To be an outstanding linebacker in the NFL, you need to be successful in several different areas, including tackling, sacking, intercepting passes, forcing fumbles, and recovering fumbles.
Mike Johnson displayed such versatile success during his eight seasons at linebacker for the Cleveland Browns from 1986 to 1993.
Johnson earned Pro Bowl, All-Conference, AFC Defensive Player of the Week, and AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors and helped the Browns win three division titles and advance to three AFC championship games.
— Downtown Browns (@DowntownBrowns_) July 13, 2020
We take a look at the life of Mike Johnson – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Michael Connan Johnson was born on November 26, 1962 in Southport, North Carolina.
Johnson was an only child.
When he was five years old, he decided he wanted to play pro football.
Johnson grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Prince George’s County in Maryland.
Prince George’s County borders the eastern portion of Washington, D.C.
Although Johnson grew up in the Washington area, and his family supported the Washington Redskins, Johnson grew up as a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.
Johnson said in 1988:
“I’ve always been the argumentative type, the person who loves to do the opposite of what everybody else does. Yeah, I’ve taken a lot of heat over it. But it’s no fun just going along with everybody else.”
Johnson attended DeMatha Catholic High School, graduating in 1980.
DeMatha Catholic High School is located in Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
DeMatha Catholic High School has produced many future pro football and pro basketball players.
Johnson starred in football at DeMatha Catholic High School.
He also graduated in the top 15% of his high school class.
Johnson was offered full academic scholarships by such excellent academic schools as Brown University and Carnegie Mellon University.
However, Johnson wanted to attend a school where he could both play major college football and study his academic interest – architecture.
After seriously considering University of Pittsburgh, Johnson ultimately decided to attend Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Johnson lettered in football for four years at Virginia Tech in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983.
In 1980, Johnson was primarily a backup linebacker for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech had an 8-4 record in 1980, including a 20-10 loss to Miami (Florida) in the Peach Bowl on January 2, 1981.
Johnson contributed to the Hokies defense ranking fifth in the nation out of 138 teams in 1980, allowing an average of only 10.8 points per game (including holding seven opponents to seven or fewer points).
Johnson became a starter at linebacker for the Hokies in 1981.
He tied for the team lead with four interceptions in 1981.
He returned those interceptions for 75 yards, including a 55-yard interception return.
In 1981, Virginia Tech posted a 7-4 record.
Johnson helped the Hokies defense rank sixth in the nation out of 137 teams in 1981, allowing an average of only 11.6 points per game (including holding four opponents to six or fewer points).
Johnson again was a starter at linebacker in 1982.
He tied a Virginia Tech record with 15 assisted tackles in a 14-8 loss to Miami (Florida) on September 18, 1982.
In 1982, Johnson led Virginia Tech with 148 tackles.
He also intercepted three passes, which he returned for 85 yards and one touchdown, in 1982.
For his play in 1982, Johnson was selected by the Associated Press as an Honorable Mention All-American.
He also was selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America as a second team Academic All-American in 1982.
The Hokies had a 7-4 record in 1982.
With Johnson at linebacker, the Virginia Tech defense ranked seventh in the nation out of 113 teams in 1982, allowing an average of only 12.8 points per game (including holding five opponents to nine or fewer points).
In 1983, Johnson again was a starter at linebacker.
Johnson tied for the team lead with four interceptions, which he returned for 13 yards, in 1983.
He also led the Hokies with 135 tackles in 1983.
Johnson again was selected by the Associated Press as an Honorable Mention All-American in 1983.
Virginia Tech posted a 9-2 record in 1983.
With four shutouts in 1983 (28-0 over Virginia Military Institute on September 24, 1983, 31-0 over Louisville on October 1, 1983, 38-0 over Richmond on October 22, 1983, and 48-0 over Virginia on November 19, 1983), Johnson’s play helped the Hokies defense rank first in the nation out of 112 teams in 1983, allowing an average of only 8.3 points per game.
Over his four-year career at Virginia Tech, Johnson made 429 tackles.
After four years and two pro football off-seasons, Johnson earned an architecture degree from Virginia Tech.
The Pro Football Years
The United States Football League (USFL) began play in 1983 as a competitor to the NFL.
In the second USFL Territorial Draft on January 4, 1984, Johnson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Maulers.
The Maulers traded Johnson to the Philadelphia Stars, and Johnson played his rookie professional football season in 1984 with the Stars.
In 1984, Johnson had two sacks.
Philadelphia had a 16-2 regular season record and won the USFL Atlantic Division title in 1984.
Johnson contributed to the Stars defense ranking first in the 1984 USFL regular season in fewest points allowed (225).
In the 1984 USFL playoffs, Philadelphia won three games to win the 1984 USFL championship.
Johnson was part of a Stars defense that held its three playoff opponents to only 20 total points, including a 23-3 Stars victory over the Arizona Wranglers in the 1984 USFL championship game on July 15, 1984.
In 1985, the Stars moved their franchise from Philadelphia to Baltimore.
Johnson had two interceptions, which he returned for 29 yards and a 19-yard touchdown, and three-and-one-half sacks, in 1985.
