Rudi Johnson could have been one of the best running backs in Cincinnati Bengals franchise history.
Johnson, who gashed defenses during his college days with the Butler Grizzlies and Auburn Tigers, racked up three consecutive seasons of at least 1,309 rushing yards from 2004 to 2006.
A 2004 Pro Bowler, Johnson was part of a fearsome Bengals offense that also featured wide receivers T. J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson. The trio helped end Cincinnati’s long postseason drought in 2005.
Unfortunately, Rudi Johnson couldn’t maintain his momentum. He lost some strength as his gridiron career in the Queen City progressed. Worse, a nagging hamstring injury seriously affected his performance.
Johnson’s star eventually faded until he decided to hang up his cleats following the 2008 NFL season.
Nevertheless, Rudi Johnson’s emergence as one of the NFL’s most bruising running backs in the mid-2000s remains one of the fondest memories of Who Dey Nation.
Burudi Ali “Rudi” Johnson was born in Petersburg, VA on October 1, 1979.
Johnson’s first name, which means “cool,” is of Swahili origin. His parents gave him the second name “Ali” as a tribute to former world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.
Six-year-old Rudi Johnson began playing football for the Chesterfield Quarterback League’s Ettrick Trojans in 1985.
32 days until kickoff! Pictured is Rudi Johnson, who graduated from Thomas Dale as the All-Time leading rusher. He then attended Butler CC and won 2 Nat’l Championships. Johnson then went to Auburn and was SEC POTY. He was drafted by the Bengals and played in the NFL for 9 years. pic.twitter.com/dOzwrC1N94
— Virginia Sports Network (@vasportsnetwork) July 24, 2022
Fast forward nine years, Johnson attended Thomas Dale High School in Chester, VA. He excelled as a two-way player for Thomas Dale Knights head football coach Victor Williams.
During Johnson’s tenure with the Knights, he surpassed the school’s previous rushing yardage record held by his good friend, Henry Jefferson.
Rudi Johnson was just getting started. He eventually made a name for himself as a bruising running back with the Butler Grizzlies and Auburn Tigers in the college football ranks from 1998 to 2000.
College Days with the Butler Grizzlies and Auburn Tigers
Rudi Johnson attended Butler Community College in El Dorado, KS from 1998 to 1999.
He promptly picked up where he left off on the high school gridiron. Rudi had 1,697 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns as a freshman running back for the Butler Grizzlies in 1998.
Johnson’s 188 rushing yards in the Grizzlies’ 22-18 triumph over the Ricks College Vikings in the 1998 Rear Daily Bowl earned him game MVP honors.
Rudi Johnson upped the ante in his sophomore season in 1999. He set a school record with 2,310 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns that year.
Johnson virtually carried the Grizzlies on his back in the 1999 NJCAA Championship Game against Dixie Technical College. Johnson had an incredible 370 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns in the Grizzlies’ 49-35 win.
Rudi Johnson racked up several accolades after his scintillating performance. He earned game MVP and First-Team All-America honors. Johnson also won the 1999 NJCAA Player of the Year Award and earned a football scholarship with the Auburn Tigers.
— The Auburn Vault (@AuburnVault) August 7, 2017
Johnson proved he could play with the big boys of the SEC. He had 249 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 38-28 victory against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs on October 21, 2000.
In Johnson’s lone season at Auburn, he gashed defenses for 1,567 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 324 carries.
Auburn had a 9-4 win-loss record in Tommy Tuberville’s second year as the Tigers’ head football coach in 2000. Unfortunately, the Tigers lost to the Michigan Wolverines in the 2000 Citrus Bowl, 31-28.
That turned out to be Rudi Johnson’s final college football game. He decided to forgo his senior season and declare for the 2001 NFL Draft shortly afterward.
Johnson ended his college football career on a strong note. He earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2000.
After a slow start to Rudi Johnson’s pro football career, he emerged as one of the Cincinnati Bengals’ biggest weapons during the Marvin Lewis era in the mid-2000s.
Pro Football Career
The Cincinnati Bengals made Rudi Johnson the 100th overall selection of the 2001 NFL Draft.
Johnson hardly made an impact with the Bengals in his first two NFL seasons. Johnson, who played behind Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, mustered a paltry 67 rushing yards and zero touchdowns in nine games from 2001 to 2002.
Cincinnati averaged just four wins per season in Dick LeBeau’s last two years at the helm. The Bengals extended their postseason drought to twelve years.
Dillon’s injury-riddled 2003 NFL season gave Johnson an opportunity to prove his worth. He had 957 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in Marvin Lewis’s first year as the Bengals’ head coach in 2003.
Regrettably, Johnson’s impressive third year in the pro football ranks wasn’t enough to propel the 8-8 Bengals to the postseason.
Whenever Johnson made a big play, the home crowd at Paul Brown Stadium chanted, “Rudi! Rudi! Rudi!”
