At first, Terrell Suggs referred to former Raven and current San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Jarret Johnson as "my brother."
Then Suggs tried to sound indifferent about seeing his former teammate on an opposing sideline.
"I might not say anything to him," said Suggs, who was drafted the same year as Johnson. "I might take a cheap shot."
But it only took Suggs' next breath for his true feelings to surface.
"I'm definitely going to give him a hug," Suggs said. "Me and Jarret, we came in the same class together , and it's been nine years — me and him. It's definitely going to be a little emotional to see him wearing a different color and playing for a different team. He'll be my opponent, and that moment will only last a minute. But he's my opponent, and when the game's over, I'll give him a hug and we're going to continue our relationship the way we have."
The affection is mutual, Johnson said in a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday less than an hour after Suggs spoke.
"We were roommates when we were rookies at our first minicamp," said Johnson, who also talks to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Paul Kruger frequently. "We've been through a lot of wars together. We're kind of polar opposites personality-wise, so it was kind of an odd mix. But I feel the same way. The experiences you go through on and off the football field are things that you'll remember forever. So he's been a very important person in my football career."
Johnson was equally significant to the Ravens throughout much of the last decade. Drafted in the fourth round out of Alabama in 2003, Johnson, 31, started every game for the organization in his last four seasons, and his streak of 129 consecutive games played was the longest in team history.
But his last season with the team may have been his quietest as he finished with 56 tackles (his fewest since being named a full-time starter in 2007), 2 1/2 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Johnson also found himself standing on the sideline during obvious passing situations when Kruger would be inserted as a pass rusher.
Still, coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens were eager to prevent Johnson, a free agent at season's end, from departing.
"We wanted all those guys back, but we definitely wanted Jarret back," Harbaugh said, referring to players like defensive end Cory Redding and left guard Ben Grubbs who also left via free agency. "It was just a decision on his part — a family decision, a financial decision. And we were happy for him."
Johnson said he would have preferred to finish his career in Baltimore but also understood that the organization wanted to see what younger players like Kruger and Albert McClellan could do.
"I kind of knew the writing on the wall going into the year — the way that Kruger was coming on, the way things were kind of working out, other guys' contracts," Johnson said. "You can't pay everybody. So I kind of expected it, and they made it pretty clear pretty early that it wasn't going to work out. I was just fortunate enough to have a team like San Diego. They were extremely interested in me."
Johnson has posted 27 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble for the Chargers, but his streak of 90 consecutive starts at linebacker ended in Sunday's 30-23 loss to the Denver Broncos when San Diego opened the game with its nickel package.
Johnson conceded that the transition from the Ravens to Chargers was more difficult than he had anticipated.
"I thought it would just be football as usual, get out and do your thing," Johnson recalled. "It was different. Training camp was pretty tough for me. But once we got into the season, I started getting a lot more comfortable."
San Diego coach Norv Turner said he has seen players take a full year to get acquainted with new teammates, coaches and schemes.
"Sometimes when you're together and you have a group together, you take some of those things for granted and then all of a sudden, it is a little bit of an adjustment," Turner said. "… But I think he made that adjustment awfully fast in terms of being ready to play, and like I said, he's played well."
Many of Johnson's former teammates with the Ravens spoke glowingly of Johnson. Running back Ray Rice revealed that Johnson sent him a text that read, "Guys, you better bring your game faces." Right guard Marshal Yanda said Johnson is "not going to go around a block, he's going to go right through it."
Johnson, who said it was "weird" watching the Ravens edge the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, said the Ravens won't pull any punches just because he is a former teammate. Nor does he expect any mercy or pity from them.
"Once we get out there, it's going to be a little bit like training camp," Johnson said. "We had a lot of live drills in training camp, and that's kind of what it's going to be like. Me and [fullback] Vonta [Leach] and Ray and [tight end] Ed Dickson and those guys, we've all gone to war in training camp, so I guess it'll be pretty similar."