Baltimore posted a 10-7-1 record, which was sufficient to make the USFL playoffs, in 1985.
Johnson again contributed to the Stars defense ranking first in the 1985 USFL regular season in fewest points allowed (260).
The Stars repeated as USFL champions in 1985.
Baltimore won three playoff games, including a 28-24 victory over the Oakland Invaders in the 1985 USFL championship game on July 14, 1985.
The USFL folded after the 1985 season.
Based on a June 5, 1984 NFL supplemental draft of USFL and Canadian Football League players, the Cleveland Browns held the NFL rights to Johnson.
He had been selected by Cleveland in the first round of this 1984 supplemental draft, as the 18th overall pick.
Johnson (playing at a height of six feet and one inch and at a weight of 230 pounds) joined the Browns for the 1986 season.
He played in all 16, but did not start any, regular season games for Cleveland in 1986.
In the 1986 regular season, Johnson forced three fumbles and recovered two fumbles.
In addition, he made 56 tackles.
The Browns, with a 12-4 record, won the AFC Central Division title in 1986.
Johnson contributed to the Cleveland defense ranking in the 1986 NFL regular season tied for second in recovered fumbles (19).
Cleveland advanced to play the New York Jets in a divisional round playoff game on January 3, 1987.
While Johnson did not start the game, he had a sack (one of nine sacks for Cleveland), as the Browns defeated the New York Jets 23-20 in double overtime.
The following week, on January 11, 1987, Cleveland met the Denver Broncos in the 1986 AFC championship game.
Johnson did not start the game, and the Browns lost to Denver 23-20.
Johnson became more of a regular starter in 1987, as he played in 11, and started 10, regular season games at right inside linebacker.
Because of a players’ strike that reduced the regular season to 15 games, and the related general use of “replacement” players in three games, most Browns players played in a maximum of 12 regular season games in 1987.
On September 20, 1987, Johnson had his first NFL regular season interception, which he returned for three yards, in a 34-10 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns had four sacks and forced six Steelers turnovers.
In the 1987 regular season, Johnson also forced three fumbles, recovered one fumble, and made 98 tackles.
After the 1987 regular season, Johnson received favorable comments.
Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer said:
“Last season, Mike didn’t get to camp until the USFL settlement was well over. But we expected him to be a fine inside linebacker. We had him highly rated from the beginning.”
Cleveland linebacker Eddie Johnson stated:
“For a guy to come in from the run-and-shoot that teams played in the USFL, to play well almost right away in the NFL, where intellect and mental preparation are such a big part, is really an accomplishment.”
The Browns had a 10-5 record and again won the AFC Central Division title in 1987.
Johnson helped the Cleveland defense rank in the 1987 NFL regular season second in fewest points allowed (239), third in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4,264), eighth in fewest passing yards allowed (2,831), tied for sixth in defensive interceptions (23), second in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,433), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.6).
On January 9, 1988, Cleveland met the Indianapolis Colts in a divisional round playoff game.
Johnson started the game, and the Browns defeated the Colts 38-21.
The following week, on January 17, 1988, in the 1987 AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos, Johnson again started the game, but Cleveland lost to Denver 38-33.
Johnson became a full-time starter in 1988, starting all 16 regular season games at left inside linebacker and right inside linebacker.
In the 1988 regular season, Johnson also forced one fumble and made 132 tackles.
The Browns earned a wildcard playoff berth, with a 10-6 record, in 1988.
Johnson’s play helped the Cleveland defense rank in the 1988 NFL regular season sixth in fewest points allowed (288), sixth in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4,767), and sixth in fewest passing yards allowed (2,847).
On December 24, 1988, Cleveland, in its wildcard playoff game, played the Houston Oilers.
Johnson started the game and had a sack of Warren Moon, but the Browns (despite forcing three Oilers turnovers) lost to Houston 24-23.
In 1989, Johnson again started all 16 regular season games.
First day of Browns minicamp – 1988. Coach Belichick, my dad, Clay Matthews, and Mike Johnson.
I guess Coach hadn’t yet found his love for hoodies with the sleeves cut off…
— Jennifer Matthews (@JennMatthews57) May 18, 2021
As the Browns changed from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense, Johnson played at middle linebacker in 1989.
For his play in September, 1989, Johnson was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month.
— Jennifer Matthews (@JennMatthews57) April 8, 2020
Johnson also forced three fumbles, had one sack, and made 133 tackles, in the 1989 regular season.
In 1989, Johnson received his first Pro Bowl invitation.
He also was named first team All-Conference by both United Press International and Pro Football Weekly.
The Browns had a 9-6-1 record and won the AFC Central Division title in 1989.
With Johnson at middle linebacker, the Cleveland defense ranked in the 1989 NFL regular season fourth in fewest points allowed (254), seventh in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4,831), tied for eighth in recovered turnovers (38), tied for second in defensive interceptions (27), seventh in sacks (45), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.7).
On January 6, 1990, Cleveland met the Buffalo Bills in a divisional round playoff game.
Johnson started the game and helped the Browns defense hold the Bills to only 49 rushing yards on 18 rushing attempts and force three Buffalo turnovers, in a 34-30 Cleveland win over the Bills.
