JOHNSON’S SPEED LED HIM INTO NFL, NOT AMONG WORLD TRACK ELITE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It was June 1, 1995. The place was Knoxville, Tenn.

Patrick Johnson, born in Georgia, moved to Redlands, took a football scholarship at the University of Oregon, eventually winding up playing professionally in Baltimore. All evidence pointed to a possible world-class career on the track. Here he was in Tennessee. World class speed seemed to be everywhere.

Johnson, an Oregon freshman, was competing against the likes of Ato Boldon, Obadele Thompson, Donovan Powell and Tim Harden, among others. A month earlier, Johnson had beaten Olympic legend Carl Lewis in nearby Des Moines, Iowa.

On hand was the NCAA Division 1 championships, hosted by the University of Tennessee between May 31-June 3.

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson, an electrifying speedster who found his way from world class track into the NFL (photo by ProAthletes Celebrity).

As a world-class speedster, Johnson never hid from the fact that his first interest in athletics was football. I’ll never forget that moment, either.

“All I wanted to do,” Johnson told me during his senior year at Redlands High in 1994, “was play football. That was my goal. Man, I loved track. But football was something different. It was special.”

It was one of a few chats with, perhaps, one of Redlands’ most accomplished athletes.

Here he was, the reigning track & field star at Redlands in 1994 – the eventual state 100- and 200- meter champion. His times were outrageously quick – a 10.43 to win the 1994 State 100 title, while a 10.61 was quick enough to win the Southern Section Division 1 championship.

Don’t forget the 200, where he turned it on three times to win titles, starting in 1993 with a 21.40 to win the Division 1 championship.

One season later, he not only re-captured the Division 1 title in 21.25, but he beat all comers at the State finals in 21.01.

He was no marginal athlete in either sport. Compared to football, where his skills could’ve been used in a variety of positions on the field, Johnson single-mindedly trained for football – even during spring track season.

That’s the groundwork for Johnson’s upcoming track career. Right?

Even the most casual observer might agree that Johnson’s future seemed to be on that oval that usually surrounds any football field.

As a freshman at Oregon, Johnson beat all comers in the Pacific-10 400-meter finals – 45.38 seconds. He made the NCAA Championships in Knoxville, Tenn. that year, unable to qualify in either the 100 or the 200.

His competition was off the charts.

Guys like Bolden, of UCLA, was winning the 200 in 20.24. Johnson’s prelims time was 20.82 – ninth place, one spot out of a place in the finals.

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Obadele Thompson once beat Carl Lewis at the Drake Relays, a 100-meter race in which Redlands’ Patrick Johnson finished second (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

At least Johnson made the 100-finals. But his 10.32 clocking was eighth, and last, in a field headed by Kentucky’s Harden (10.05). In that race was the Jamaican, Powell, whose brother, Asafa Powell, once held the world record (9.74) in the 100.

Harden was part of the Olympic silver medal 4 x 100 relay at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Ato_Boldon_Sydney_2000
Ato Boldon, of UCLA, was a chief rival of Patrick Johnson, the onetime State prep champion from Redlands who took off for the University of Oregon. Boldon celebrated an Olympic medal in this photo at the 2000 Sydney Games (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Boldon, an eventual four-time Olympic medal winner, had false-started in that 1995 100 semifinals, eliminating him from a possible sprint double – a controversial result, in fact.

Carl Lewis
Carl Lewis, a 9-time Olympic champion, took on Redlands’ Patrick Johnson at the 1995 Drake Relays (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

A month, or so, before that year’s NCAAs, Johnson prepped at the Drake (Iowa) Relays – on April 29, 1995. It was there that Johnson beat nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis across the line in the 100-meters. Few recall, however, the Lewis’ career was coming to an end. Or that Johnson didn’t even win that race.

Thomson, a sophomore at Texas-El Paso, won in 10.19. Johnson, an Oregon freshman, was next at 10.26. Lewis, the Olympic hero, was third in 10.32.

SPEED KILLS ON A FOOTBALL FIELD

Johnson’s speed was a rampant weapon on any football field.

In football at Redlands, Johnson never seemed to have that huge, stunning, break-out game that observers would recall in years to come. That never kept him from swaying from his dream.

