Pepper Johnson didn’t just have a catchy nickname. He was also one of Bill Parcells’ defensive stalwarts during the New York Giants’ Super Bowl years in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Johnson fortified a Giants defense that also featured Carl Banks, Gary Reasons, Harry Carson, and Lawrence Taylor. With Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick patrolling the sidelines, New York won two Super Bowl titles in Johnson’s seven-year tenure with the team.
Johnson, who later reunited with Belichick and Parcells in his later stints with the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets, emerged as a defensive mastermind during his 13-year pro football career.
To nobody’s surprise, Johnson earned three more Super Bowl rings as one of Bill Belichick’s assistants with the New England Patriots in the early-to-mid 2000s.
From all indications, Pepper Johnson was destined to become a football coach after he retired from the National Football League.
Early Life and College Days with the Ohio State Buckeyes
Thomas “Pepper” Johnson was born in Detroit, MI on July 29, 1964. He has two sisters, Adiva and Yvonne, and a brother, Alvin.
Johnson got his famous nickname from an aunt who saw him sprinkling his cereal with pepper as a baby.
“I only did that once,” an amused Johnson told The New York Times’ Dave Anderson in the fall of 1990. “I put sugar on my cereal now. Or I buy sweetened cereals.”
Pepper Johnson attended Mackenzie High School in the Motor City from 1978 to 1981. Johnson, a three-sport star who also excelled in baseball and basketball, evolved into an all-state linebacker with the Mackenzie Stags.
Instead of committing to the in-state Michigan Wolverines, Johnson committed to their fierce rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes, in his senior season.
— Pepper Johnson (@PepJ52) January 4, 2021
Pepper Johnson attended the Ohio State University from 1982 to 1985. He played for Ohio State Buckeyes head football coach Earle Bruce.
Johnson paired up with linebacker Chris Spielman in the mid-1980s. They formed one of the best linebacker tandems in college football of that particular era.
Johnson led the Buckeyes in tackles as a junior and senior. His teammates voted him team captain and defensive MVP in 1984 and 1985. Not only that, but Johnson also earned All-Big Ten honors during those two years.
Johnson capped off his impressive four-year tenure in Columbus, OH by becoming an All-American linebacker following the 1985 NCAA season.
The Buckeyes won an identical nine games in each of Johnson’s four years with the team from 1982 to 1985. They won the 1982 Holiday Bowl, the 1983 Fiesta Bowl, and the 1985 Citrus Bowl during those four years.
Johnson finished his college football career with 379 tackles – the fourth-highest total in Buckeyes’ football program history at the time.
Pepper Johnson was just getting started. He soon embarked on a thirteen-year career in the National Football League and became an integral part of a New York Giants team that won two Super Bowl titles in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Pro Football Career
The New York Giants made Pepper Johnson the 51st overall selection of the 1986 NFL Draft. He went on to spend the first seven years of his 13-year NFL career with the Giants.
Johnson came off the bench and played all sixteen games as a rookie in 1986. He joined forces with a Giants linebackers corps that consisted of Carl Banks, Gary Reasons, Harry Carson, Andy Headen, Byron Hunt, and Lawrence Taylor.
Johnson and Banks were teammates for a combined nine seasons with the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns. Johnson’s leadership skills and passion impressed Banks during their time together in the two cities.
“As a teammate, if I was in a fight, the first person I’m calling is Pepper Johnson,” Banks told ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss in January 2010. “I guarantee Pepper would be there without a doubt. He has great leadership skills, he is passionate for the game, and if you’re playing for him you’ll do anything for the guy.”
With Johnson on board, New York won an impressive fourteen games in head coach Bill Parcells’ fourth year at the helm. The Giants won their first Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, 39-20.
The Giants averaged ten wins per year in Pepper Johnson’s seven seasons with the team from 1986 to 1992. They made three postseason appearances and won another Super Bowl title in the 1990 NFL season.
Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right in the game’s waning moments and allowed the Giants to escape with a thrilling 20-19 victory over the upstart Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
Pepper Johnson was a Super Bowl champion for the second time in his career.
Johnson, who had 115 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, one interception, three forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery in the regular season, also earned his first First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in 1990.
— Pepper Johnson (@PepJ52) September 27, 2018
Johnson told Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino in the summer of 2018 that the Giants had an annual linebacker dinner during his time in New York from 1986 to 1992.
Harry Carson convinced Giants head coach Bill Parcells to give him some of the fine money, which the linebackers spent eating hamburgers at a joint such as Fuddruckers.
Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, Johnson’s future boss with the New England Patriots, also came along. Johnson recalled Belichick never had more than three beers. Once Belichick reached his threshold for alcohol, he went back to the office.
Johnson fell out of favor with new Giants head coach Dan Reeves in 1993. The former objected to a proposed move from middle linebacker to outside linebacker. Consequently, Johnson skipped the Giants’ training camp for a week to express his frustration.
Johnson warned of a possible mutiny when the Giants defense played well below expectations in Ray Handley’s last year as head coach in 1992.
