The Wolfpacker

September 2017

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 85 of 95

86 ■ THE WOLFPACKER BY TIM PEELER V aughan Johnson was among the most intimidating and scariest linebackers to ever suit up in a uniform, whether it was at NC State, the USFL's Jacksonville Bulls or the NFL's New Orleans Saints. You can toss around the best linebackers in Wolfpack history — Chuck Amato, Bill Cowher, Kyle Westcoe, Robert Abraham, Damien Covington, Levar Fisher, Danto- nio Burnette, Oliver Hoyte, Pat Thomas, Stephen Tulloch, Audie Cole and Nate Ir- ving — and you won't find anyone more physical than Johnson, who starred for the Wolfpack defense in the early 1980s. Like similar-era basketball star Lorenzo Charles, Johnson had muscles in his clean- shaven head capable of knocking over a running back with the flex of an eyebrow. He famously said of the players he tack- led: "When I hit them, I like to see their eyes glaze over and roll back." He had a quick step, a fierce competi- tiveness and a nose for the football that made him adaptable for whatever system he happened to play in. And Johnson played in a lot during his college (1980-83) and professional (1984- 93) careers. He was recruited by the late Bo Rein from West Carteret High School in Morehead City, N.C., as a highly touted running back/linebacker, but arrived at the same time as the late Rein's replacement, Monte Kiffin, in 1980. He showed up as a 6-2, 180-pound freshman and mostly played on special teams. He was a top reserve as sophomore, but by his junior year he had put on nearly 50 pounds of muscle. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, he was a two-year starter for defensive co- ordinators Pete Carroll (under Kiffin) and Tom Batta (under head coach Tom Reed). He played for almost as many position coaches and coordinators as longtime NFL quarterback Philip Rivers had during his collegiate career, but he never saw that as a drawback. "I consider it a blessing to have played for all those coaches," Johnson said. "I had to deal with different personalities and different coaching styles. I learned a little from everyone of them, and they all pre- pared me for professional football, where you have to change and adapt and prepare differently every season, every week." It didn't hurt that Johnson was part of a decorated linebacking tandem with Andy Hendel, a lacrosse recruit from Rochester, N.Y., who walked onto the football team and became a standout performer. Known at NC State as "The Blitz Broth- ers," Johnson and Hendel combined for 328 tackles as juniors in 1982. Kiffin — in his finest hyperbolic fashion — called them "the best two linebackers in the world." As a senior, in the first of Reed's three 3-8 seasons, Johnson still earned recogni- tion as an All-American — named first- team by Sporting News and second-team by the Associated Press. His 384 career- tackle total still ranks sixth on NC State's all-time list. Johnson and Hendel also spent two years together in Jacksonville, Fla., playing for the city's United States Football League franchise, the Bulls. However, the league ceased operation in 1985 and Johnson had the good fortune to land with the New Or- leans Saints, who had got his NFL rights by taking him in a 1984 supplemental draft of USFL players. In 1987 — Johnson's first season as an NFL starter — the Saints recorded the first winning record and earned the first playoff berth in franchise history. The Saints never had a losing record again with Johnson on the team and made three more trips to the postseason. Johnson was the middle anchor of the Saints' Dome Patrol, a collection of four linebackers that included the late Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and NFL Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson that is one of the best line- backing squads in NFL history. Johnson was definitely the most physi- ■ PACK PAST Vaughan Johnson Is One Of NC State's Great Linebackers As a senior in 1983, Johnson was tabbed as a first-team All-American by Sporting News and was a second-team pick by the Associated Press. PHOTO COURTESY NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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