A legend's burden

Jim Johnson directs the Eagles' defense during a minicamp in 2008. (Yong Kim / File photo)

You first hear and you are shocked. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has a cancerous tumor on his spine, a recurrence of melanoma that has spread to other, undisclosed locations as well. You hear the news and you can’t concentrate on the interview you’re doing for another column.

Jim Johnson. Honest. Plain-spoken. Intense on Sunday. Approachable on Monday. Matter-of-fact. Seen it all. Wise. Wickedly-inventive. Honest. Yes, honest twice. And now, cancer.

You look back on how the season ended, with the defense carrying the Eagles to the finish line and through the first two games of the playoffs, only to lose the last one at Arizona. You look back on how Johnson’s physical condition deteriorated through the weeks, how he coached the last two games from the press box, how he used a cane the one week and then rode around on a small vehicle the last week. He had made it out like he had simply thrown out his back.

You look back on that Giants game, the first one he coached from the press box. It was a great defensive day. You remember back to the obvious affection that Eagles coach Andy Reid showed for Johnson in his post-game interview that day. It sounded like more than just the admiration of a day’s work done well.

The good news on a terrible day is that, according to the Eagles, the doctors are optimistic and that Johnson is upbeat and hopes to keep working during his treatment. A personal hope is that he works as hard on getting better as he has on his defense over the years. Because his work is legendary in the NFL – it really is.

Fox analyst/former Cowboys quarterback/Hall of Famer Troy Aikman recently told the Dallas Morning News, “The Eagles have had two constants over the last decade. They’ve had a good defense, and Jim Johnson has been the coach leading it.”

Aikman added, “I believe it is time the Hall of Fame considers assistant coaches. Jim Johnson, (Steelers defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau and (retired offensive innovator) Ernie Zampese should be in Canton.”

Such is the regard with which Johnson is held around the league. Such will be the shock as this news begins to circulate. There is so much that none of us knows. After a while, though, you try to begin to focus on the optimism of the doctors – because you know that’s what Johnson is doing. Then you try to get back to work – because you know that’s what Johnson is intending to do, too.