Johnson harshly criticized Handley after he and new defensive coordinator Rod Rust changed the defense the Giants were accustomed to during the Bill Parcells era.
Johnson questioned Handley’s coaching abilities and had a feeling his tenure in New York would end sooner rather than later. The Giants fired Handley after the Giants went 6-10 in 1992.
Johnson’s tumultuous final years with the Giants culminated in his release prior to the 1993 NFL season.
After Pepper Johnson finished his seven-year tenure with the Giants, he was reunited with Cleveland Browns head coach Bill Belichick, his former defensive coordinator in New York. Johnson spent the next three years of his pro football career in Northeast Ohio.
Even back then, there were signs Pepper Johnson was going to coach in the National Football League.
— Sad CLE Sports (@SadCleveland) September 2, 2017
When Browns defensive coordinator Rick Venturi came down with an illness during the 1994 preseason, Belichick called Johnson and linebacker Carl Banks into his office.
Belichick instinctively asked Johnson to fill in for the ailing Venturi and call the shots for the defense. Banks told ESPN Boston some sixteen years later that Johnson “was a player coach” who took charge in Venturi’s absence.
The coach in Johnson re-emerged during the 1994 NFL postseason. He and his Browns teammates noticed New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw on his fifth step and he initially fixed his gaze on tight end Ben Coates.
Johnson and Co. devised a plan built around those two observations. They threw Bledsoe’s timing off and beat the Patriots 20-13 in the AFC Wild Card Game at Cleveland Stadium on New Year’s Day, 1995.
“Those are simple, Bill Belichick-type things,” Banks told Reiss in 2010. “Pepper was doing that as a player. He is a classic gym rat.”
Behind Johnson’s genius, the Browns won their final postseason game in Cleveland before relocating to Baltimore at the end of the 1995 NFL campaign.
Johnson also beat his former New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells, who called the shots for the Patriots.
Johnson, who started all sixteen games for the Browns, earned his second Pro Bowl selection following the 1994 NFL campaign.
The Browns averaged eight wins per season in Johnson’s three years with the team from 1993 to 1995. They never made it past the AFC Divisional Round during those three years.
The Browns left Cleveland, OH after the 1995 NFL season and relocated to Maryland, where they were re-christened the Baltimore Ravens.
Pepper Johnson was not part of that move. He signed with his hometown Detroit Lions in 1996.
Johnson injured his knee during the 1996 NFL season – his lone season with the Lions. He never got any sympathy from any of the Lions’ higher-ups.
“I never saw the owner, the president – no one of authority (who signs) checks came by and showed any concern,” Johnson told Cosentino in August 2018.
Pepper Johnson returned to the Big Apple in 1997 and spent his final two years in the National Football League with the New York Jets. Johnson’s return coincided with Parcells’ first year as the Jets’ head coach.
The Jets, who were 1-15 under previous head coach Rich Kotite in 1996, quickly turned things around with Parcells at the helm.
With quarterback Vinny Testaverde, running back Curtis Martin, and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson leading the charge, the Jets averaged eleven wins per season from 1997 to 1998.
Unfortunately, Johnson and the Jets could not get past the AFC Championship Game during those two years. They lost to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the 1998 AFC title game, 23-10.
Happy 58th bday Pepper Johnson! Was a 2x Pro Bowler & 2x Super Bowl champion. Returned an interception for a touchdown in both 1988 & 89. Had career high 130 tackles, 100 solo in 1995 with the Browns. Coached with the Patriots for years & won 3 Super Bowls on the staff. pic.twitter.com/EPvc7T5Vyp
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) July 30, 2022
Johnson retired at the end of the 1998 NFL season. He had 25.5 sacks, 1,090 combined tackles, 14 interceptions, two defensive touchdowns, 12 forced fumbles, and eight fumble recoveries in his 13-year pro football career.
Defensive mastermind Pepper Johnson then embarked on a long-running coaching career on the gridiron as the NFL ushered in a new century of football.
Pepper Johnson and his wife Shanna have a daughter, Aanjeya. Pepper also has a son, Dionte, with Monica Hawkins. He has several grandchildren.
Dionte Johnson was a fullback who followed in his father’s footsteps with the Ohio State Buckeyes in college.
The Arizona Cardinals signed Dionte Johnson as an undrafted free agent in 2008. Regrettably, they released him before the regular season due to an ankle injury.
2021 was a year! I took My Family on a summer trip only to put them in danger in a mudslide then managed to get us out (long story) as a 1st yr HC every week during the season we would endure more than any team I’ve ever been a part of – just want to say thank you fellas pic.twitter.com/Zgjkh4fdFX
— Pepper Johnson (@PepJ52) December 25, 2021
Pepper Johnson broke into the NFL coaching ranks after he hung up his cleats following the 1998 NFL season.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who was Johnson’s defensive coordinator with the New York Giants from 1986 to 1990, hired him to become their assistant linebackers coach prior to the 2000 NFL campaign.
