Professional football player
A key member of the powerful Detroit Lions squads of the 1970s, Levi Johnson delighted National Football League (NFL) fans with his agile feats at the defensive positions of cornerback and safety. Johnson's career was prematurely ended by injury in the late 1970s. Since he had been named the Lions' most valuable player in 1974 and had followed that up with his strongest season two years later, however, some wondered how far he might have gone in a full-length career.
One of three children, Levi Johnson was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on October 23, 1950. Athletics seemed to run in the family, for Johnson's brother entered major league baseball straight out of high school. Johnson himself, attending Corpus Christi's Roy Miller High School, where he "basically played every sport there was except for golf and tennis," he told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB ). He could have gone on to play one of several sports in college, but a coach pressed him to make a decision after telling him that several different college coaches had come calling to inquire about his talents. Johnson decided on football after noticing how much bigger typical football crowds were than those for other sports.
Even so, Johnson briefly played basketball and ran track at Texas A&M University at Kingsville in addition to playing football. And he was all over the field on offense and defense as a football player as well, taking to the gridiron initially as a quarterback, wide receiver, and running back in addition to his eventual specialty in the defensive backfield. It was a single play that converted Johnson permanently to defense. "I ran a 7 or 8 yard out, and the defensive back read it to a T," Johnson told CBB. The guy folded me up like a jackknife, busted my pancreas." Suffering from internal injuries, Johnson was hospitalized. "I told the coach that's the last time I'm going to be the hittee."
The decision worked out well, however, as Johnson became a defensive star at Texas A&M Kingsville. He set a team record for interceptions, and with his size and speed—he stood six feet, three inches and weighed close to 200 pounds—he had no problem attracting the attention of NFL scouts. He won postseason All-America honors from one magazine. In the 1973 draft, Johnson was drafted in the third round by the Detroit Lions.
Johnson got into every game as a rookie, grabbing five interceptions for 82 yards and taking three kickoff returns for an impressive 51 total yards. Legendary Lions defensive back Lem Barney served as a mentor to Johnson, helping him fit in amidst the pressures of coming to big-time sports for the first time. Johnson credited Barney with "just basically making me realize football is a team game. What you do and what you say and how you act has a direct reflection on your teammates and your organization and you and your family," Johnson told CBB.
Benefiting from Barney's guidance as he played opposite Barney at the position of right cornerback, Johnson flourished from the start with the Lions. After leading the Lions squad with five pass interceptions, he was named to All-Rookie teams by several publications. He did even better over the 1974 season, once again notching five interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns, and amassing a total of 139 yards in interception returns. He was the sixth Lions player in history to score two interception-return touchdowns in the same season. Grabbing an opposition fumble gave Johnson another touchdown for a total of three, and with all these achievements on the field, Johnson was named the Lions' defensive Most Valuable Player for 1974.
Johnson intercepted three passes in 1975, scoring one touchdown on a fumble recovery. In 1976 he had his best year yet, with six interceptions for 206 yards (sixth-best in Lion team history) and one touchdown. Between 1973 and 1976 Johnson didn't miss a single game, and he seemed to be hitting his stride on the way to a top-flight NFL career. In addition to his role in the defensive backfield he was a threat in the special-teams department, with five blocked punts over the course of his career.
Then, in the third game of the 1977 season, against the Philadelphia Eagles, disaster struck. With two interceptions by halftime, Johnson was already a candidate for a spot in the next morning's newspaper headlines. But he injured his knee in the second half and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve. The knee healed, but in training camp before the 1978 season he ruptured an Achilles tendon. He sat that season out as well. As the 1979 season approached, Johnson told CBB, he found that he had "lost a step." Doctors advised him to quit if he valued his future health, and, newly married as of 1978, he agreed.
With two daughters (and eventually a grandchild) to support, Johnson spent 19 years working for Mel Farr Ford and Lincoln Mercury in Oak Park, Michigan, near Detroit, a dealership founded by a former Lions running back that for many years was the largest African-American-owned business in the United States. He later signed on with another dealership, Stu Evans Lincoln Mercury, where he was working as of 2004. But he never completely lost touch with the game of football, and he became a familiar figure of the Detroit-area sports scene.
Working with kids at football camps and taking such community-oriented posts as spokesman for the Police Athletic League, Johnson made many appearances on behalf of charities associated with the Lions. He appeared on a program called Football Sunday on the Fox television network's Detroit affiliate in the 1990s, and several times in the early 2000s he served as Alumni Honorary Captain at Lions' home football games. "It's always been about people, you know, I want to be around people," Johnson told CBB by way of summarizing his post-NFL career. On the field in the 1970s, however, this people person and natural salesman was something else again: a figure who struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.
At a Glance …
Born on October 23, 1950, in Corpus Christi, TX; married and divorced; children: two daughters. Education: Texas A&M University, Kingsville, BA.
Career: Detroit Lions, professional football player, 1973-79; Mel Farr Ford & Lincoln Mercury, Oak Park, MI, salesman, 1980s and 1990s; Stu Evans Lincoln Mercury, salesman.
Awards: Detroit Lions, Most Valuable Defensive Player, 1974; named to several All-Rookie teams, 1973.
Addresses: Home— Westland, MI.
Carroll, Bob, et al., Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, HarperCollins, 2004.
"Levi Johnson," Lions History: Top 100, www.lionsfans.com/history/journal/journal_comments.asp?JournalID=79 (October 7, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Levi Johnson, October 5, 2004, and from Detroit Lions press releases, December 19, 2001 and October 15, 2003.
—James M. Manheim
"Johnson, Levi." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/johnson-levi
"Johnson, Levi." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/johnson-levi
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