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Barry Hirstius

BRINGING THE PAIN: Former Saints LB Vaughan Johnson Was One of a Kind

"When I hit them, I like to see their eyes glaze over and roll back." Those now famous words were spoken in an 1988 interview by then-Saints starting inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson, regarding his knack for delivering bone-crunching hits --- as a member of the legendary "Dome Patrol" defense during the late 1980's and early 1990's.

But long before Johnson was "bringing the pain" to opposing ball-carriers in the NFL, he first had to take an interesting path to NFL stardom from some humble and unassuming roots that were firmly entrenched in his beloved hometown, inside a region that's known among locals as "Coastal Carolina".

Morehead City, in Carteret County, North Carolina, to be exact.

In this seaside resort of almost 9,000 people, light commercial fishing, sport fishing and scuba diving are among just a handful of the local past times for a community that thrives on its close relationship with the tourist industry; thanks to its close physical proximity to the Gulf Stream --- a powerful, warm and swift Atlantic Ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida and flows up the coastline of the eastern United States, which has turned this North Carolina coastal town into a vacationer's paradise.

Morehead City, North Carolina (Photo courtesy of The Associated Press)

It's also in Morehead City where some 40 plus years ago, a high school football player emerged to become one of this community's legendary hometown heroes; after his hard-hitting style of play made him one of the sport's most feared and well-respected defensive players.

That player's name was Vaughan Johnson, whose 6-foot-3, 235 pound frame made him a man among boys at only 16 years old.

The former West Carteret High School Patriots linebacker was a prep superstar, earning All-Conference and All-State recognition; and his unique and bone-jarring tackling style caught the eye of then-North Carolina State head coach Monte Kiffin.

Kiffin recruited Johnson and brought him to N.C. State; and it was under Kiffin's tutelage along with additional guidance from linebackers coach Greg Robinson (whom Johnson credits for helping him further develop his hard-hitting style of play) that would allow Johnson to become All-Atlantic Coast Conference and a 2-time AP All-American at inside linebacker for the Wolfpack.

When the upstart United States Football League (USFL) held its 1984 Draft in January of that year, Johnson bypassed an opportunity to play in the NFL to join the USFL team that had drafted him: the brand new USFL expansion team, the Jacksonville Bulls.

Johnson told Carteret County News-Times staff writer J.J. Smith in an interview a few years ago that he actually could have ended up instead with the Dallas Cowboys.

“In my senior year at State, I had (Dallas Cowboys coach) Tom Landry writing me handwritten letters, asking me not go to the USFL,” said Johnson. “He said Dallas was going to take me in the first round. That was a big-time thing to have Tom Landry writing you letters. They came just about every week.

“But I was young, and I didn’t know any better. And Florida was a big attraction to me. At least I knew where I was going to go. I didn’t want to go somewhere where I didn’t want to be. If I went in the NFL Draft, there was no guarantee I would have went to Dallas. I could have ended up in Green Bay, freezing to death with a bad team.”

But while all of this was going on, the NFL held a draft for college seniors who had already signed with either the USFL or the Canadian Football League on June 5, 1984, in New York City in an attempt to head off a bidding war in its own ranks for USFL and CFL players.

28 NFL teams (before they expanded to 32) chose 84 players from 224 available during the three-round selection meeting. The draft was for players who would have been eligible for the regular 1984 NFL draft, but who had already signed a contract with either a team from the USFL or CFL prior to the regular 1984 NFL Draft.

The draft was implemented primarily with the fledgling USFL in mind. The owners wanted to ensure there would not be a large influx of free agent talent in case the USFL suddenly collapsed --- which is exactly what happened after the League completed its 3rd season in the summer of 1985.

Then-New Jersey Generals owner Donald J. Trump, now currently the 45th President of the United States of America, essentially drove the USFL straight into the ground --- after he pushed his fellow owners to move the League's games from the Spring to the Fall and compete directly against the NFL "head-to-head"

Photo courtesy of David Pickoff, The Associated Press

It was a move that Trump and the rest of the USFL owners would live to regret -- especially since they had slowly began to develop a loyal following from fans who enjoyed watching games be played in the Spring, and were enthusiastic about the idea of having Pro Football become a year-round sport.

