NEXT TIME, TEST BETWEEN HIS EARS

"Where's Johnny Johnson?" a man asked.
"Don't bother," a friendly photographer said. "He won't talk."
"You're kidding," the man said. "He just played a hell of a game."
"We tried to get him as he came off the field," said the TV camera operator. "He said he won't talk."
Johnny Johnson stood there in front of his dressing stall. He was alone. There were media people huddling around half a dozen other members of the Cardinals. But nobody attempted to approach Johnson.

He was alone. He stared straight ahead. He is listed on the program as six feet three inches tall and weighing 215 pounds. He doesn't appear to be quite that tall. Then he strode majestically into the shower room, past the clusters of sportswriters. He had a towel tucked around his waist. Johnson's head was shaved in the back in the shape of a pair of buttocks. I wondered if this was perhaps an arcane message to the media devised for him by Spike Lee or Ross Perot.

"Do you think he'll talk when he comes back out of the shower?"
"No. He already told Bob Eger of the Republic he wouldn't."
"What did he say to Eger?"
"He told Eger, 'There's a bunch of asses that write out there that spoil it for the rest of you all.'"
"Did he really say, 'You all'?" "Yeah, he talks like that. That is, when he does talk."
It developed that Johnson had also spoken to Jack McGruder of the Arizona Daily Star. Once again, he was explaining why he wasn't talking. Johnson's message to McGruder was equally pithy: "I don't need you when things are going bad. So I don't need you when things are going good, either."

Obviously, this was consistent with the thinking of this 25-year-old professional running back. That's his privilege. It is probably influenced by his income, which is closer to that of presidential candidate Perot or moviemaker Lee than to the sports media people he's forced to consort with in the Cardinals' dressing room.

He reminds me of Duane Thomas, who used to play for the Dallas Cowboys. He was a much better running back than Johnson.

Thomas refused to speak to the media after games for years. Then, finally, after he had lost a step and was trying to hang on, Thomas began seeking out writers. He wanted them to write sympathetic stories about his effort to make a comeback.

Just when it was time to say goodbye, silent Duane Thomas was ready to say hello.

Before last Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson had carried the ball just five times in the first seven games of this season. The Cardinals lost six of those games.

On Sunday, Johnson carried 22 times and gained more than 100 yards. He was the difference between winning and losing. The Cardinals beat a very strong 49er team, 24-14. The game wasn't as close as the score. The Cardinals finally did look like a playoff team. Johnson's contract calls for him to be paid a total of $1.5 million for this season and next.

Including yesterday's production, he has now carried the ball a grand total of 27 times. In the first five games, Johnson barely played because Coach Joe Bugel was punishing him and keeping him on the bench. Johnson missed the next two games due to a mysterious chest injury. Bugel never gave a satisfactory reason for not playing Johnson during a time when he was so badly needed. The Cardinals had lost the game the week before against Philadelphia when Johnson could have won it for them.

But during the last two weeks, the advantage fell to Johnson. Ivory Lee Brown, who had been running in Johnson's spot, suffered a knee injury and was gone for the season.

Bugel called on Johnny Bailey, who is quick but weighs only 180 pounds--35 pounds less than Johnson.

During the Philadelphia game, the Cardinals were unable to score on seven consecutive plunges into the line--six from one yard out.

Instead of leaping at the chance to play during this time, Johnson sat comfortably on the bench with his mysterious malady.

"Johnny's got a pain in his chest," Bugel told the writers. Bugel seemed as puzzled as anyone else over the chest pain, a complaint usually given by middle-aged executives.

"Johnny's not ready to go yet," Bugel said, a wan expression on his face. Obviously, Johnson was getting back at Bugel for holding him out of those games earlier in the season when Johnson wanted to play. I suppose this tells you something about the current state of the American work force. When people who work for Circle K or Motorola refuse to show up and cite mysterious ailments, they get fired. It happens in short order. Management calls it malingering. They tell the employees to take a hike.

What did the Cardinals do with Johnson? They sent him to the hospital for an elaborate, state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging test.

During this procedure, the patient is placed inside a long metal cylinder which is then slid inside the huge MRI machine that costs more than a million dollars.

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