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Ricky Zeller

Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.

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Johnson all-time great pass-rusher

Posted May 11, 2011

The numbers aren’t lost to former Packers defensive end Ezra Johnson. Sack totals are a dark zone before 1982, when they first became an official NFL statistic. What is known is that from ’82-87, Johnson had 41.5 sacks in Green Bay and he ranks fifth in team history; however, the quarterbacks he chased down in the five years prior would be enough to make him the club’s all-time leader.

Johnson had a career-high 20.5 sacks in ’78 when he finished second in the NFL, added 3.5 the year before as a rookie and had a combined 15 in ’79-’80. His ’81 total has been lost in the fog of history, but estimates are he had 89 sacks in his career.

In all, Johnson led the club six times over his 11 years, and that total would rank first in team record books above Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila’s 74.5. Of course, most football historians believe Willie Davis may have hit triple digits.

“I think about that when I look at all of those bubble gum cards I have from my playing days,” Johnson said from his home near Atlanta recently. “I look at the back of them with the statistics and think maybe if sacks were official back then, maybe I could be the team’s all-time leader. That would be something. I’m still happy with the way I played.”

Johnson was the club’s second No. 1 pick in 1977 at 28th overall. The Packers aimed to settle their problems up front on defense in that draft, taking Kansas defensive end Mike Butler at ninth overall, and the two served as Green Bay’s bookends for the next seven seasons.

Though he played at tiny Morris Brown, a school near Atlanta with about 2,000 students, Johnson was still on the radar of NFL scouts. Oakland owner Al Davis had the defensive end in his sights and tried to hide the lanky Johnson from the Packers in the final days before the draft.

“I was from a very small school, but I was told by one of the Packers scouts, Buford ‘Baby’ Ray, that I could be drafted high,” Johnson said. “He always had faith in me and thank God for his vision. But Al Davis had me visit Oakland for three days, and it was kind of like he was holding me hostage before he flew me home. The Raiders had an early pick in the second round and he kept saying he was going to make me into a linebacker. That was his plan, but I have no regrets.”

Johnson had played linebacker for his first three years at Morris Brown before moving to defensive end as a senior. When he arrived in Green Bay, he was 235 pounds.

One thing Davis may have understood was that Johnson would never be able to keep on the weight needed at defensive end, particularly while battling offensive tackles. His lack of bulk was a blessing as a speed-rusher, but a curse when the players were forced to weigh-in weekly.

“I used to stuff a five-pound weight in my pants before getting on the scale,” Johnson said. “I was always eating midnight snacks, but my metabolism was just too fast. Most guys were trying to lose weight every week from drinking beer, but they would suggest that I drink a little beer to put some weight on.”

Despite his lack of an anchor, the sacks kept coming, but success didn’t follow on a grand scale for the team during that era. Johnson played in the postseason in the strike-shortened year of ’82, when the Packers were 5-3-1, and were a tough out from ’83-85, finishing 8-8 each season. In ’83, Johnson posted 14.5 sacks.

The club’s only other winning record during his career was ’78, when Green Bay was 8-7-1 but finished out of the playoffs. That season Johnson was voted to the Pro Bowl.

“That was a good year, but we went in the tank over the last half of the season,” Johnson said. “We had a very good defense back then, but there were challenges. Other than Mike Butler, it’s hard to name the defensive ends or tackles we played with during my career. It would have been nice if there was a big defensive tackle in there when the quarterback went to step up into the pocket.”

In 1980, Johnson was caught snacking on a hot dog that a fan handed him while on the sidelines at Lambeau Field during the preseason finale, with the Packers’ trailing Denver, 38-0. He was fined $1,000 and forced to apologize to the team.

Three back surgeries had moved Johnson into a role as a situational pass-rusher over his final seasons with the Packers, and in ’88 he departed for the Colts, playing in Indianapolis for two years before finishing his career with Houston from ’90-91. He played in 191 career games, 148 of them in Green Bay.

“I am a Packer,” Johnson said. “I only have one regret from my NFL career and it’s that I couldn’t sign a one-day contract and retire as a Packer. That’s what I am. It’s the best place in the world to play.”

Johnson and his wife, Carmen, will soon celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary and they have four children. His oldest daughter, Carlonda, was born in Green Bay and is now 23. His daughter Dezra, 18, is graduating from high school this month. He has two sons: Ezra Jr., 16, and Cameron, 12.

Ezra, Jr. and Cameron both play sports. Ezra is bigger than his father at nearly 300 pounds; Cameron is reed-thin.

“I tell Ezra that if I had his size, I wouldn’t have even allowed me to practice with the rest of the team,” Johnson said with a laugh. “They wouldn’t have even allowed me to participate. Keeping the weight on for me isn’t really a problem anymore.”

For a listing of more 'Where are they now?' stories on packers.com, click here.

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