It’s pretty simple.
Brent Johnson changed the way we think about Canadian defensive players in the CFL.
There was a time when common thinking held that certain skill positions were exclusively reserved for American players. Canadians weren’t talented enough to play these, so they filled spots elsewhere. But like a winded lineman left gasping in his wake, Brent exploded past that old way of thinking, proving not only that a Canadian player could play defensive end for instance, but they could dominate there. Today many consider him one of the CFL’s greatest Canadian defensive players of all time.
And the amazing thing? It almost never happened to begin with. Brent grew up in Napanee, Ontario and only tried football in high school at the encouragement of his older sister’s boyfriend who played. Brent made the Holy Cross junior team, but barely saw the field all season and spent most practices serving as a tackling dummy.
“I had no clue,” he remembered. “I didn’t know the positions. I didn’t know how offence worked. I didn’t know defense. I think I knew that a touchdown was six points. And that was about it. Somehow I figured out a way to make the team. It was not based on skill, that’s for sure. I didn’t come into my own as an athlete until much later.”
He nearly quit right there, but came back the following season for one last try. Good thing, as he began to improve and soon was a top prospect garnering attention from top US universities.
He opted to go to Ohio State beginning in 1996, red-shirting his first year and then playing four seasons.
“Our stadium held 107,000 people,” he chuckled. “It was packed every Saturday. Millions watched us on TV. I was in a different world in terms of football.”
He helped the venerable Buckeyes to high national rankings each year, two Sugar Bowl appearances, a Rose Bowl victory in 1997, and memorable victories over bitter rival Michigan. He even sacked a little-known Wolverines quarterback named Tom Brady, who went on to have a decent career we’re told.
After failing to catch on with Jacksonville in the NFL, burnt out and contemplating retirement, Brent came to BC in mid-season 2001 and felt rejuvenated. Timing is often everything. He arrived at the same time as a core group of future Lions legends like Geroy Simon, Angus Reid, and coach Wally Buono. The Lions were set for the most successful decade in club history and Brent played a massive role in that.
“I was sort of treading water until Wally came here from Calgary. He gave me an actual shot at playing the position I’d always played, defensive end. Because at that time in the CFL, there was no opportunity for a Canadian defensive end. They were saying you can either play defensive tackle or defensive tackle. That’s a Canadian position. Wally gave me the opportunity to play defensive end and my career took off from there.”
Over 11 seasons, all with the Lions, Brent played 185 regular season games compiling 225 tackles and a club record 89 sacks. He twice led the CFL in sacks, recording a career high 17 in 2005. Displaying remarkable durability for a defensive end, at one point Brent owned an ironman streak of 184 straight games, which only ended when he missed a game for the birth of his son.
A long-time team captain, Brent helped the Lions to five West Division titles and three Grey Cup appearances, winning twice in 2006 and 2011. He was known as a clutch, ‘big-game’ player who often had his best performances among his 13 career playoff games.
Twice Brent was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian, in 2005 and 2006. To date, he stands as the only Canadian to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award, which he received in 2006. He also was a three-time CFL All-Star and a five-time West Division All-Star.
In 2011, the BC Lions retired his number 97.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
To read more on the career of Brent Johnson, please see the January 2021 Curator’s Corner article here: https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/brent-johnson-a-canadian-with-something-to-prove-2020-inductee-spotlight/