Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Cancer claims ex-Brown Eddie Johnson at 43

CLEVELAND - Former Cleveland Browns linebacker Eddie Johnson kept a positive spirit despite terminal cancer, just as he would inspire his teammates and fans with a determination to win on the football field. Johnson, 43, died Tuesday night after a two-year battle with colon cancer. With the Browns, he was known as "the assassin" because of his forceful tackles. After he became a minister in 1993, he had dedicated his life to helping others.

"God wants to use me," he said shortly after the cancer diagnosis.

Some of Johnson's teammates rallied around him after he became ill, holding benefits to help pay for his medical bills and being by his bedside right to his final day.

"E.J. was always such a fighter," Hanford Dixon, who was drafted by the Browns with Johnson in 1981, told The Plain Dealer.

Johnson, along with Dixon, was partly responsible for inspiring creation of the Dawg Pound, Cleveland's notorious bleacher section of rowdy fans.

During training camp in 1984, Johnson and cornerbacks Dixon and Frank Minnifield would bark when one of their defensive teammates made a big hit or play. The barking was soon adopted by Browns fans, who would taunt and try to intimidate opposing teams with the woofing and by tossing dog biscuits at them.

Johnson was chosen in the seventh round in the 1981 draft and worked his way into a starting role in 1984, when he led the team in tackles with 172 despite being smaller than the usual NFL linebacker.

Johnson started 59 of 60 games between 1984 and 1988 and had a string of 101 consecutive games played snapped in the 1988 opener.

He was part of the Browns in three AFC championship games, all losses to Denver.

"Eddie didn't always have the most talent but he had the most heart," said Dixon. "He was one of the hardest hitters on the team and our inspirational leader."

Born Feb. 5, 1959, Johnson, who was divorced, is survived by his three children, Rahshan, 19, a quarterback at Georgia Tech, Elise, 15, and Elexis, 13.

Another close friend from those 1980s Browns teams was quarterback Bernie Kosar. Johnson had been working for the Bernie Kosar Trust, writing for Bernie's Insiders Magazine and working as a youth director for Patrick Hergenroeder of the Hergenroeder Orthopedic Clinic, an orthopedic surgeon in the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls.

"I basically motivate kids to try to stay healthy and do the right thing, stay in school," Johnson said last August.

Johnson said his biggest concern was for his children because cancer runs in his family.

"I want them to lead a very productive life. No one would have thought at age 41 that I would have surgery for colon cancer."

In 1995, Johnson was sentenced to 12 months on federal probation and 200 hours of community service for harboring a fugitive felon who was his half-brother.

Johnson was perhaps most proud of his work as an associate pastor at Harvest Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland.

"Eddie was a very religious man and he believed God would help him beat this," Dixon said. "I never heard him moan or complain."

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