Johnson’s first year in the NFL coaching ranks coincided with Belichick’s first as the Patriots’ head coach.
Johnson recalled that Belichick gave him free rein to find his niche as a coach in the pro football ranks.
“Our relationship was strictly football,” Johnson told Cosentino. “He told me what he wanted done, and then he allowed me the freedom to get it done however I wanted to get it done, and if I couldn’t find a way, then I would ask him.”
Johnson was a natural football coach. He eventually served as the Patriots’ inside linebackers coach, defensive line coach, and linebackers coach over the next thirteen seasons in New England.
Johnson also told Cosentino that he loved the Patriots coaches’ roundtable sessions when he worked for Belichick from 2000 to 2013 – all of the coaches had a say and the organization valued their opinions.
The Patriots averaged a gaudy eleven wins per year during Johnson’s 14-season tenure with the team from 2000 to 2013.
With Johnson coaching the Patriots linebackers – most notably future ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi – New England won three Super Bowl titles in four seasons from 2001 to 2004.
Johnson co-authored a book with Bill Gutman entitled Won for All: The Inside Story of the New England Patriots’ Improbable Run to the Super Bowl in 2002. It chronicled the Patriots’ ascent to the Super Bowl in the first two years of the Bill Belichick era in New England.
Johnson downplayed the infamous Spygate scandal that rocked the National Football League in 2007. The Patriots allegedly videotaped signals of the New York Jets’ defensive coaches during a game on September 9, 2007.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell slapped Belichick with a $500,000 fine. He also imposed a $250,000 fine on the Patriots and denied them a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
When Cosentino asked Johnson about his sentiments on Spygate, the latter put things in a broader perspective.
“Let me put it this way,” Johnson told Deadspin in August 2018. “Whomever wasn’t doing anything similar or something like that, they weren’t trying. They didn’t know football.”
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— Pepper Johnson (@PepJ52) June 15, 2018
When Johnson left the Patriots to work as the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line coach in 2014, the Bills’ other assistant coaches told him “to stay in your lane.”
Johnson, who liked talking to his players and knowing them on an individual basis, never fully grasped that concept.
It didn’t come as a shock when Johnson left the Bills despite a respectable 9-7 win-loss record in 2014. His departure coincided with head coach Doug Marrone’s, who accepted an assistant head coaching position with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The New York Jets hired Pepper Johnson as their defensive line coach prior to the 2015 NFL season.
Johnson injured his knee playing for the Detroit Lions nineteen years earlier. Nobody from the team’s management consoled him during his ordeal.
Johnson and the Jets’ players received similar treatment from team owner Woody Johnson, who Pepper claimed couldn’t even call anybody from the team on a first-name basis.
When Johnson served as the Jets’ defensive line coach, he attended his former New York Giants teammate Lawrence Taylor’s 56th birthday bash.
Johnson ran into their former Giants defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, at the party. Johnson told Deadspin several years later that the first thing Belichick told him when they struck up a conversation was something football-related.
Indeed, football was Bill Belichick’s life.
Pepper Johnson became a trending topic on social media after he refused to answer questions about his defensive line from the media on September 7, 2015.
Johnson’s controversial face-off with the media coincided with the lackadaisical play of Jets defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, who were habitually late for team meetings. The two had just 4.0 sacks between them at the time of Johnson’s interview.
Pepper Johnson never expected to receive the pink slip from Jets head coach Todd Bowles at the end of the 2016 NFL campaign. Unfortunately, he did.
When Bowles called Johnson into his office, the former told him that the Jets, who won just five games in 2016, were going in a different direction.
Johnson went on a three-year hiatus from coaching after mentoring the New York Jets’ defensive line from 2015 to 2016.
Johnson went back to his home state of Michigan and worked out Buffalo Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson and Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker, per Cosentino. Johnson also endorsed vitamin B1 patches at the time.
Johnson’s three-year hiatus came to an end after the Allegiance of American Football’s (AAF) Memphis Express hired him in 2019. He served as the defensive line coach under head coach Mike Singletary.
After the AAF disbanded in the spring of 2019, Johnson became the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach of the XFL’s Los Angeles Wildcats in 2020.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats fired Johnson just one week into the 2020 XFL season after the Wildcats allowed four passing touchdowns in a 37-17 loss to the Houston Roughnecks.
Head Coach IMG National Football Team pic.twitter.com/Y7gJGoZaiY
— Pepper Johnson (@PepJ52) June 24, 2021
IMG Academy named Johnson its new head football coach on June 24, 2021.
With Johnson calling the shots, the IMG Ascenders won an impressive nine of ten games. Unfortunately, IMG’s loss to St. Francis Academy at season’s end was Johnson’s last as the Ascenders’ head football coach.
Pepper Johnson is currently the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach of the United States Football League’s (USFL) Tampa Bay Bandits.
Johnson is a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ All-Century Team and the Ohio State Varsity “O” Hall of Fame. His non-profit organization, Pepper Johnson Enterprises, assists various youth and anti-crime initiatives in the Detroit region.