Linebacker Jarret Johnson will sign a one-day contract so he can retire as a Baltimore Raven. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)
During his retirement news conference on Wednesday, former Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson recounted a punishing hit on former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward.
Four years ago, the hit on Ward took the receiver away as a throwing option and helped safety Ed Reed intercept a pass thrown by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Hines, yeah," Johnson said with a laugh. "Got him."
It was the kind of aggressive play that defined Johnson's nine years with the Ravens. Although he wasn't celebrated nationally and was never named to the Pro Bowl in a dozen NFL seasons, his hard-nosed approach was embraced by the Ravens and made him one of the most popular players in franchise history.
"Not only does he fit the term that he's a football player, but he was a tempo-setter," said general manager Ozzie Newsome, who selected Johnson in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL draft. "He set the tempo in our locker room. He set the tempo in the classroom. He set the tempo out on the practice field, and he definitely set the tempo on Sundays when we would be playing games.
"He played like a Raven. To have a guy like J.J. that is the poster child for playing like a Raven, that's just as gratifying as it is for having guys that get a chance to go to the Pro Bowl. With 'Double-J,' you knew every Sunday what you were going to get."
Johnson became known for his durability, toughness and willingness to play through pain without complaint. He often set the edge as a runstopper and clogged holes to prevent outside runs.
Johnson was also a good enough athlete and savvy enough that he capably converted from a 285-pound college defensive tackle and two-time team captain at Alabama into a mobile, 260-pound outside linebacker after his first three seasons in the NFL.
"I played with my hand in the dirt all through college, all through high school," Johnson said. "I think scout team had a huge part of them trusting me enough. There are not that many players to practice, so it would be like, 'You're Mike Vrabel, you're so and so.'
"I'd stand up and do my little thing. They realized, 'Maybe he can do it, stick him out there and see what happens.' And it turned into a career."
Johnson attributes a lot of his resolve to his mother, who raised him on her own in Florida after Johnson's father, a commercial fisherman, was lost at sea shortly before Johnson's eighth birthday.
"Me and my family, hard work and tough, all of my mom's side, my dad's, they're all workers," Johnson said. "I played church league softball the other day and I can barely walk. So, I don't know how tough I am anymore."
Johnson set franchise records with 129 consecutive games played and 80 consecutive starts, but those records have since been broken. Punter Sam Koch broke his record for consecutive games with 144 and quarterback Joe Flacco passed his mark with 112 consecutive starts.
Johnson finished with 506 career tackles, 251/2 sacks, three interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.
Although Johnson is unlikely to join the Ravens Ring of Honor, he's as respected as many of the more-famous players the team has inducted.
"This is an honor for me to be sitting here," said Johnson, whose mother, wife and two daughters attended the announcement at the Ravens' training complex. "To not be a Pro Bowler, to not be maybe a household name around the country, but you know you're appreciated. It's validation that you did it right. You conducted yourself the way you were supposed to as a player."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said one of the most meaningful texts he received after winning Super Bowl XLVII was a congratulatory message from Johnson, who had left as a free agent the previous offseason to join the San Diego Chargers.
"Extremely talented, very smart, set the edge of the defense, he was the guy who made all the calls and set the defense," Harbaugh said. "The way he practiced, the way he played, the way he carried himself, the type of family man he is, a husband, father and son, I have great admiration for him."
Johnson had 51 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble in his final season last year for the Chargers, where he was named a team captain.
"This guy's a man," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "We had a lot of long talks other than just football about family, about everything. This guy's my friend. It was like coaching another coach."
Because the Ravens are at the NFL roster limit of 90 players, the team wasn't able to sign Johnson to a one-day contract and then place him on the reserve-retired list. Newsome said the team plans to do that at a later date.
Still contemplating what he'll do in his retirement, Johnson has been fishing and spending time with his family at their home in Niceville, Fla.
"I won't close any doors," Johnson said. "I would love to have some role in this game. I would love to have a connection within this organization and this game because I love it."