As Sports Illustrated writer Tim Rohan noted in an article last year: in conjunction with their move to the Fall, the USFL filed a $1.69 billion antitrust lawsuit against the NFL— another strategic decision Trump supported—arguing that the NFL was using its influence to persuade the three major networks not to broadcast the USFL. A jury ruled that while the NFL did indeed have a monopoly on pro football, it had not interfered with the USFL’s TV deals. The jury awarded the upstart league $3 in damages—$3.76, with interest.

Translation: Trump tried to beat the NFL at its own game --- and failed miserably. Trump was humiliated, and the USFL ceased to exist; leaving Vaughan Johnson unemployed.

Fortunately for Johnson, he had been one of those players taken in that 1984 supplemental draft of USFL and CFL players, when he was selected with the 15th overall pick by then-Saints head coach Bum Phillips; who was well aware of Johnson's linebacking prowess from his 2 All-American seasons at North Carolina State.

The Saints would retain Johnson's rights; and when the USFL folded, it was then brand new Saints head coach Jim Mora -- who himself had been the USFL's most successful head coach with the Baltimore Stars -- that brought Johnson on board to be one of his starting linebackers in time for the 1986 NFL season.

In a strange sort of way you could say that Donald Trump, who would 30 years later go on to become President, was indirectly responsible for the birth of the Saints "Dome Patrol Era" by running the USFL right out of business.

And of course, as they say: "the rest is history".

History for the former Saints All-Pro linebacker will be made once again in 2 weeks from now, when Johnson will be inducted to the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame on August 5th at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

It's the 3rd such honor for Johnson, who also is a member of the Saints Hall of Fame (2000) and the Louisiana Hall of Fame (2011).

For Johnson, it's yet another reminder of a period in his life that he continues to look back on with fondness.

However, when Johnson first got to New Orleans, the franchise was still struggling.

The Saints finished 5-11 in 1985, and the team's former head coach Bum Phillips had resigned with 4 weeks still left to go in the season. Johnson and his new teammates, along with the new coaching staff and front office personnel, faced an uncertain future upon their arrival in NOLA.

“It was unreal,” Johnson told Smith in that same interview from a few years ago. “When I first got there, the fans had worn bags on their heads a few years before that (the infamous 1-15 season of 1980) and the team was referred to as the 'Aint’s'. But we had a lot of success.”

Upon Johnson's arrival in time for the start of that 1986 season, the Saints franchise at that time had never posted a winning season in its first 20 years.

But --- following Johnson and his new teammates and staff's arrival, they never had a losing season in an eight-year period, spanning from Johnson’s second year (the 12-3 season of 1987) to the end of his New Orleans career in 1993.

While his "Dome Patrol" teammates got most of the accolades and awards, Johnson got a reputation among offensive players League-wide for his tenacious hitting style, which often left opponents battered and bruised.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

"I don't know if there was anybody who hit harder," said former head coach Jim Mora in a recent interview. "But he hit with some impact. He combined that size and strength and speed, and when he hit somebody, they felt it."

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

"Vaughan was equally as good as those other three guys that most of the publicity and attention went to," Mora said. "Rickey and Pat were great players, but those two guys were playing a position where they were able to sack the quarterback. When you sack the quarterback, you acquire a lot of focus and media attention. They were great players, as was Sam, who called all our defensive plays and was a team leader.

"But Vaughan was just as good as the other three. I mean, physically, he might have been as gifted as any of them. He was big. He was strong. He was fast. He was tough. He was good against the run, good against the pass. A heck of a player. He was a big reason for the success of our defensive team during the years he played."

Johnson left the Saints in Free Agency in 1994, after his All-Pro teammate and original 1981 Saints draft pick Rickey Jackson left first --- when Jackson signed with the San Francisco 49ers in the hopes of winning a Super Bowl ring. Jackson would get his ring after that 1994 season, when the 49ers destroyed the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

As for Johnson, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and played one season, before he decided to hang up the cleats for good.

