Retired CFL player Brent Johnson looks forward to another Lions' Grey Cup win
For eight months now, Brent Johnson has told himself that he made the right call in walking away from the B.C. Lions and the game of football when he did. The popular defensive end called it a career in March and went out the way he wanted: as a Grey Cup champion, having won a second Canadian Football League title on home turf almost a year ago.
And in those months after he hung up the cleats, Johnson also convinced himself that he really didn’t miss the game he loved and played so well for so long. Then he flipped the calendar to November.
“I’ll miss the playoffs,” he admitted to the Georgia Straight in a recent telephone interview. “I like those games. I still miss the big games. Going to camp and all the practices, I don’t miss those so much. I miss the guys and the camaraderie and the front-office staff, because you don’t get to see them day in and day out. The level of competition when you go out there and really lay it on the line, you can’t transfer that over into real life as hard as you try. Business—and life in general—is competitive, but there’s something about a team mentality and playing with your heart. That’s something that’s hard to replicate when you go to your nine-to-five job.”
These days, the 35-year-old finds himself transitioning from professional athlete to a career in finance as an investment advisor in the Vancouver offices of CIBC Wood Gundy.
There isn’t nearly as much physical contact now as there was during his 11 seasons making life miserable for CFL quarterbacks, but that’s just fine for the Lions’ franchise leader in career sacks (89). Johnson is still chasing people—prospective clients—only now it’s to help them instead of doing harm.
“For me, I love it,” he said of his suit-and-tie life that has him planted behind a desk. “It’s another facet of my life that I’ve moved into. I’ve always been a people person, and that’s sort of what this job entails, and it provides me that outlet to help people and make things happen. I’ve been lucky to be part of quality organizations, and I think coming on board here has been beneficial to me starting out in this career in the business world. I’m happy all around that I made the move.”
Yet now, as the rains set in and the temperatures begin to plummet, Johnson is feeling a void. It’s playoff time in the CFL, and on November 18, the B.C. Lions will march into a western final without number 97 patrolling the line of scrimmage for the first time in a dozen years. It’s different, to say the least, and Johnson knows it.
But the fact that the team he left behind went 13-5, finished in first place, and gives every indication that it’s the prohibitive favourite to repeat as champion without him has helped the two-time most outstanding Canadian and the 2006 defensive player of the year to make a clean break from the game.
“You want to leave a team in better shape than you found it, and there was no drop-off in talent with some older guys like me retiring,” Johnson said. “Keron Williams is a phenomenal player. Adam Bighill has had a huge year; Ryan Phillips is having a big year; Korey Banks and Dante Marsh are still going strong. It’s nice to see the team I left in such good shape.”
And the club bestowed upon Johnson the greatest honour it can give a former player when it inducted him into its Ring of Honour at B.C. Place Stadium prior to the July 20 game against the Edmonton Eskimos. There, Johnson joined a select group of the truly great Lions of the past 60 years: names like Lui Passaglia, Al Wilson, Jim Young, Norm Fieldgate, and Willie Fleming.
A regular at Lions home games this season, Johnson has every intention of being active in the Lions alumni in the years ahead, but right now he is focussing much of his energy on establishing himself in his new career and spending as much time as he can with his wife and year-old son.
“I want to be involved with the team,” he said. “I think this year is probably the hardest to be a part of it, just because I’m trying to create a little distance from it since it’s something I’ve done for so long. But it’s hard to create that separation, because there are always events and things you can be a part of if you want.”
While Johnson tries to find the proper place in his post-playing days for football, he knows full well it’s going to be a priority this month. He went to battle for years with the guys who will suit up for that western final, and though he won’t be donning the pads for the game, he’ll be on hand to support this year’s group any way he can.
And his belief in this year’s Lions is so strong, Johnson is already making plans to be in there in person to see them repeat as Grey Cup champions on November 25.
“I am confident, because the right pieces are in place,” he said. “My money is on them. I’m a homer, but I think they’re going to go the distance. I’m booking my tickets for Toronto.”
Johnson may have thought he had been able to shake football from his system, but these playoff pangs are a pretty clear indication the sport still has a hold on him. And there’s no way now to free himself of the game’s grip until after Grey Cup.