While generally receiving less attention than defensive ends, defensive tackles are a critical component of any successful NFL defense.
Defensive tackles must control the middle of the field both to stuff and stop running plays and to collapse the pocket and pressure quarterbacks.
One of the greatest defensive tackles in Cleveland Browns history was Walter Johnson.
Over 12 years with the Browns, Johnson was invited to three Pro Bowls and played in the playoffs in six seasons (three times in the NFL championship game).
A lot of people have been asking who was the Walter Johnson who briefly appeared on Dallas wrestling cards briefly in the early 1980's.
Johnson spent the majority of his career with the Cleveland Browns, before finishing his career with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1977. pic.twitter.com/GcYOAY8QQw
— World Class Memories (@WCCWMemories) May 9, 2019
We take a look at the life of Walter Johnson – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Walter Johnson III was born on November 13, 1942 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Johnson attended Robert Taft High School in Cincinnati, graduating in 1961.
He was a star on the football, basketball, and track and field teams at Robert Taft High School.
In football, Johnson was a fullback (six feet and four inches tall and weighing 230 pounds), who helped his team win consecutive Cincinnati Public High School League (PHSL) football championships in 1960 and 1961.
Johnson played in a backfield in high school with Al Nelson, Carl Ward , and Cid Edwards – all four teammates eventually played in the NFL.
Ward played for the Cleveland Browns in 1967 and 1968.
In basketball, Johnson started on a team that won the Cincinnati PHSL basketball championship in his junior and senior years.
In track and field, Johnson, who threw the shot put and discus, helped his team win consecutive Cincinnati PHSL and S.W. Ohio District track and field championships in 1960 and 1961.
Johnson set a Cincinnati PHSL shot put record with a throw of 55 feet and 3-1/2 inches.
Johnson was highly recruited by colleges.
He ultimately decided to head to Las Cruces, New Mexico to attend New Mexico State University for college.
Johnson began playing college football at New Mexico State before transferring to California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA).
At Cal State LA, Johnson played on both offense and defense at fullback, guard, and middle linebacker.
In 1964, Cal State LA (which played its home games in the Rose Bowl) posted a 9-0 record. It outscored its opponents by a margin of 368 to 64 (an average score of approximately 41 to 7).
Cal State LA was voted the champion of the NCAA Small College division in 1964 by United Press International.
Johnson was voted first-team Little All-American at guard by the Associated Press in 1964.
He was also voted first-team Little All-Coast Conference at guard by United Press International in 1964.
He also was a unanimous selection on the All-California Collegiate Athletic Association team and received second-team University Division All-Coast honors.
In describing Johnson, Cal State LA (on Johnson’s Cal State LA Hall of Fame biography page) has stated:
“Some say [Johnson] is the finest football player Cal State L.A. has ever had.”
Johnson held the shot put record at Cal State LA, being the first person at the school to make a 50-foot throw.
After Cal State LA, Johnson moved on to professional football.
The Pro Football Years
Johnson was drafted in the second round of the 1965 NFL draft (with the 27th overall pick) by the Cleveland Browns.
He was also drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 1965 American Football League draft, but Johnson decided to play for the Browns.
While Johnson played multiple positions in college, Cleveland drafted Johnson specifically to play defensive tackle.
However, it was not intended for Johnson to be a starter at defensive tackle in 1965.
Cleveland was the defending NFL champions and returned its two starting defensive tackles from 1964 – Dick Modzelewski and Jim Kanicki – in 1965.
As a result, Johnson, as a rookie, played mostly as a backup in 1965.
He played in all 14 regular-season games, but he started only one regular-season game, in 1965.
Despite not being a starter, Johnson already made an impression on his teammates as a rookie.
His future teammate Jerry Sherk later heard and relayed the following story about Johnson:
“His strength was legendary on the team. There was a story going around that once Jim Brown called a team meeting, and he was chastising the team for their poor play. During the meeting he said, ‘And if you don’t like what I’m saying I’ll kick your ass, and I can kick anyone’s ass on the team.’ Then he looked over at Walter and said in a lower voice, ‘Except maybe for you, Walter!’”
Cleveland won the NFL East Division title with an 11-3 record in 1965.
The Browns played in the 1965 NFL championship game against the Green Bay Packers on January 2, 1966, but failed to defend their championship, losing to the Packers 23-12.
Johnson played in, but did not start, the championship game.
