In case you were wondering whatever happened to LeShon Johnson, projected as the Packers' breakaway threat of the future when he was drafted in 1994, he's recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury in his left knee. He has also gone to the dogs. Literally. He keeps 18 of them at the house outside Green Bay that he shares with fellow running back Travis Jervey.
"When I'm with my dogs, I'm happy," Johnson says. "If somebody calls, I tell Travis to say I'm busy. I love my dogs. They make me forget about my knee and playing time."
It should be noted that these are not just any old mutts. These are pit bulls, the blitzing linebackers of dogdom. Everybody has heard tales about pit bulls who have attacked, even killed, humans. "They're not really mean," says Johnson, defensively. "Anybody can pet my dogs, and all they'll do is roll around on the ground."
Johnson knows mean. As a kid he dreamed of being a rodeo cowboy because of his admiration for his father, Luther, who spent 23 years as a professional bullrider. LeShon rode bulls in amateur rodeos until he was in junior college, when his football coach at Northeastern Oklahoma decided the hobby wasn't such a good one. It remains something that he might pursue when his NFL days are over. "I miss it," Johnson says, "even though you can get beat up just like you do in football. I've had a bull step on me. That's scarier than getting tackled."
It was Johnson who did most of the trampling during his two seasons at Northern Illinois. As a senior in 1993 he led the NCAA in rushing with 1,976 yards. His two-year average of 150.5 yards per game ranks fourth on the alltime career list—behind the marks of Ed Marinaro, O.J. Simpson and Herschel Walker. Yet although he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, higher than any running back except Marshall Faulk, Johnson was the 13th running back, and the 84th player, picked in the 1994 draft.
The questions that diminished his draft value—could he block? ...catch passes? ...elude tacklers in the open field?—still exist. As a rookie he was nagged by injuries that limited him to backup duty in 12 games. His numbers (26 carries for 99 yards and 13 receptions for 168 more) were inconclusive. Then he tore up his knee in a late December practice.
"My mom tells me to be patient," says Johnson, who has appeared sparingly in two games this season. "I guess I'm like my dogs in that I have a big heart. A 40-pound pit bull will hit a 300-pound wild pig like it's nothing. That's me. If something gets in my way, I won't back off."
A few dog stats: LeShon has spent almost $11,000 to purchase his pets, and he lays out about $400 a month to feed them. All but one live in an insulated kennel—Johnson calls it the Crazy Side Kennel—that he had built for $2,600 outside his rented home. (Meko, the exception, lives in the house because of her favored-pet status.) The bulls give pause not only to burglars, which is good, but also to Johnson's friends, which can be the pits. "My friends get scared when they hear them barking," he says, "but then they see how friendly they are."
Johnson and Jervey wanted to bring in a tame lion to give the dogs some company, but coach Mike Holmgren quashed that idea. Undaunted, they then considered a monkey. "But we ditched that when somebody told us a monkey was like having a kid around," Johnson says.