“Ever since I was little,” said Johnson, “I’ve thought about football.”

His Redlands track records will likely stand the test of time – 10.39 in the 100, 20.79 in the 200, 43.79 in the 400 and anchoring a 4 x 400 relay (3:18.79) are numbers that just don’t point a young man away from track & field.

The tipoff should have been easy to spot.

Upon Johnson’s transfer to Redlands as a junior in 1992, he was declared ineligible because he did not have enough units toward graduation. In Terrier coach Jim Walker’s first season, Johnson was a practice squad player from weeks one through 10. Under those conditions, it would have been easy to find something else to do.

“I remember coaching the defensive backs that season,” said onetime Redlands assistant Dick Shelbourne, “the season Pat missed playing in the games because he was ineligible. He only missed two practices the whole season.”

It was a sure sign to Terrier coaches that Johnson was serious about football. When the playoffs rolled around, Walker and Shelbourne worked him into their games against Capistrano Valley and Loyola – in the secondary.

That was Redlands’ introduction to Johnson, who was eligible to run track later that spring. By his senior year, Walker contemplated Johnson at any one of three different offensive positions – receiver, running back or an option quarterback.

Settling on running back, Johnson’s season was uneventful – 583 yards rushing, another 257 receiving, and the Terriers failed to reach the post-season.

His speed on the track lured interested parties because he played football, too. Johnson opted for the University of Oregon, where he played wide receiver.

Years later when Ducks’ football coach Rich Brooks spoke about Johnson, he chuckled when we chatted. “That speed of his,” he said, “could’ve taken him anywhere – football or track.”

Let’s not forget, either, that Oregon is home to Hayward Field, which is the nation’s top site for track & field. It would be impossible not to feel that emotional tug. He seemed offended if anyone suggested track over football.

He’d shake his head. Mind was made up.

FOOTBALL NUMBERS VERSUS TRACK TIMES

At Oregon from 1994-97, Johnson snagged 143 passes mostly from the likes of Ducks’ QBs Tony Graziani and Akili Smith. His final collegiate game, against Air Force in the Las Vegas Bowl, Johnson took advantage of his blazing speed. Catching five passes for 169 yards, he caught two TD passes from Smith for 69 and 78 yards.

On the other hand, he remains on Oregon’s all-time records list – eighth best in the 100 (that 10.26 at The Drake Relays), tied for second best in the 200 (20.39) and sixth best in the 400 (45.38) – with all electrifying marks.

Remember, this is a historic collegiate program. Ranking among the best at that school is overwhelming.

Though uniquely qualified to take on the world’s best sprinters of the day – Lewis, Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, among others, Johnson’s chosen field was professional football.

The Ravens made him the 42nd selection in the draft, taken in the second round of the 1998 NFL draft.

Johnson, a two-time NCAA All-American in the 100 and 200 in his only full season of collegiate competition, was expected to win the 400 NCAA championship in 1996.

Plus, he was a staunch favorite to make the USA Olympic team that year.

Remember, The Games were scheduled for Atlanta, Ga., Johnson’s home state.

It’s possible Johnson might have over-trained early that season – trying too hard, perhaps. He was, apparently, in no condition to compete at the NCAAs.

Johnson took second in the Pac-10’s 400-meter finals in 1996.

Those calamities added up. Johnson never stepped on Hayward Field’s track again to compete.

DARNOLD, DE ROO AND DAMON JUST PART OF “CONNECTIONS”

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Mike Darnold was the latest “connection.”

Throw in football’s Jim Weatherwax and Brian DeRoo.

Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright showed up here, with his team, one Saturday morning in 2003.

“Black” Jack Gardner left here in 1928.

Jerry Tarkanian lifted off from here in 1961.

How many Redlands Connections can there be?

It’s the basis for the Blog site, www.redlandsconnection.com. Dedicated to the idea that there’s a connection from Redlands to almost every major sporting event.

The afore-mentioned have already been featured. There have been others. Plenty of others.

Golf. Track & field. Tennis. Baseball and basketball. Softball and soccer. The Olympic Games and the Kentucky Derby. The World Series and the Super Bowl. You name it.

For a city this size, the connections to all of those are remarkable.

