venture, Johnson decided to take a job with First Trust Portfolios.
“I was kind of hesitant because it signaled the end of my film career,” Johnson said. “But, for the first time, I had a consistent, steady paycheck.
“I make financial presentations,” he said. “That satisfies the performance bug for me.”
And Rick Johnson, national championship quarterback, knows a little something about performing.