That chant made Johnson and his teammates feel good. Whenever they heard the Bengals fans chanting Rudi’s name, they knew it was time to put the opposition away.
“It’s always nice to hear. Music to my ears,” Johnson told Geoff Hobson of the Bengals’ official website in December 2016. “That always got me through and it got my teammates through. That’s how we closed out games.”
The pinnacle of Rudi Johnson’s pro football career occurred from 2004 to 2006.
Johnson had at least 1,309 rushing yards in each of those three seasons. He also had a total of 36 rushing touchdowns—twelve touchdowns each year—during that memorable three-season time frame.
A Valuable Weapon
Johnson became one of the Bengals’ primary weapons along with Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, and T. J. Houshmandzadeh.
“The culture was changing,” Rudi Johnson told Bengals.com in the fall of 2016. “There were new times. Me and Chad and Carson, (and) T.J. were in the middle of it as far as turning the tide.”
Johnson ran in a brutal and aggressive manner that earned him the moniker, the “Auburn Rambler.”
He was so good, he earned his first and only Pro Bowl selection at the end of the 2004 NFL season.
Cincinnati had never won more than eight games in Marvin Lewis’s first two years in the Queen City from 2003 to 2004. However, that all changed in the 2005 NFL season.
Behind Rudi Johnson’s career-high 1,458 rushing yards, the Bengals won eleven games in 2005. It was the Bengals’ best record since the memorable 1988 NFL season when they won twelve games. Their high-octane, no-huddle offense earned head coach Sam Wyche and Co. a spot in Super Bowl XXIII that year.
Unfortunately, the 2005 Bengals lost to their long-time nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the AFC Wild Card Round, 31-17.
A Man with a Big Heart
Johnson didn’t just make a difference on the gridiron. He also became a valuable asset to the Cincinnati community.
Johnson launched the Rudi Johnson Foundation during his breakout 2005 NFL campaign. The organization aims to help families and kids and foster self-sufficiency and independence.
The Rudi Johnson Foundation helped organize the inaugural Clark Montessori Cougars high school football team. Johnson and Co. have also collaborated with the National Bone Marrow Registry over the years.
Despite another 1,000-yard plus year from Johnson, Cincinnati regressed the following season. The Bengals won eight games and missed the postseason for the fifteenth time in the past sixteen years.
Rudi Johnson met Grant Pflum, a young Bengals fan diagnosed with lymphoma, in the summer of 2006.
Bengals director of business development Troy Blackburn set up a meeting between Johnson and Pflum before Bengals training camp kicked off on August 5, 2006.
Johnson met Pflum during his lunch break. The youngster’s eyes welled up with tears when he saw his favorite football player.
Johnson led Pflum into a meeting room and showed him footage from the Bengals’ scrimmage the day before. He also demonstrated how to grip a football properly, signed Pflum’s No. 32 Bengals jersey, and posed for photographs.
When Grant told Rudi he was going to watch a Bengals game in person, the latter vowed to dedicate one of his touchdowns in the 2006 NFL season to him.
“Rudi truly is one of the nicest people I have ever met. Rudi really does rock!” Grant’s mom, Kara, wrote on the Pflums’ CarePages website (via Bengals.com).
Change in Body Changed His Game
For some reason, Johnson decided to shed weight so he could improve his quickness and acceleration. Unfortunately, his weight loss had negative repercussions on his strength.
Alas, Johnson hobbled through a nagging hamstring injury and became a shadow of his old self in 2007.
He produced just 497 rushing yards and three touchdowns in eleven games—a far cry from his Pro Bowl-level production the previous three seasons.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s days in Cincinnati were numbered.
“The word got out last month that the Bengals were trying to trade me, so I knew this was coming,” Johnson told The Associated Press (via Western Herald’s Cody Kimball) in September 2008. “I had a great run in Cincinnati, but now it’s time to move on.”
The Bengals eventually released Johnson on August 30, 2008. The Detroit Lions quickly made a move and signed him just two days later.
Happy 43rd Birthday to former Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions RB Rudi Johnson. 🎂
— Sportskeeda Pro Football (@SKProFootball) October 1, 2022
Reunion in Detroit
The Lions’ acquisition of Johnson reunited him with quarterback Jon Kitna, the Bengals’ starting quarterback in Johnson’s first two years in the NFL from 2001 to 2002.
Johnson’s signing also reunited him with his good friend, Lions offensive tackle George Foster.
When Johnson signed with Detroit, he told The Associated Press he was excited to take the field with the Lions’ wide receiver tandem of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Roy Williams.
It was a throwback to his days with the Bengals when he played with Pro Bowl wide receivers Chad Johnson and T. J. Houshmandzadeh.
A Controversial Accusation
Controversy marred the beginning of Johnson’s lone year in the Motor City.
He accused former Lions running back Tatum Bell—the player he replaced—of stealing his luggage from team headquarters.
