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Big man makes big impact on field and in life.
By Kristian Hasse
With a nickname like “Hoss,” Huntsville’s David Johnson almost had no choice but to play football. And thanks to his nearly 13-pound birth weight, Johnson had a head start on making a big impact on the field for Butler High and the University of Alabama.
A member of the Crimson Tide’s 1980s All-Decade Team as an offensive lineman, Johnson is also known as the last player recruited and signed by then-Alabama coach Bear Bryant.
For Johnson, a two-time prep all-state selection, the decision to attend Alabama wasn’t a slam dunk. Schools from all over were trying to lure the 6-3, 255-pounder.
“When I was getting recruited, I just got recruited because of my size. There was no real game plan,” Johnson said. “It just happened to me. God blessed me with the ability to play sports and gave me size, which is a good combination.”
Johnson enjoyed the process, especially meeting big names like Herschel Walker, Vince Dooley, Pat Dye and Bryant.
After eliminating Auburn and Georgia from his list, Johnson was down to Alabama and tiny Liberty (Va.) University, where he had family ties.
“Alabama was masters at recruiting,” Johnson said. “You got the creed of Alabama football in the mail. … I got a call once or twice a week from (different coaches on staff). … We got telegrams. … They sent out postcards. This is all old school now.”
Johnson was also impressed by something Bryant did when the legendary coach came to Huntsville to meet with Johnson, his parents and grandmother.
“Every time my grandmother left the room and came back in, he stood up,” Johnson said. “He didn’t do it to impress anybody. It was like clockwork.
“Also, I remember him saying to my parents, ‘I’ll be fair to him (Hoss).’ Nobody ever said ‘I’ll be fair.’ That meant a lot to me.”
After not signing with anybody on National Signing Day in February 1982 so he could concentrate on playing basketball for Butler in the state tournament, he drove to Tuscaloosa and signed with Alabama on St. Patrick’s Day.
Johnson redshirted in what would be Bryant’s last season. While he didn’t suit up for a game in 1982, he practiced during the week on the scout team. The following four seasons, he went on to play 48 games – starting 28 – and took part in three bowl games.
During his Tide career, Johnson played in four straight wild Iron Bowl games against Auburn.
In 1983, there was a tornado warning during the game, which Auburn won 23-20 thanks to Bo Jackson’s 256 rushing yards.
The next season, in a 17-15 win by the Tide, Jackson went the wrong way on a block for a teammate, who was tackled inside the Alabama 5-yard line late in the game, and later Auburn missed a field goal with nine seconds left.
Then in 1985, Van Tiffin kicked a 52-yard field goal as time expired to give Alabama a 25-23 win in a game that saw four lead changes in the fourth quarter.
And finally in 1986, Auburn scored on a reverse with less than a minute left in a 21-17 victory. As one would expect, the preparation to take on your main rival always rockets to a higher level.
“That (Iron Bowl) week was very hard,” he said. “The intensity was ratcheted up. … After you got through with the game before the Auburn game … the next day, it was a whole different atmosphere. From everybody – the news, the coaches. They turned it up big time because of the amount of intensity into that game.”
Johnson’s favorite Iron Bowl memory? The 1985 game. The one he always gets asked about. With the Tide down one and just six seconds left in the game. Johnson was on the field when the rest of the kicking team rushed onto the field after a pass play.
“Boom! He kicks it,” Johnson remembers. “I blocked down. Then all of a sudden, it’s almost like nobody was in the stadium. I didn’t hear anything. It got quiet for a nanosecond. Then all of a sudden, there’s this roar. You don’t know what the roar is for. … I didn’t have my glasses on. I can’t see 52 yards away. … We start jumping around. It was kind of like a storybook ending, at least for us.”
After graduating with a radio/TV broadcasting degree, Johnson signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in April 1987, playing one game before getting cut. Later that season, he played three games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being released and returning home for good.
Johnson retired in September from Huntsville’s Parks and Recreation department after 25 years, finishing as the city’s football director. And he’s known to be a master on the grill as he occasionally cooks barbecue for church groups, family reunions and other functions.
But the sport continues to be in Johnson’s blood as he’s now the national football director for SCORE International, a sports mission ministry based out of Chattanooga, Tenn. SCORE arranges overseas trips using different sports as a platform to present the gospel to those who attend clinics and games.
“I go out to recruit players, coaches and teams from high school, college and pros to go on short-term mission trips,” Johnson said. “Most trips are a week; some are longer than that. … It’s short-term trips for long-term effects.”
Johnson has traveled to Israel, Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic and Turkey to teach the fundamentals of football and build relationships. He has plans to visit Japan in two years.
So what else is on the horizon for Johnson, who is a member of the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame?
Besides continuing his efforts with SCORE, he’s looking forward to attending big college football games like Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Florida State in the upcoming years.
“It helps me evaluate how blessed I am to have played in the games I got to play in.”