In 1966, based on age (he was 35) and injuries, Modzelewski saw limited playing time, and Johnson stepped up to fill Modzelewski’s position at left defensive tackle.
There were no bad feelings from Modzelewski in Johnson replacing him, as Modzelewski has called Johnson “the best defensive tackle Cleveland has ever had.”
Johnson played in all 14, and started 12, regular-season games at left defensive tackle in 1966.
He recovered one fumble.
Cleveland had a 9-5 record in 1966, but missed the playoffs.
Johnson contributed to the Browns defense in 1966 holding three opponents to less than 10 points (all Cleveland victories).
With Johnson principally at left defensive tackle, the Browns defense led the NFL in forcing turnovers (49) and intercepting passes (30) in 1966.
In 1967, Johnson cemented his position at left defensive tackle, starting all 14 regular-season games.
He recovered one fumble in 1967.
Jim Kanicki and Johnson formed a solid defensive tackle combination in the middle of Cleveland’s defensive line, generally playing together through 1969.
Johnson was recognized for his excellent play in 1967, as he received his first Pro Bowl invitation.
His success at defensive tackle was in large part attributable to two physical attributes.
First, Johnson was big and strong.
His six-foot, four-inch height and 265-pound weight gave him a muscular body that made him difficult to block.
Second, Johnson was quick.
Able to run a 100-yard dash in 10 seconds even late into his NFL career, his acceleration in chasing down offensive players earned him the nickname, “Zoom”.
In 1967, Cleveland won the NFL Century Division title with a 9-5 record.
Johnson helped the Browns defense hold two teams to single digits (both Cleveland victories), including in a 24-0 shutout of the Chicago Bears on October 22, 1967.
— Downtown Browns (@DowntownBrowns_) July 1, 2020
Cleveland played the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs, but lost 52-14 to the Cowboys on December 24, 1967.
Johnson started the playoff game at left defensive tackle.
In 1968, Johnson again started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle.
He also recovered three fumbles.
Johnson received his second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation in 1968.
He was also voted second-team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1968.
With a 10-4 record in 1968, Cleveland repeated as NFL Century Division champion.
In a 30-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on October 27, 1968, with Johnson at left defensive tackle, the Browns had eight sacks of the Falcons and forced two turnovers.
Johnson’s play helped the Browns lead the NFL in forcing turnovers (46) and intercepting passes (32) in 1968.
Cleveland again advanced to a divisional-round playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys on December 21, 1968.
Starting on a defensive line with his defensive tackle partner Kanicki, and Jack Gregory and Ron Snidow as defensive ends, Johnson earned his first NFL playoff win in a 31-20 Browns victory.
The Browns forced four Cowboys turnovers in the game.
Cleveland head coach Blanton Collier stated:
“It’s a young defensive club, but they came of age today.”
Browns quarterback Bill Nelsen added:
“I can’t say enough about that defense. When the defense gives us the ball that many times, we’re going to score some points.”
The following week, in a bid to reach the Super Bowl, Cleveland was shutout by the Baltimore Colts 34-0 in the NFL championship game on December 29, 1968 (with Johnson starting the game at right defensive tackle).
Johnson again started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle in 1969.
On October 12, 1969, in a 27-17 Cleveland win over the New Orleans Saints, Johnson scored his first NFL touchdown on a 12-yard defensive fumble return.
He had two fumble recoveries in 1969.
Johnson received his third consecutive Pro Bowl invitation in 1969.
The Browns won their third consecutive division title in 1969, winning the NFL Century Division title with a 10-3-1 record.
In 1969, Johnson helped Cleveland’s defense hold two opponents under 10 points (both Browns victories).
Cleveland ranked second in the NFL in fumble recoveries (22) in 1969.
The Browns again played the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs on December 28, 1969.
With a 38-14 Browns win over the Cowboys, Johnson (again starting on a defensive line with Kanicki, Gregory, and Snidow) had his second NFL playoff victory.
Cleveland forced three Dallas turnovers in the game.
The Browns then advanced the following week on January 4, 1970 to the NFL championship game against the Minnesota Vikings for the right to play in the Super Bowl.
However, the Browns lost to the Vikings 27-7.
Johnson started the championship game at left defensive tackle, but suffered from frostbite on the fingers on his right hand during the game.
After the 1969 season, the Browns traded Jim Kanicki to the New York Giants.
