"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.

This test requires three hospital attendants as well as medical specialists who then assess whether the patient is suffering from cancer, a brain tumor, a broken leg or athlete's feet.

The whole procedure, including the doctors' fees, runs better than $1,000. Of course, the Cardinals probably have an insurance package that pays for all of this. When Johnson's body emerged from the tube, the doctors shook their heads and pronounced him fit to play. They found no broken bones in his chest.

What the Cardinals obviously have here is a highly talented running back who is also a world-class head case. At the Circle K or Motorola, he'd be fired. In the weird world of professional sports, Johnson's worth an astronomical salary. On the basis of his running ability alone, Johnson should have been a first-round draft choice coming out of San Jose State. Three years ago, he was still available in the seventh round of the pro football draft, which is when the Cardinals finally took a chance on him.

"Now you know why nobody else in the league wanted him," one veteran columnist told me Sunday. Johnson had surprised everyone in his first pro season. He gained 900 yards and made the Pro Bowl. His running production dropped mysteriously during his second season, however. He was unhappy. He wasn't making enough money.

During this past preseason, Johnson became a holdout. He announced his ambition to be paid like a premium runner on a playoff team, which he was not.

On his agent's advice, Johnson missed the entire preseason training camp in Flagstaff. The Cardinals, to their credit, at first refused to budge. For this it is apparent that the Cardinals' power structure decided to punish Johnson by sitting him on the bench. Bugel picked lesser talents like Ivory Lee Brown to perform in Johnson's spot.

The Cards' management apparently still thinks this is the era of Steve Owen and Paul Brown, when players were punished by being relegated to the bench. During this time, Brown once fired a world-class wide receiver for showing up at training camp with a white wife.

The strategy with Johnson obviously annoyed the star running back. But it also caused the Cardinals to lose several games they might have won earlier in the year. Like most coaches, Bugel looks at things in the short range.

He sits in the interview room happy as can be. "Best game we ever played," he said. He is probably right. This is the best the Cardinals have performed since arriving in Phoenix.

"What about Johnny Johnson?" he is asked.
"Great game. Johnny ran hard. He was really focused this past week."
A man asked Bugel about the difference between Johnson's chest pains this week and the previous weeks.

"I think it's tough for an athlete to play with some pain. You don't know for sure what it's all about, so I think after he took that Magnetic Resonance Imaging test, he felt comfortable."
"Do you mean it's all a mental thing, then?" another man asked.
"No, I think he had some pain in there."
"How much pain do you think he had?"
Bugel shook his head. He was getting annoyed.
"I don't know," he said and turned his head to another questioner.

This will not be the end of the Johnny Johnson story. Who knows what will happen this Sunday when the Cardinals meet the Rams in Los Angeles?

Will Johnny feel like playing or not? Will he be ready to talk?
Better keep that Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine hooked up.

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Tom Fitzpatrick