BETHLEHEM - A glowing red sun set behind the clouds here on the day that Jim Johnson died. The football fields at Lehigh University, green and pristine, stretched out for acres in the valley. The Eagles players, most of them unscarred rookies, the youngest of the young, were probably eating or napping or getting ready for a meeting when they announced the news.
Two-a-days. Playbooks. Dorms. Video work. Cafeterias. Scheming. Worrying. Hoping. Summer. Jim Johnson must have spent a couple of years of his life in places like this.
He died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, only months after the recurrence of melanoma, a disease he beat once back in 2001. The organization had known the prognosis and had kept people apprised internally and steeled itself for this day as best it could. But how can you? Really, how can you?
Johnson was so many things for this franchise in his decade as defensive coordinator, the rock upon which everything was built, the most important hire Andy Reid ever made. Known for two things that he did incessantly - blitz and tell the truth - Johnson left the kind of mark, both personal and professional, that will not soon be forgotten. In a competitive, sometimes cut-throat business, Reid said, "I've never heard a person say a negative thing about him.''
Husband. Father. Grandfather. Teacher. Mentor. Scold. Protector. Innovator. Coach. Was there anyone who had ever been more born to the role than Jim Johnson? And was there ever a defensive style that fit a time and a place better than Johnson's attacking defense fit Philadelphia?
"It's a city that really appreciates aggressive defense not played too conservatively, and be physical and dominate and allow your offense to win the game by dominating on defense," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "That was his approach and you got it right away, just a hard-knuckled but a soft person who had that wonderful combination of real strength of teaching and, at the same time, strength of heart. You can only admire it when you see people like that."
It is that essential contrast that defined the man. Johnson was not a huge, loud yeller by NFL standards, not necessarily - but he did yell, and he did criticize, and he was persistent and insistent. He had a dry, easy sense of humor but he was not an easy mark. At the age of 68, he had seen everything in the NFL about three or four times yet he remained both innovative and aggressive, qualities to which his players were eternally attracted and against which his opponents were perpetually flummoxed.
At the annual NFL owners meetings, "I never heard such
adulation," Lurie said, recalling especially the time when New England coach Bill Belichick told him, "You've got the best defensive coordinator in football."
Every year at those meetings, the rules would be tweaked to make the defense's job harder. Lurie would come home and tell Johnson about it, he said, "And he'd know it and he just said it was more of a puzzle that had to be solved."
And he would go to work. The man was a coach's coach - and after husband, father and grandfather, it is what he would most like to be called. Johnson was someone who thought it was part of his job to prepare the young men on his staff for their chance. "He was so patient with them, so meticulous," Reid said, marveling at how age never robbed Johnson of his patient, giving nature.
It is why the organization remains so comfortable with Sean McDermott as Johnson's successor. It can see the coaches who Johnson already sent out into the world. One of them, San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, called Johnson "a very good man, a very decent man . . . a real, caring person." Another, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh, said simply, "I loved Jim Johnson."
Tough. No-nonsense. Wiry. Wizened. Approachable. Honest. Honest. Honest. When the veteran players gather tonight, when they begin to grieve together, it will be with both sadness and fondness. Because Reid is right: In the last decade hanging around this team, including the guys Johnson benched and the guys who knew their time was short, nobody ever said a bad word about him.
"He was sincere," Reid said to reporters. "You guys dealt with him. He was no different with me or the players. He shot 'em straight."
For a coach, for a man, there are few better epitaphs.
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