FOR MUCH of his life, D.J. Johnson has lived and worked in
worlds that demand rigid conformity. He is the child of a
military man, and now he's employed by the National Football
League, notorious for fining players whose jerseys aren't tucked
into their pants. That helps explain why the 29-year-old Falcon
cornerback enjoys dabbling in the free-form world of fashion.
"I have to conform so often," Johnson says, "fashion gives me
the freedom to do what I want." He insists his appearance has
never been dictated by the need to make a statement, but it's
clear he's not afraid to stand out in a crowd. As a student at
Male High in Louisville in the early 1980s, Johnson adhered to
the school's strict dress code--but pierced both ears. The school
then instituted "the D.J. Rule": no earrings for guys. "I never
looked to be different," he says. "But my style has always been
a little different."
A little too different for some. Although he was a starter at
Kentucky, Johnson describes his time in Lexington as "five years
of hell," largely because he had a terrible relationship with
then Wildcat coach Jerry Claiborne. Johnson believes the
antagonism was largely the result of his appearance. "I was
Dennis Rodman long before Rodman was," he says. "I had streaks
of blue and blond and fuchsia in my hair, and I had two pierced
ears. I did not exactly conform to Coach Claiborne's idea of
what a gentleman should be. He judged me by what I looked like,
and he never bothered to take the time to realize that I'm a
pretty nice guy."
Whatever problems he might have had with his college coach,
Johnson was good enough to be voted the Wildcats' MVP in 1988,
and the following spring he was drafted by the Steelers in the
seventh round. In 1990, after a rookie season in which he played
primarily on special teams, Johnson moved into the starting
lineup alongside Rod Woodson. Over the next four years, he
started 62 of 64 games, intercepted 11 passes and finished first
or second on the Steelers in passes defensed three times. Last
season, after signing a four-year, $5 million contract with the
Falcons, Johnson led the team with five interceptions.
Johnson's interest in fashion was born of frustration. "When I
was in college, I could never find anything I liked in stores,"
he says. "All the men's clothes were boring, so I decided to buy
my own fabric and have clothes made for me." Johnson's idea of
style tended toward paisleys and plaids. "Back then, plaid was
preppy," he says. "But by changing a few seams and adding
pleats, I made plaid nouveau. I was more outlandish then."
These days, Johnson uses adjectives such as "crisp," "tapered"
and "neoclassical" to describe his clothes, and says that Donna
Karan is his favorite designer. "She makes clothes that I'd like
to make myself," he says. Emulating Karan is precisely what
Johnson hopes to do when his football career is over. Although
he wants to put his journalism degree to use as a broadcaster,
Johnson intends to market some of his designs.
While Johnson's style has evolved, his attitude on conformity
has not. "I don't care if you're black, white, gay, straight or
weigh 600 pounds," he says. "I will never judge anyone by what
they wear or how they look."
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND The Falcon cornerback, a nonconformist for years, has a style of his own he would like to turn into a business. [D.J. Johnson]