Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers kicker Norm Johnson who played for the Steelers from 1995-1998.
You came to play for the Steelers in 1995 after kicking for Seattle and Atlanta. What made you choose to play for the Steelers?
That’s an easy one. My first year in Atlanta was special team coach Bobby April’s first year in the NFL. When the new coaches came in in my third season they cleaned house with the other coaches and we knew the players were next. I was the league’s best kicker over those four years in Atlanta, but the new special teams coach was also the assistant head coach – Frank Gansz. He had a reputation for getting rid of guys no matter how good they were. He got rid of Lowry, Morten Anderson, Murray, and Jan Stenerud. In fact when he was hired Murray called me and told me to watch out – that that’s what he does. He brings in his own people.
I had a 96%+ kicking percentage when I was there – even though Gansz’s stupid practice habits got me injured. But even so, I found myself on the streets. Bobby April knew me well and he was in Pittsburgh. So that was the reason I went there. They had a kicker there then but they didn’t like him much, and after two weeks of sitting out they brought me in and cut him.
Any pressure following a kicker like Gary Anderson?
I knew Gary. He and I and Morten all came into the NFL the same year – in ’82. And I wasn’t following him directly.
I also had a high level of confidence. I wasn’t cocky, but I kicked well in Atlanta. I had no problem holding my own. When I retired, three of the top four scorers in NFL history were all from the ’82 class – me, Morten, and Gary. The other guy was George Blanda.
Your first year there make it to Super Bowl. How did you prepare for the pressure of that game and how did coaches help?
It was interesting then. Some things sucked. It was the only Super Bowl I was ever in, so it was great being in it but it sucked it was the only one. Evidently, the year before there was a lot of planning by the team for the Super Bowl before they got there. They had all of the plans done ahead of time – all they had to do was just bet lowly old San Diego. Then they’d be off to the Super Bowl. Well, then they lost that game.
Dan Rooney said after that he’d never let that happen again. So the next year when they got to the Super Bowl. no plans had been made, It was a scramble and not as great of an experience as it could have been because of that.
Any team like that, you’d think they’d have at least minimal planning. But it was less than normal.
How did you deal with the pressure?
I spent 14 years in the NFL. Seattle, we were known locally, but weren’t known as a powerhouse nationally. In Atlanta, we beat San Francisco, won our division, had Rison and Deion, but it wasn’t a professional football town. We’d have been more known playing for a college team.
So when I came to Pittsburgh, it was the top of the top. And when we got to the Super Bowl, I thought about that more. I was in my 14th year and I’d bet most of the people watching the Super Bowl never heard of me. They’d make their impressions of me off of one game. I carried that around with me for the entire first week. I remember taking videos of the first week, but I lost my camera on the plane and lost all of those memories.
Anyway, I thought about the game that first week and the reach it had. That all they’ll know of me is if i miss it or not. I had anxiety that whole first week. I called the Atlanta Chaplain and talked to him about it – I was close to him. I talked to the Steelers’ Chaplain too but I didn’t know him as well. I had a tough time dealing with it.
After that first week though, it gets into real football. It’s football week that second week and then I was OK. By game time it was just another game. The only difference was that it had a much longer halftime. Normal halftimes are about 12 minutes, but the Super Bowl halftime was 45 minutes.
Tell me about the onside kick in the Super Bowl. What spurred that on.
The kick was a surprise to me. It was something I practiced and learned in Seattle and mastered there, but Chuck Knox was too conservative to run it there. When I went to Atlanta Bobby April was fresh out of college. I showed him the onside kick and he liked it but we never used it. Bobby knew I had that kick in me though.
The week leading up to the Super Bowl we watched film and Bobby noticed that their left front guy vacated his spot super early. It left a big hole on that side. Bobby told me we might use that kick in the Super Bowl and I just said “Yeah, right! I’m sure we’ll call this in the Super Bowl.” But, we practiced it anyway,
So, in the Super Bowl, I kick the field goal and come to the sideline, and Bobby tells me “Onside right!” Say what? I was shocked, but I had to play it off and pretend like I was just doing my regular routine. Hold my tee a certain way, move my arms a certain way – I had to do all of the regular things. I approached the ball on the kickoff and I see the guy already take off. Now, I’m thinking to myself that I shouldn’t have seen, I’m not focusing. But it worked.
People ask me what biggest kick of my life was. And while I won some games with a field goal, this had to be it. I never did it before and to do it on such a big stage and with a play that changed the momentum of the game. To execute it so well on a big stage.
What routines/superstitions did you have to stay loose and ready in games?
It’s funny, because my superstition was to be as unsuperstitious as possible, if that makes sense.
I think so?
Ha. I never had a routine and that was on purpose. I’d wear different shows or socks, just wouldn’t do the same thing each time. Some guys would wear the same things, wear the same chin strap they wore in high school. But I didn’t do anything routine. The one thing is I never practiced extra points. Why even try? I thought it was ludicrous. I only practiced field goals. It’s funny because when I retired I had the longest extra point made streak on the NFL.
How did Coach Cowher handle practices insofar as special teams were concerned?
Well, if you remember Cowher was a special teams coach so he placed a huge emphasis on special teams. Not that we practiced more than other teams, just the way he talked about them. Just hearing him talk about the importance of special teams – you could tell they mattered a lot to him.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on the new special teams rules on kickoffs?
To be honest, I haven’t followed the changes as much this year. I don’t know them all. In followed them a lot last year but they slipped below my radar this year.
I can tell you I would hate to see kickoffs moved away from the game. It’s tradition – the way you start every game. I’m not aware if there are more injuries on kickoffs or not – I think there may be some numbers to suggest it. I know they want they want to make it safer, but they can take it too far. We knew there were risks, and we took them to play the game. I don’t want to see the game turned into two-handed touch football.
And the rules about hitting with your helmet and leading with your head. Helmet-to-helmet hits happen somewhere on the field on every play. So, now it’s become subjective on what they call and when and what gets penalized. That seems pretty dumb to me.