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Nov. 1, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
Design offices by night, destroy offenses by day. Virginia Tech linebacker and architecture major Mike Johnson had the angles on just about everything, which explains his status as the Hokies' ACC Legend for 2011.
"I was a nerd who could play football, and that's been me for my entire life," said Johnson, a Hokie from 1980-83, a member of the USFL's small but intriguing alumni society and a 10-year NFL star. Johnson put everything in into his task at the moment, and that left relatively few moments for, say, sleep.
Oh, yeah, Billy Hite knew. The assistant coach who recruited Johnson to Tech from Maryland's suburbs of Washington, D.C., heard and occasionally saw his team's starting middle linebacker breaking curfew like a feeble slice of wood. And he did nothing to stop it.
"Used to sneak out every day to go back to the architecture building," Johnson said. "I thought I was being surreptitious, but he knew about it all the time. He knew I wasn't going to a party."
Unless you consider coursework like Statics and Strength of Materials to be Mardi Gras.
For his final two college football seasons, Johnson's day consisted of work in the architecture studio from 1 p.m. to 4:50 p.m. He'd get out, proceed to practice with a good excuse for lateness and go through the preparation work for Tech's upcoming opponent.
On the field, he would have been known as the best Hokie defender of his day if not for Bruce Smith, a terror off the edge both at Tech as an Outland Trophy-winner and in a Hall of Fame NFL career. Together, Smith and Johnson, two common names, made for a most uncommon group. In 1983, the Hokies allowed only one opponent to score more than 14 points in a 9-2 season.
Through his four seasons with the Hokies, Johnson and his teammates went 31-14. In today's system, they would have gone to four bowl games. They had to settle for one.
In his final two seasons, Johnson averaged nearly 13 tackles per game - a figure that would have been good enough to lead the ACC in four of its first six seasons as a 12-member conference.
Johnson was an Academic All-American whose senior thesis was a project that sought to integrate commercial real estate and residential space in a blighted area of D.C. The general topic has been his professional passion, and it actually helped him meld the disparate worlds of urbane thought and chaotic rambling on a field. "To be able to design, you have to understand space conceptually, but to do that well, it has to tie into people, to the individuals who inhabit that space," he said. "Understanding people has been the connection."
Partly because of his position on the field and partly because of his intellect, Johnson was often the defensive signal-caller throughout a distinguished pro career. Those days began in the USFL, the springtime upstart that challenged the NFL before imploding.
Playing for coach Jim Mora and beside linebacker Sam Mills, both of whom would also enjoy NFL success, Johnson helped the Stars to league titles in the final two years of its three-year run. In 1984, the team represented Philadelphia. The following year, it existed under the Baltimore name but retained its operating base in Pennsylvania and played its home games in an ACC venue, the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium.
When the USFL went under, Johnson found opportunity with the NFL's Cleveland Browns, for whom he played in 1986 and 1987. In the offseason, he kept his head in the design game by working for a protégé of Buckminster Fuller, the futuristic architect best known for advancing the geodesic dome.
During Johnson's career, the NFL became a year-round time commitment with mini-camps and conditioning sessions, and he embraced it. In his decade in the league, 1986-95, only two linebackers exceeded Johnson's total of 13 interceptions league-wide. For his efforts, he was twice honored with Pro Bowl appearances in his eight seasons with the Detroit Lions.
"To be a really good pro football player, you have to put a lot of yourself into it," he said. "I had to back away from design and construction and thoughts and ideas and focus on football. You've got to let part of yourself sleep for a while." Johnson started 125 games in his NFL tenure, and three of his eight Lions teams won 10 or more games. (Between 1934 and 2010, the Lions enjoyed a total of four 10-win seasons without Johnson on the roster.)
Eventually, the craziness came to a satisfying ending. Retirement from football meant he'd no longer have to dodge B and C batteries, which Browns fans once threw at Denver Broncos players from one rowdy end zone at the ancient Cleveland Stadium. Johnson moved to Columbia, Md., and resumed his architecture career.
This fall, he juggled projects ranging from a church to an office development. News of his choice as Tech's honoree surprised him for reasons beyond the fact that Tech didn't join the ACC until 2004.
"Legend? Wow," he said. "Maybe you want to call me just some old guy."
As long as you include the part about smarts.