In the interview with Smith, Johnson reflected on the notion that the Saints during that "Dome Patrol Era" were good enough to have won a Super Bowl, but just couldn't seem to "get over the hump".

The Saints had the misfortune in those days of being in the same division (the NFC West) as the 49ers, who at that time were in the midst of their 1980's dynasty, when they won a total of 4 Super Bowls (1981, 1984, 1988, and 1989).

It's probably what inspired Jackson to make his "if you can't beat them, might as well join them" move to San Francisco in that 1994 Free Agency signing period.

Johnson and his "Dome Patrol Era" teammates were very successful during his time in New Orleans, but yet the team went 0-4 in the NFL Playoffs --- losing all four Wild Card playoff game in four trips to the postseason (1987 vs. Minnesota, 1990 vs. Chicago, 1991 vs. Atlanta, and 1992 vs. Philadelphia --- the game that most Saints historians consider the unofficial end of the "Dome Patrol Era").

“I know how difficult it is to get to a Super Bowl,” Johnson said. “You can’t be satisfied with just getting to the Playoffs."

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

"We had some really good teams, and we thought we could get there. We won 12 games twice and won nine games in a row during one of those seasons. We started out 7-1 one year and 9-1 in another. But we just didn’t have the offense.

"If you want to get to the Super Bowl, you have to have the full package. When we made the playoffs those years, we realized you have to be a complete team to advance.”

Johnson, along with his "Dome Patrol" teammates Jackson, the late Sam Mills (who passed away in 2005) and Pat Swilling led the Saints defense to a Top 5 ranking in 1987 and 1988 and completely "shut down" NFL offenses in 1991 and 1992, leading the league in both fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Jackson made the Pro Bowl a total of 6 times, two of them prior to 1986; while Swilling, Mills and Johnson, who led the team in tackles three times and finished second twice, each made 4 total appearances.

Following the 1992 season, the entire starting "Dome Patrol" linebacker unit received the ultimate honor --- when Johnson, Jackson, Mills and Swilling were all named starters for the NFC in the Pro Bowl; to give the Saints an NFL-record 4 linebackers starting in the annual all-star event, which at that time was still based in Honolulu.

“And to this day, that hasn’t been done since,” Johnson said. "I don’t think it will ever be repeated either. We knew when we were over in Hawaii that it was something special. I take pride in playing with those guys and on those teams.”

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Now as the 55-year old Johnson prepares to win a 3rd different award from the local sports organizations who fondly remember the impact that he and his teammates made during that unforgettable Era, he's always been well aware of the unbridled passion and unwavering loyalty and devotion of Saints fans --- a.k.a., the "Who Dat Nation".

“The fans are unreal,” said Johnson. “We were the only show in town for awhile — now they have the Pelicans (NBA basketball) — and it isn’t much of a college sports town. Tulane hasn’t been that successful, and people love LSU, but it isn’t "in" New Orleans.

"So most sports fans down there (specifically in NOLA) put all their stock in the Saints. They take it extremely seriously.”

Johnson told Smith in the interview that he was made aware of just how seriously fans take their Saints football after arriving in New Orleans.

“They are very knowledgeable fans,” he said. “They know their football. When they saw you on the street, they would come up to you and tell you what you did on certain plays and certain downs. It's something they take seriously."

Photo courtesy of Ken Trahan

So what is Johnson up to now these days, in the summer of 2017?

Johnson is back living in his native "Coastal Carolina" where he grew up, and back residing in his hometown of Morehead City. He is a successful businessman, and has owned Concrete Curbing Express in Morehead City -- the family construction business originally founded by his father -- for the past 23 years.

And the question that most Saints fans -- especially the "older" Saints fans who remember the "Dome Patrol Era" with great reverence -- want to know:  

Does he still support and cheer for the Saints?

“I go back and visit and try to catch two or three games a year,” he said. “I still have friends there that I go and see and hang out with, and when they come to Charlotte to play the Panthers every year, I go to that game. And I’ve got the NFL Sunday Ticket on the satellite, so I make sure I watch them whenever I can."

"The New Orleans Saints. That’s my team.”

Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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