Skip to main content
Original Issue

He's scaling the heights

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

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."

"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."

Johnson hasn't lost any of his cockiness, either.

"Who's your ideal fullback?" he's asked.

"Me," Johnson says.

Johnson was born Willie James Hammock in Fort Valley, Ga. Depending on whom he's talking to, he says that he got the name Johnson from his father, his grandfather, L.B.J, or the Band-Aid company. His mother says she nicknamed him Pete when he was two days old, but he has a different story. "My Uncle James started calling me that when I was five," he says. "On hot summer days I'd chase the Peter Pan ice cream truck. My favorite flavor was butter pecan."

Johnson was raised by great-grandparents on a farm. He hardly remembers his father; his mother, who was only 13 when he was born, moved to Long Beach, N.Y. to live with her mother. Johnson recalls the farm as a generally happy place. He adored his younger brother, Jerry, who lived with the boys' grandmother in Long Beach and would visit the farm once or twice a year. Pete called him Pretty Brother. One summer, when Pete was about nine, he had a fight with Pretty Brother and told him, "I hope I never see you again." A couple of months later, Pete heard that Pretty Brother had slipped off a rope under a bridge and drowned in Long Island Sound. "It set me to thinking," he says. "Life is a lot shorter than people realize. They work so hard they never have time to enjoy life. All they have to look forward to is dying. When I go, I don't want anyone to say I haven't lived."

Johnson played six years of high school football. His career got its start in the seventh grade when, as a 5'5", 155-pound drummer for the school band, he caught the eye of the Hunt High football coach. Soon afterward he was moved up to the varsity. It was about then that he began using the name Pete Johnson. "The school frowned on 12-year-olds' playing on the varsity," he explains. When Johnson was in the 10th grade Auburn reps tried to recruit him. He says they thought he was a senior.

High school football was pretty tough in Peach County. Johnson's coach made his players block an idling pickup truck with tires strapped on the grill. Occasionally he popped the clutch and let it block back. "Coach just wanted to see if we were paying attention," says Johnson. Before his senior year, Johnson moved to Long Island to be with his mother, and that year he signed a letter of intent with West Virginia. Then Hayes showed up. True to form, Johnson kept the Ohio State coach waiting half an hour while he set up props for Brigadoon.

Johnson says he chose Ohio State because his mother liked Hayes. Archie Griffin, then a Buckeye freshman and now a Bengal halfback, says the real reason was a girl Johnson met at a party when he visited Columbus to look the campus over. He thought she'd be there the following semester. She wasn't.

Johnson and Griffin formed a terrific tandem for the Buckeyes. Griffin got the yardage, two Heismans and a lot of press. Johnson scored the touchdowns, a Big Ten record 58.

Johnson's two names caused some confusion at Ohio State. He played football as Pete Johnson and enrolled in classes as Willie Hammock. Hayes started wondering what was going on when he never got any grade reports for Johnson. Johnson at the same time was compounding the confusion by signing his classwork "Pete Johnson." Hardly anybody knew who he was, including maybe himself. "Woody told me I had to make up my mind what I wanted to be called," he says. Goodby Willie Hammock.

He was an education major, but Griffin says Johnson's real interest was women studies. Today, Johnson's work in that field is highly esteemed by his teammates. "He's smooth," says Griffin. "You listen to him talk to a woman on the phone, and you think he's real small."

The Cisco Kid is equipped with all the amenities of bachelorhood. The $18,000 '77 Chevy has wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, a refrigerator, a stereo, a TV and, alongside the bed, a six-bottle wine rack that Johnson calls his "cellar." He named the van for his favorite TV show. "I liked Pancho drinking the wine," he says.

Johnson's pursuit of the good life has made his fluctuating weight a cause cél√®bre in Cincinnati. Coach Forrest Gregg was astounded at the Bengals' 1980 mini-camp when Johnson showed up at 279 pounds. "He looked like a refrigerator with feet," Gregg recalls. "That's ridiculous," counters Johnson. "Refrigerators don't have feet."

The weight question has been a heavy topic ever since. Gregg doesn't want Johnson to weigh much more than 245. Johnson says he's more comfortable around 260. After one 112-yard day that included a 57-yard touchdown run, Johnson marched reporters over to a scale and got on. He tipped in at 262. "That wasn't me out on the field," he said. "I put my brother in my place. Fat men can't run that fast."

Johnson makes light of the weight issue and uses his own inverted logic to answer critics who say his pounding, head-on running style will shorten his career. "You can't shorten your career by running through something," he insists. "Ever see someone get hit by a truck? Whose career gets shortened then?"


This is high stepping for Johnson, who likes to lower his head and then lower the boom.


Johnson customized his van, The Cisco Kid, for wall-to-wall pursuit of the good life.