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He's scaling the heights
Franz Lidz
December 13, 1982
Cincy's Pete Johnson may be overweight, but he can sure bowl you over
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December 13, 1982

He's Scaling The Heights

Cincy's Pete Johnson may be overweight, but he can sure bowl you over

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Pete Johnson, the Cincinnati Bengals' fullback, is as thick, tough and hard to stop as a Sherman tank. He can clank the length of a football field in 9.9 seconds, which is very fast indeed for a guy who sometimes weighs more than 275 pounds. But he's very slow at getting to appointments. He agrees to be at Stouffer's hotel in downtown Cincinnati at noon. When he hasn't shown up by 1 p.m., you call his secretary, Gay Myers. "That's funny," she says, "Pete told me he was on his way." At 1:45, he calls. "I'm on my way," he says. At three o'clock, you call Myers back. "He should arrive any minute," she says. At 5:30, Johnson calls again. "Almost there," he says. "See you at 6:10." To Johnson, 40 minutes is "almost there."

At 7:00, Myers is in the lobby bar. "We'll wait for him together," she says. At 8:00, Johnson swaggers in with his 2-year-old son, Ivan, in tow. "How come you're so late?" you ask. He grins. "I'm not late," he says. "You're early." As it is, Myers says, you're relatively lucky. "When Pete says he'll be somewhere at a certain time," she explains, "it generally means he'll appear anywhere from six to 48 hours later."

Tracking Johnson down is one thing; getting him to talk football is quite another. Rather than sit still on this occasion, he hauls everyone to a suburban pizza joint where man-sized toy animals decked out like rock musicians "play" Elvis Presley tunes. He listens to questions about the Bengals' Super Bowl season of a year ago and his days under Woody Hayes at Ohio State. He listens—but he doesn't answer. He's watching a giant mechanical sheep play a riff from It's Now or Never on electric guitar.

Ivan, who's a little bored, smashes a vanilla ice cream cone against his forehead. Pete giggles. And it's a sight to behold the rippling flesh of the heaviest running back in the NFL—a guy who, at 6 feet tall (and a dubious 6 feet at that), is almost square. Soon he's rocking and rolling in time to an ersatz gorilla in a gold lame suit. The gorilla is the keyboard man for the animal band, which is banging out The King's Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread). "Boy," Johnson says happily, "That organ player sure can jam."

Johnson's insouciance about publicity is one of the reasons he's so unheralded. The truth is, he's practically AFC-champion Cincinnati's entire running attack. He rushed for 1,077 yards and scored 16 touchdowns last season, both Bengal records. He has led Cincinnati in rushing yardage in all five of his pro seasons. At 28 he's already the Bengals' career leader in rushing (4,445), total offense (5,363) and touchdowns (52). So far this season he has a team-leading 409 yards and three TDs for the 4-1 Bengals.

Johnson isn't a sleek, Body by Fisher back like Tony Dorsett or Billy Sims; he's strictly Peterbilt. He's a throwback to the elephant backs of the 60s; he'd sooner run over people than around them. Of course, Johnson is less widely known than either Dorsett or Sims, but then he doesn't seem to care very much about recognition. After a game against the Colts two years ago Johnson was asked if he knew he'd had a team record of 32 carries. "I don't be counting," he said. "I just be playing."

"Pete's just Pete," says Bengal Punter Pat McInally. "Most athletes I know get lost within the system and become conscious of their image as pro football players. But Pete just uses football; it gives him the freedom to be himself. It's not that he's rude; he really is in his own world. You gotta love Pete."

Johnson's big round face with chubby cheeks is lovable. He has the cockiness of a kid with all the toys, but his voice is surprisingly soft, coming from a man the size of a tobacco warehouse.

He always seems to have a smile on his face, a nice combination of the innocent and diabolical. He wears it whether he's driving The Cisco Kid, which is what he calls his customized van, or riding bareback on his stallion, Black Sea, or performing tenor selections from Brigadoon—on which he worked backstage for his high school—in the clubhouse shower. And he wears it when he's barreling through opponents. "When I look at game films of myself," he says, "I always seem to be smiling."

He was smiling in the huddle between carries during a home game last year when a plane appeared overhead trailing a banner. The crowd chanted, "Pete, Pete, Pete." Pete finally looked up and saw an aerial mash note: PETE JOHNSON I LOVE YOU FROM K. He shrugged. "I think there must be a lot of Pete Johnsons in the stadium," he said after the game. "I don't think I'm the only one."

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