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Leshon Johnson grew up with Pet Bulls and Pit Bulls. The son of a professional rodeo cowboy, he rode his first bull, Double Bubble, at age seven. "Believe it or not," says the Northern Illinois tailback, "I wasn't thrown." Taming his first pit bull, Did-he-bite-cha?, was something else entirely. "If Did-he-bite-cha? saw another dog, he'd run straight at it and lock on," Johnson says. "When you started to hear bones popping, you knew the other dog's time was getting short."
These days the 6-foot, 201-pound senior bulls over the opponents he's pitted against with a ferocious single-mindedness. "If I see a linebacker just sitting back waiting for me, I start licking my chops," Johnson growls. "He knows that as soon as I get the ball in my hands, I'm coming at him to do some damage. Once you get it in your head that you want to punish people, you can't help yourself."
Last year Johnson was eighth in Division I-A in rushing, with 1,338 yards; San Diego State's Marshall Faulk is the only returning player who had more. Next spring Johnson is likely to become the first running back from Northern Illinois to be drafted by the NFL since Jerry Latin, who was picked in the 11th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975.
Like his pooches, Johnson knew only one direction while growing up in Haskell, Okla.—straight ahead. As a senior at Haskell High, he reached the end zone 12 times while piling up 1,154 yards on just 104 carries. He was the first player from Haskell to be named to the all-state team. But Johnson was then a lean 155 pounds, and when no college recruited him, he considered turning pro bull rider. It was his father who talked him out of it. "There ain't no retirement plan," counseled Luther Johnson, a veteran of 23 years on the rodeo circuit. "If you don't have a good night, you don't get paid."LeShon's high school coach urged him to walk on at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, a junior college football powerhouse. "Bull riding ain't going nowhere," said Dad. "You've only got one chance at football, so snatch it." LeShon snatched it.
Slow out of the chute (he didn't start for the Golden Norsemen until his fourth game), Johnson went on to gain 1,301 yards over two seasons—the third highest total in school history behind former Tampa Bay Buccaneer running back James Wilder and current San Diego Charger running back Marion Butts.
Johnson was all set to transfer to Tennessee from Northeastern Oklahoma, but he came up three credits shy of qualifying for admission. He enrolled at Northern Illinois and had to sit out a year of football, but he has been rampaging like a bee-stung Ferdinand ever since. He gained 296 yards last season after the first defender hit him.
So who is more challenging, LeShon, a bucking bull or a charging linebacker? He reckons a linebacker. "Bulls have patterns," he says. "Their front and back ends can't go up at the same time. Bulls are stronger than linebackers, but they're less intelligent. Usually."