Cleveland then drafted Jerry Sherk in the 1970 NFL draft to replace Kanicki.
Johnson had to adjust to a new defensive tackle partner in 1970 with the rookie Sherk.
Sherk did not immediately establish the best rapport with Johnson, as Sherk was intimidated by Johnson.
“When I came (to) the Browns, Walter Johnson . . . was not only the guy I teamed up with at tackle, but he was the alpha male of the Browns. Guys were in awe of him, because of his strength – he could actually hurt people in practice and in the games. My first game was the first Monday Night Game ever. Each player got 4 free tickets, and I was only going to use 2. Walter knew it and asked if he could buy my other 2. I said yes and gave him the tickets. He didn’t give me the money, and I was so intimidated by him that I never asked.”
However, over time, Sherk and Johnson became to be considered one of the best defensive tackle duos during the 1970’s.
Johnson also came to appreciate playing next to Sherk.
“[Johnson] actually came up to me late in his career and said, ‘Jerry, at first you couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t believe how terrible you were. But then you got good, and so I really had to work to keep up with you’.”
In 1970, Johnson again started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle.
On October 11, 1970, Johnson scored a safety when he tackled Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter in the end zone.
The Browns went on to defeat the Bengals 30-27 in the game.
In a 21-10 Cleveland victory over the Houston Oilers on December 7, 1970, Johnson grabbed his first NFL interception (thrown by Oilers quarterback Jerry Rhome), which Johnson returned for four yards.
After three consecutive Pro Bowl invitations, Johnson failed to receive a Pro Bowl invitation in 1970.
However, Johnson’s failure to receive his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl invitation in 1970 may be more due to the quality of the competition than to any decline in Johnson’s ability.
Among the defensive tackles who made the Pro Bowl in 1970 were future Pro Football Hall of Famers Merlin Olsen from the Los Angeles Rams, Alan Page from the Minnesota Vikings, Joe Greene from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buck Buchanan from the Kansas City Chiefs, and Bob Lilly from the Dallas Cowboys.
Cleveland had a 7-7 record and failed to make the playoffs in 1970.
Johnson helped Cleveland’s defense hold three opponents to single digits in 1970, including in a 28-0 shutout of the Miami Dolphins on October 25, 1970.
In 1971, for the fifth consecutive year, Johnson started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle.
On December 12, 1971, Johnson scored his second NFL touchdown when he recovered a fumble in the end zone, in a 21-17 Browns win over the New Orleans Saints.
His touchdown ended up providing the Browns with the winning points in the game.
Both of Johnson’s touchdowns in his NFL career came on fumble recoveries against the Saints.
Johnson recovered two fumbles in 1971.
Cleveland returned to the playoffs in 1971, winning the AFC Central Division title with a 9-5 record.
Johnson helped the Browns defense in 1971 hold two teams to less than 10 points (both Cleveland victories), including in an opening game 31-0 shutout of the Houston Oilers on September 19, 1971.
Cleveland played the Baltimore Colts in a divisional-round playoff game on December 26, 1971, but the Browns were defeated by the Colts 20-3.
Johnson started the playoff game at left defensive tackle.
Johnson again started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle in 1972.
He returned two kickoffs for 33 yards in 1972.
In the final regular-season game, on December 17, 1972, Johnson intercepted his second NFL pass (intercepting Jets quarterback Bob Davis) and returned it for one yard, as Cleveland defeated the New York Jets 26-10.
Johnson also forced a fumble from Jets running back Emerson Boozer in the game.
Cleveland finished the 1972 regular season in second place in the AFC Central Division with a 10-4 record, but still made the playoffs as a “wild card” team.
Cleveland’s defense, with Johnson’s help, held two opponents to single digits in 1972 (both wins by the Browns), including in a 20-0 shutout of the Houston Oilers on November 5, 1972.
In the playoffs, the Browns played the undefeated Miami Dolphins on December 24, 1972.
The Browns (with Johnson starting the game at left defensive tackle) gave the eventual “17-0” Super Bowl champion Dolphins one of their toughest games in 1972.
Cleveland sacked Miami quarterback Earl Morrall four times, including a sack by Johnson (for a loss of nine yards), and forced two Dolphins turnovers.
Miami scored a fourth-quarter touchdown for a narrow 20-14 victory.
In 1973, Johnson again started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle.
Cleveland had a 7-5-2 record in 1973 and missed the playoffs.
