Lions sack king Brent Johnson to retire

Veteran defensive end Brent Johnson has announced his retirement, ending his 11-year career with the B.C. Lions.
Brent Johnson, centre, spent his entire CFL career with the B.C. Lions. (Ian Jackson/Canadian Press)

Wally Buono is not usually one to make bold predictions, but he offered one Monday about Brent Johson's decision to retire after 11 CFL seasons.

"I bet you my life, he won't have a regret," said Buono.

The veteran defensive end called it a career just over three months after the Lions completed a miraculous worst-to-first run following a 0-5 start and defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 34-23 in the Grey Cup game at B.C. Place.

Buono, a former defensive player himself during his playing days with the Montreal Alouttes, who stopped coaching after 22 seasons following the Grey Cup win, knows about career changes. But he feels no inclination to give Johnson advice.

"When a man like that makes the decision — and he makes that decision — you know he's ready for it, because he's got an out," said Buono. Is it going to be easy? No, it's not going to be easy, because all of us, this is who we are. This is what we do."

Johnson has already embarked on a career as a financial advisor with CIBC Wood Gundy. He may also do some broadcast work after appearing regularly on a sports TV network's weekly football segment.

"Football has given me so much," said Johnson in an interview. "I hope I've never taken it for granted, but it's nice to walk away from the game on your own terms. It's also nice to leave while you're still healthy."

Johnson leaves as the Lions' all-time leader in sacks with 89. He was twice named the CFL's outstanding Canadian and also captured the league's top defensive player award.

Three times he was named a CFL all-star and helped B.C. win two Grey Cups during his time with the club.

The 35-year-old Kingston, Ont., native spent his entire CFL career with the Lions, who selected him in the third round of the 2001 draft out of Ohio State. He joined the Lions after being among the final cuts of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and declined opportunities for potential practice-roster spots with other clubs because he wanted to play.

And play he did. He played in 184 consecutive contests with the Lions before finally missing a game last October against Edmonton to be with his wife Lara for the birth of their first child, son Roman Jake.

Johnson's playing time was reduced the past two seasons as the Lions rotated defensive linemen more frequently. But Buono made it clear Johnson could have kept playing if he wanted to.

"It takes a very inner-perspective kind of guy to do this," said Buono. "He's got this opportunity. He's giving up a good chunk of money. He's giving up a lifestyle that most people would definitely love."

Johnson said the most adversity was not the reduced playing time, which he was willing to accept. Instead, it was in the early days of his career when he was battling for an opportunity to become a rare Canadian starter at defensive end.

He praised Buono for giving him the chance after arriving in B.C. in 2003.

"Before I met Wally, they had slotted certain guys for certain positions and it depended on your passport," said Johnson. "It was relieving to me to meet a guy like Wally that said only the best players go out on the field and play."

Buono said coaches can only give players the opportunity. It's still up to them to take the opportunity. Johnson took it, ran with it and never looked back.

New Lions head coach Mike Benevides, the Lions defnsive co-ordinator before he was promoted, praised Johnson for helping the club get through its 0-5 stretch when it could have "fallen apart instead."

"When look at Brent, I look at the most dominant defensive end of the league in the recent history in our league," said Benevides. "A lot of people know him as a non-import. But when Brent was playing at the peak of his career, it didn't really matter where he was from. He could have an impact on the game. He changed the game. He affected how offences approached us."

Former teammate Davis Sanchez, noting Johnson is among few players who get to go out on their own terms, said he was much different off the field than on.

"He was such an easy-going, mild-mannered guy off the field and then all of a sudden the switch would turn when the game came," said Sanchez. "He was pretty fierce between the lines."

When a player is as durable as Johnson, said Buono, you never envision him not playing. He said the Lions can always find another pass-rusher, but do not yet know whether hey can replace Johnson's leadership.

"You hope that the legacy isn't consecutive games (or) sack totals," said Buono. "It's also about what it means to be a pro, what it means to be a B.C. Lion — what it means to be a champion."