The following week, on January 14, 1990, in the 1989 AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos, Johnson again started the game, but Cleveland lost to the Broncos 37-21.
In 1990, Johnson played in all 16, and started 15, regular season games at middle linebacker.
Johnson scored his first NFL regular season touchdown on a 64-yard interception return of a pass by San Diego Chargers quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, in a 24-14 Cleveland loss to the Chargers on September 23, 1990.
Johnson also forced three fumbles and made 161 tackles in the 1990 regular season.
In 1990, Johnson received his second Pro Bowl invitation.
The Browns had a 3-13 record in 1990.
In 1991, Johnson broke his foot and played in only five, and started only four, regular season games.
Johnson intercepted one pass, forced one fumble, and made 37 tackles, in the 1991 regular season.
Cleveland posted a 6-10 record in 1991.
Johnson contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the 1991 NFL regular season tied for seventh in recovered fumbles (18).
Johnson recovered from his foot injury and started all 16 regular season games at middle linebacker in 1992.
For his play in October, 1992, Johnson was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for the second time in his career.
On December 6, 1992, Johnson scored his second NFL regular season touchdown, on a fumble recovery in the end zone, as the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 37-21.
The Browns had four sacks.
Johnson recovered five fumbles (which ranked tied for third in the NFL) in the 1992 regular season.
He also had an interception, forced four fumbles, and made 176 tackles (which ranked second in the NFL).
In 1992, the Browns posted a 7-9 record.
Johnson’s play helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the 1992 NFL regular season, tied for second in recovered fumbles (20), eighth in sacks (48), tied for seventh in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,605), and tied for fourth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.7).
Johnson again started all 16 regular season games at middle linebacker in 1993.
In the 1993 regular season, Johnson had four sacks and one interception.
He also forced two fumbles and made 181 tackles (which ranked fourth in the NFL).
Cleveland again posted a 7-9 record in 1993.
With Johnson at linebacker, the Browns defense ranked in the 1993 NFL regular season third in sacks (48) and tied for eighth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt (3.7).
After the 1993 season, Johnson signed as a free agent with the Detroit Lions.
He played in Detroit for two seasons.
In 1994, Johnson started all 16 regular season games at right inside linebacker.
Johnson had one interception (which he returned for a 48-yard touchdown), one-and-a-half sacks, and one fumble recovery, in the 1994 regular season.
He also forced four fumbles (which ranked tied for fourth in the NFL) and made 134 tackles (92 solo).
In 1995, Johnson started all 16 regular season games at right linebacker.
Johnson had two interceptions (which he returned for 23 yards), two sacks, and four fumble recoveries (which he returned for six yards), in the 1995 regular season.
In addition, he forced two fumbles and made 116 tackles (80 solo).
With Johnson as a linebacker, the Lions (with a 9-7 record in 1994 and a 10-6 record in 1995) earned wildcard playoff berths in 1994 and 1995.
1995 was Johnson’s last season in the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Johnson was married to Deidre.
In 1994, Johnson was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
He was also named an “ACC Football Legend” in 2011.
In 2017, Johnson was inducted into the DeMatha Hall of Fame.
During his eight seasons with Cleveland, Johnson was a versatile linebacker, as he contributed to the Browns in many different areas.
Johnson ranks second in Cleveland career regular season tackles (974), tied for 31st in Cleveland career regular season sacks (11), tied for 43rd in Cleveland career regular season interceptions (10), 38th in Cleveland career regular season interception return yards (146), second in Cleveland career regular season forced fumbles (20), and tied for 33rd in recovered fumbles (8).
Underappreciated Browns player thread. Who you got?
Mine👇 Mike Johnson pic.twitter.com/U0j2IoMzU4
— Addicted to Helmets (@addicted2helmet) December 15, 2020
He also displayed versatility by accumulating his statistics for Cleveland at three different linebacker positions – right inside linebacker, left inside linebacker, and middle linebacker.
Johnson’s versatile production resulted in both individual success and team success.
As an individual, Johnson earned Pro Bowl, All-Conference, AFC Defensive Player of the Week, and AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors.
In terms of the team, during his first four seasons with Cleveland from 1986 to 1989, Johnson’s play contributed to the Browns compiling an aggregate regular season and playoff record of 44-25-1, earning four playoff berths, winning three AFC Central Division titles and three playoff games, and advancing to three AFC championship games.
In addition, with Johnson at linebacker, Cleveland ranked in the top eight in the NFL regular season in various defensive statistical categories in Johnson’s eight seasons with Cleveland from 1986 to 1993.
Johnson’s contribution to team success is also evidenced by his teams (the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and the Detroit Lions) making the playoffs in each of his four, and winning championships in two of his four, “non-Cleveland Browns” professional football seasons.
The importance of the team to Johnson is apparent from his following statements:
“One of the big components to being a good player is knowing what everybody else on the field is supposed to be doing. We’re 11 different pieces that need to come together in a whole. In order for something good to happen, we all have to come together with some harmony.”
As an outstanding linebacker for eight seasons with the team, Mike Johnson helped bring “harmony” and success to the Cleveland Browns defense.