“All this happened when he got released,” Johnson told ESPN in September 2008. “He came in to get some stuff out of his locker and that’s when he scooped up the bags.”
After Johnson met with Lions team president Matt Millen and agreed to a free-agent deal in the summer of 2008, he discovered his two Gucci bags, which were a Pro Bowl gift, disappeared from Lions headquarters.
When Johnson talked to reporters the following day, he spoke about Bell in a positive light. He even said Bell gave him information about the Lions and the city of Detroit.
Lions security director Ricky Sandoval showed Johnson surveillance footage shortly afterward. A woman returned Johnson’s belongings later that night. Unfortunately, the bags were already empty by the time Johnson received them.
“I got the bags back—empty,” Johnson told ESPN. “So he’s got a bunch of my underclothes. What he’s going to do with that, I don’t know. He’s got some socks and boxers.”
Johnson also lost $200 in cash, ID, and credit cards. He told ESPN in September 2008 that he did not plan to reach out to authorities, but he did cancel his credit cards.
For his part, Bell insisted the scenario was a misunderstanding. He told the Detroit Free Press (via ESPN) his teammate, defensive end Victor DeGrate, asked him to get his bags for him.
Bell also maintained his innocence and said he casually went about his business in the surveillance footage. He never ran or showed any intent to steal anything.
Johnson and Bell discussed the matter privately. The former didn’t hide his displeasure over his lost belongings. Bell just let Johnson pour out his emotions during their conversation.
“I didn’t want to talk to him, but I let him know where I stand,” Johnson told the Detroit Free Press (via ESPN). “He knows how I feel about it, and it isn’t anything positive.”
Tatum Bell agreed but had no idea the bags he scooped up did not belong to DeGrate. Bell said he picked up the bags from the computer area and placed them inside a car.
Time to Go
Rudi Johnson ended his pro football career on a sour note. He was part of an atrocious Lions team that went 0-16 in 2008.
Johnson, who played behind starting running back Kevin Smith, had 237 rushing yards and one touchdown in fourteen games for the Lions that year.
Rudi Johnson : RB
2001 Round: 4
Pro Bowl (2004)
Bengals rushing record (1,458)
Rushing attempts 1,517
Rushing yards 5,979
Rushing TD 49
Receiving yards 676
Rec TD 2 pic.twitter.com/ZBiZnciOVQ
— Bengal Jim’s BTR (@bengaljims_BTR) March 22, 2020
Rudi Johnson retired from pro football following the 2008 NFL season. He had 5,979 rushing yards and 49 rushing touchdowns on 1,517 carries in his eight-year NFL career.
Johnson was a big car fanatic during his playing career in the National Football League.
He told Autobytel.com’s Elliot Darvick that the first car he purchased was a white 2001 Lincoln Navigator during his rookie year with the Cincinnati Bengals.
When Johnson entered his seventh pro football season, his car collection included a Mercedes-Benz G5 G-Wagen, a Range Rover Sport, a Mercedes S550, a Bentley Arnage, and a Maserati Quattroporte.
Johnson told Darvick he drives his Bentley Arnage on gamedays. The car, which had a built-in refrigerator, was more suitable for relaxation purposes. If he wanted a relaxing driving experience, that was his vehicle of choice.
On the other hand, he drives his Maserati Quattroporte in Miami, FL’s sunny weather.
Rudi Johnson considered his Range Rover Sport his fun car. It was his go-to vehicle if he wanted to crank up the music or turn on the afterburners. Although it’s an SUV, it could leave many cars eating its dust.
Johnson typically drove his Mercedes-Benz G5 G-Wagen to Bengals training camp in Georgetown, KY.
As for Rudi Johnson’s Mercedes S550, it’s a roomy and spacious high-end luxury sedan that provided everything he needed when he was on the road.
When Darvick asked Johnson who his ideal road trip companion was, he singled out his fellow Auburn Tigers alumnus, Bo Jackson.
Johnson felt he could easily strike up a conversation with Johnson on the road because of their common Auburn and NFL background.
Rudi Johnson earned roughly $30 million during his eight-year pro football career.
Rudi Johnson currently resides in the Miami, FL area.
According to Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson, Johnson currently works as a real estate investor, boxing promoter, and Miami Dolphins uniform inspector for home games in South Florida.
Rudi Johnson is a uniform inspector for the NFL now. Saw him in the press box today. Either he didn't have any luggage with him or Tatum Bell took it again.
— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) October 22, 2018
Johnson has a stake with the Oasis Boxing Club thanks to his connections in the Queen City. He was a regular ringside spectator of former world champion Adrien Broner’s fights.
Broner, a Cincinnati native, won several world titles in four different weight divisions in his boxing career.
Johnson has remained passionate about cars. He co-manages the Warren Henry Auto Group in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Rudi Johnson became a member of the NJCAA Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in the summer of 2016.