Softball’s Savannah Jaquish left Redlands East Valley for Louisiana State.

Bob Karstens was just shooting a few baskets when I saw him at Redlands High. Turned out he was one of three white men ever to play for the usually all-black Harlem Globetrotters.

Brian Billick coached a Hall of Famer. Together, they won a Super Bowl.

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Brian Billick, a key Redlands Connection.

Speaking of Super Bowls, not only was a former Redlands High player involved in the first two NFL championship games, there was a head referee who stood behind QBs Bart Starr and Lenny Dawson.

That referee got his start in Redlands.

One of racing’s fastest Top Fuel dragsters is a Redlands gal, Leah Pritchett.

LEAH PRITCHETT (leahpritchett.com)
Leah Pritchett has punched her Top Fuel dragster over 330 mph many times.

Greg Horton forcefully blocked some of football’s greatest legends for a near-Super Bowl team.

At a high school playoff game at Redlands High in 1996, Alta Loma High showed up to play a quarterfinals match. It was Landon Donovan of Redlands taking on Carlos Bocanegra.

The two eventually played on the same Team USA in the World Cup and the Olympics.

Karol Damon’s high-jumping Olympic dreams weren’t even known to her mother. She wound up in Sydney. 2000.

In the coming days, weeks and months, there will be more connections.

  • A surfing legend.
  • Besides Landon Donovan, there’s another soccer dynamo.
  • When this year’s Indianapolis 500 rolls around, we’ll tell you about a guy named “Lucky Louie.”
  • Fifteen years before he won his first Masters, Tiger Woods played a 9-hole exhibition match at Redlands Country Club.
  • University of Arizona softball, one of the nation’s greatest programs, was home to a speedy outfielder.
  • As for DeRoo, he was present for one of the pro football’s darkest moments on the field.
  • In 1921, an Olympic gold medalist showed up and set five world records in Redlands.
  • The Redlands Bicycle Classic might have carved out of that sport’s most glorious locations – set in motion by a 1986 superstar squad.
  • Distance-running sensation Mary Decker was taken down by a onetime University of Redlands miler.
  • Collegiate volleyball probably never had a greater athlete from this area.

As for Darnold, consider that the one-time University of Redlands blocker is the father of Sam Darnold, the USC quarterback who might be this year’s No. 1 draft selection in pro football’s draft.

Jaquish became the first-ever 4-time All-American at talent-rich LSU.

Jacob Nottingham, drafted a few years ago by the Houston Astros, probably never knew he’d be part of two Moneyball deals.

Gardner, who coached against Bill Russell in the collegiate ranks, tried to recruit Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas State.

Wright, whose team went into the March 31-April 2 weekend hoping to win the NCAA championship for the third time, brought his team to play the Bulldogs as sort of a warm-up test for Hawaii.

Tarkanian? Few might’ve known that the legendary Tark the Shark started chewing on those towels while he was coaching at Redlands High.

Norm Schachter was head referee in three Super Bowls, including Green Bay’s inaugural championship win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Norm Schachter with Hank Stram
Norm Schacter, wearing No. 60 (not his normal official number), synchronizes with Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram during halftime of the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967.

Speaking of Tarkanian, Weatherwax played hoops for him at Redlands. Eight years later, Weatherwax wore jersey No. 73 for the Green Bay Packers. It makes him the only man to ever play for Tarkanian and Vince Lombardi.

There will be more Redlands connections.

 

PART 1 – GREG HORTON WAS A SUPERIOR REDLANDS FORCE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

He was sitting across the table from me at lunch.

A fast-food burger joint. On Colton Ave.

In the old days, when he played for Redlands High in the 1960s, this place probably never existed.

This NFL workhorse, who blocked for some ultra-strong Redlands High Terrier teams, got recruited to play at Colorado, was drafted by the Chicago Bears, then launched a successful pro career that ended in the United States Football League after about a decade.

Greg Horton, who died in 2015 at age 65, had plenty of cherished memories on the football field. He played in some big games. Went up against high school greats. Against some collegiate All-Americans, NFL All-Pro and Hall of Fame talent. Football insight was keen, endless.

