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"K's waiting for you," shouted one of his teammates.
"K better not be," said Johnson, smiling, "because Joanne's outside."
Defensive linemen don't ever seem to see a smile, however. "Every time he plays us," says Steeler Linebacker Jack Ham, "he appears to be snarling." Bengal Offensive Backfield Coach George Sefcik calls the look obsessed. "I go into a trance," says Johnson, who runs low to the ground, with his head bowed, usually gripping the ball tightly with two hands while he looks for someone to blast into. "If someone's going to bother to tackle me, I want him to feel it more than I do. I want to make him pay."
Johnson rarely fumbles, and it takes about a ton and a half of football players to bring him down. He has 29-inch thighs, each almost as big as some running backs' waists. Steeler Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert calls Johnson the toughest guy to tackle in the NFL. Houston Oiler Linebacker Greg Bingham adds, "It's hard to stop Pete in his tracks. No, impossible. Particularly on third-and-one. It's a matter of physics."
"As a defender," says Ham, "you're taught to hit and wrap your arms around a ballcarrier and run through him. I couldn't wrap my arms around Pete Johnson if my hands were at his calves."
Ham recalls one play last season when the Bengals had the ball on the Steeler three. Johnson took a handoff and bulled his way into the gridlock of players. "That whole pile moved right into the end zone," Ham says. "It was like everyone was swept in by a bulldozer. There were nine bodies lying in the end zone, Steelers and Bengals. It wasn't funny at the time, but you could laugh when you looked at it on film and saw that whole mass of humanity moving into the end zone like the start of an avalanche."
"If it comes down to getting a first down or you," Johnson says, "it's you who's got to go." That axiom includes everyone, regardless of team affiliation. Nobody knows that better than Bengal Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth. On one of Johnson's carries, against Houston, last season, Collinsworth hesitated before applying a block, and Johnson slammed into him, popping him over the secondary like a cork out of a champagne bottle. "People ask who's the toughest guy I ever played against," deadpans Collinsworth, "and I say Pete Johnson."
Later in that game, on third and 20, Johnson carried the ball into two Oilers. Collinsworth started trotting off the field, sure that Johnson was stopped and the field-goal unit would be coming on. But Johnson scattered the Houston defenders like a bowling ball scattering pins, and when Collinsworth looked around, he saw that Johnson had picked up the first down. "I thought about going over to the two guys lying on the field and telling them I knew how they felt," Collinsworth says.
Although Johnson rushed for 2,959 yards and scored 198 points from 1977 to 1980, the Bengals were 22-40. He was like a Panzer division without air support. But when Collinsworth arrived in 1981, he gave the Bengals a topflight passing game. He outran defenders to haul in 67 passes, and in the process he opened up running—and receiving—room for Johnson. Whenever Quarterback Ken Anderson's downfield receivers were covered last year, he dumped off to Johnson, who caught 46 passes for 318 yards and four TDs.
Johnson's 3.9-yard career rushing average is misleading; he regularly breaks away for long gains, beginning with a 65-yarder his rookie year. "The darn guy hasn't lost any of his speed," says Woody Hayes. "I doubt if there are three fullbacks in the pros today faster than Pete."