On November 18, 1973, the Browns defeated the Oakland Raiders 7-3.
With Johnson at left defensive tackle, Cleveland sacked future Pro Football Hall of Fame Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler five times and limited the Raiders to only 75 “net” passing yards in the game.
For the eighth consecutive year, Johnson started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle in 1974.
He recovered one fumble in 1974.
The Browns finished the 1974 season with a 4-10 record.
— Jeff Darcy (@Darcycartoon) October 17, 2017
Johnson helped Cleveland’s defense hold two teams to less than 10 points in 1974 (both victories by the Browns), including in a 7-0 shutout of the San Francisco 49ers on December 1, 1974.
An incident at Browns training camp in 1975 showed Johnson’s strength, even when he was over the age of 30.
Doing a drill, Johnson hit the jaw of Browns rookie offensive lineman Robert E. Jackson (who weighed 255 pounds) with his padded forearm.
“He lifted me off the ground. Zoom was giving me my ‘Welcome to the NFL’ moment. . . . I popped up and we had some good battles after that.”
In 1975, Johnson played in all 14, and started 13, regular-season games at left defensive tackle.
He recovered one fumble in 1975.
Cleveland had a 3-11 record in 1975.
For the ninth time in 12 seasons with Cleveland, even though he turned 34 during the season, Johnson started all 14 regular-season games at left defensive tackle in 1976.
The Browns had a 9-5 record in 1976, but missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
In a consecutive three-game stretch, Johnson helped Cleveland’s defense hold its opponents to single digits in 1976, as the Browns defeated the Houston Oilers 21-7 on November 7, 1976, the Philadelphia Eagles 24-3 on November 14, 1976, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-7 on November 21, 1976.
After the 1976 season, Cleveland waived Johnson. He signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In 1977, Johnson played in all 14, and started two, regular-season games for the Bengals.
In Johnson playing with Cincinnati, his football career had come full circle as he had played high school football in Cincinnati.
Johnson’s teams, the Browns and the Bengals, played 182 regular-season games from 1965 to 1977.
Despite playing in the football trenches at a position frequently subject to injuries, Johnson never missed playing in each of these 182 regular-season games
After the 1977 season, Johnson retired from the NFL at the age of 35.
The Years After the NFL
After Johnson’s retirement, he continued an activity that he had started while playing in the NFL – professional wrestling.
He started wrestling in 1968.
The ref for the Sheik vs Brazil main event was Joe Louis, world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949. Preliminary wrestler, Walter Johnson, was a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns and also a pro bowler. pic.twitter.com/fkHqiPM0uX
— Gary Cappetta (@GaryCappetta) July 20, 2019
Johnson wrestled in such locations as the Akron Armory, the Cleveland Arena, and Cobo Arena in Detroit.
He would wear his number 71 football jersey to his wrestling matches.
Trained by former wrestler Johnny Powers, Johnson’s signature move was a bearhug.
Given his football background, it is not surprising that Johnson also used the flying tackle and the head slap in his wrestling.
Johnson also wrestled 600-pound bears.
“I had him in a headlock. I almost had him (pinned) when I looked down and saw his muzzle on the floor. I got out of (the cage) until the muzzle was put back on. The bear was upset because he thought he’d won.”
He continued wrestling until 1984.
After retirement, Johnson also directed an alarm security firm.
Johnson was inducted in the inaugural class of the Cal State LA Hall of Fame in 1985.
In 2008, Johnson was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
He was inducted into the Cincinnati Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014.
Johnson felt a connection to Cleveland from his career with the Browns.
“It’s as if someone went into my personal biography and took out 11 years of my life and ripped it right out of my book.”
Johnson died of a heart attack on June 29, 1999, at the age of 56.
He died just two days after the death of another great Browns player, Pro Football Hall of Famer Marion Motley.
Playing at a time when generally official sack and tackle statistics were not kept, it is difficult to measure Johnson’s specific contribution to the Browns.
Unofficially, his 58 career sacks rank third among all Cleveland players.
There is one statistic that can be confirmed about Johnson.
He played in 168 straight regular-season games for Cleveland, which ranks fourth in Browns history.
Playing every game, whether next to Jim Kanicki or Jerry Sherk, Johnson brought a dependability and consistency to the Browns defensive line from 1965 to 1976.
Browns fans would be thrilled if current Cleveland defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi can have a career as good as the career of Walter Johnson.