Reusse: Vikings DT Johnson assumes unsung stalwart role once held by Larsen

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Brian Peterson, Star Tribune
The Vikings’ Tom Johnson has discovered NFL success the hard way, first playing in Europe, Canada and the Arena League.

There are 11 players who made their careers with the Vikings in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and four are defensive linemen: Alan Page, Carl Eller, John Randle and Chris Doleman.

Jared Allen will make it in due time, and he spent six of his 11 NFL seasons and had 85½ of his 136 sacks with the Vikings. And some day, the veterans committee will do the right thing for Jim Marshall, as it finally did for Mick Tingelhoff, and the NFL’s ironman of line combat will gain a place in Canton.

As you go through the Vikings’ 57 years, all moments of glory have included excellence along the defensive line — most notably, of course, the Purple People Eaters that first carried and then helped the Vikings to their four NFL/NFC championships from 1969 to 1976.

Marshall was an original Viking in 1961; former Gopher Carl Eller joined as a first-round draft choice in 1964; Gary Larsen arrived in a 1965 trade that sent reluctant first-rounder Jack Snow to the Los Angeles Rams and, as the pièce de résistance, Alan Page came in 1967.

Marshall, Eller, Page and Larsen played every game alongside one another from 1968 through 1973, with all four making the Pro Bowls of 1969 and 1970. Doug Sutherland did a three-year apprenticeship and replaced Larsen as a starter at the tackle opposite Page in 1974.

“Gary Larsen … I’ve been told about that man,” said Tom Johnson, current Vikings defensive tackle. “People say that I’m like Larsen, the ‘other guy’ on a great defensive line.”

Larsen built such a reputation for dominance at Concordia (Moorhead) that he was taken by the Rams in the 10th round of the 1964 NFL draft. There were 14 teams in the NFL, so Larsen was the 133rd pick, and that would make someone a fifth-rounder in 2017.

Still, a player out of the MIAC has to be remembered as a long shot to play 11 years, and to start 105 games on one of the most ferocious defensive lines in NFL history.

Johnson rates as an even longer shot to be starting at tackle on a defensive line that is a major piece in the Vikings’ quest to return to a Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season.

He spent two years in junior college and then two at Southern Miss. There were 255 players taken in the 2006 NFL draft and Johnson was not among them.

The Indianapolis Colts cut him twice at the end of training camps. He played in NFL Europe in Cologne, Germany. He had brief stays with the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Rampage and Philadelphia Soul in the Arena Football League.

A reporter was talking with Johnson this week and said: “Playing on the defensive line in the Arena League has to be the worst job in football. What’s there to feel good about in a 60-to-50 game?”

Johnson said: “I wasn’t there long enough to get frustrated. First team I was with, I didn’t know the rules. I kept taking inside rushes, and those were illegal.”

He upgraded to the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders in 2009. “My attitude was, ‘I don’t belong here, I should be playing down south [NFL]. I found out there are a lot of good football players in the CFL that just need a chance. I came back the second year with a different attitude, to make a name for myself as part of an outstanding defense.”

Johnson signed with the Saints in 2011 and spent three years as a backup. The Vikings took a flier on him for the modest salary of $845,000 in 2014. He was a backup in 2014 and 2015, and then missed 11 games because of a torn hamstring in 2016.

He is 33 now and finally the starter next to Linval Joseph, inside Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, on a defensive line made to win.

“They brought in a guy [Datone Jones] for the job this year, but I beat him out,” Johnson said. “Mike Zimmer is one of the most standup guys I’ve ever been around in pro football. If he tells you you’ll have a chance to compete for a job, it’s the truth.”

There are six contributors on this line: the starters, plus Shamar Stephen as a backup run stopper and 11-year veteran Brian Robison as a pass rusher.

“We go into every game with a chip on our shoulders,” Johnson said. “Everson and ‘D’ [Hunter] both were drafted lower than they should have been; the Giants let Linval go; Shamar was way late in draft, and I kicked around everywhere to get here.

“And Brian Rob, he’s the dad of this bunch. We all listen to him.”

Gary Larsen, meet Tom Johnson.

OK, the game’s different, the rotation is different, but they also have been two reliable tackles that complete an outstanding defensive front.

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