As a Terrier at Redlands High, Greg was, perhaps, one of the biggest of their long list of football studs. The coaches there were legends – Frank Serrao, Greg’s coach, Paul Womack, both having been preceded by Ralph “Buck” Weaver, perhaps considered the father of Terrier football.

At lunch that day, I knew what Greg wanted. He had invested in a business, located a couple hundred feet from where we were eating. Naturally, he wanted it to succeed. Greg needed publicity. It was some kind of workout program, if I remember correctly.

Not my job, actually. There are business owners around Redlands who would give 12 of their toes for such publicity. Greg, by virtue of his NFL notoriety, his “homegrown” status, not to mention those many times he’d sat down for one-on-one interviews, was calling in a few favors.

I was walking a fine line on this one. It would’ve been impossible to give him exactly what he wanted. I was in sports, not news, or business.

GREG HORTON
An early shot. Redlands’ Greg Horton. Photo by Tampa Bay Buccaneers

He’d have preferred, I’m certain, for me to completely focus on his new enterprise – the specials, its purpose, investors, the nuts and bolts, everyone involved – as the focal point of the piece. Like I said, I wasn’t a business reporter.

Plus, I could just see plenty of other business owners that advertised in that paper. They’d be outraged by such favorable press on Horton’s new venture, insisting upon being interviewed about their own businesses. I had to be careful.

In this city, Greg had more than paid his dues. You’d think the hometown paper owed him one. Our publisher sounded against the idea. So did the advertising director. I didn’t even convene with the editor. Okay, at least I asked.

Professional standards abounded.

Greg might have stood at the head of the line of Redlands High football players – NFL, high-level collegiate play, NFL championship-level, connections, battered and bruised on field, taking on some of the sport’s greatest champions.

HORTON PAID HIS DUES

This guy was from Redlands.

He’d coached plenty of locals, headed up the city’s booster club, the Benchwarmers, provided an endless amount of support for almost anything the kids needed.

As an assistant line coach at the University of Redlands one year – mid-1980s – I can remember him going after a University of San Diego defender after a game. The USD kid had cheap-shotted one of the Bulldog players.

It was the kind of play Greg knew better than anyone. He knew all the lineman’s tricks – illegal high-low blocking techniques, going for an unguarded knee, hitting from behind, you name it – so when he saw that taking place in a NCAA Division 3 (non-scholarship) game, Greg took offense.

He went after the USD player, briefly, then turned to the injured Bulldog.

“Are you all right?”

Greg wasn’t exactly my biggest fan. He never turned me away for an interview, though. I just didn’t strike well with him, I think. In fact, he was highly critical when he showed up – among other parents, school officials, Terrier football players and coaches – at what appeared to be a public slap-down of current Redlands High coach Dave Perkins during the 1990 season.

While some parents were after Perkins’ job, Horton’s public tirade was directed at me. It was something like, “The guy in the newspaper” (me) “needs to remember this is about the kids.”

Greg seemed to scream those words, an emotional outburst.

Truth is, a parents’ group wanted Perkins gone. Fired. My presence at that meeting, however, curtailed any outward signs of outrage. I’m not certain if Greg was anti-Perkins and felt my presence nullified the meeting’s outcome.

In fact, I’m certain I was specifically invited there that night to keep things under wraps. No one has a desire to be quoted in the press when they’re doing something underhanded. Right?

Perkins, who had back-to-back 3-7 seasons in 1990 and 1991, held onto his job that night. My guess is that Greg was there to back Perkins. I was there simply to report.

Greg, for his part, probably never saw any of that while he wore a Terrier uniform in the 1960s. Womack, coach. No parents’ groups. Just a bunch of high school players lighting up Friday nights during the fall.

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Brian Billick, a Redlands product whose eventual coaching career landed him at the height of NFL play, settled in as a pro football broadcaster when his days as Baltimore Ravens’ coach concluded in 2007. Photo by the Baltimore Ravens.

This may be controversial, but Greg may well be Redlands’ greatest Connection to the NFL world, at least as a player. Then again, it might be Brian Billick – who came along just a couple years after Horton – the man who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl.

While Billick was developing his mind toward coaching at the highest of levels, Greg goes down as a weight room product who lifted himself to the heights of high school play, tops among collegiate programs and into the world of NFL play.

Part 2 next week.