Vaughan Johnson – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame

Football Player, 1986-93
New Orleans Saints

Inducted: 2017

The linebacking corps of the New Orleans Saints in the late 80’s and early 90’s was known as the Dome Patrol, recognized as the best collection of talent at that position on a single club throughout NFL history.

Inside linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson were flanked by Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson on the outside. As a group they made 18 trips to the Pro Bowl.

Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com

The most physical of the quartet was Johnson, a 6-3, 235-pounder who packed a wallop on any runner who might venture into his territory. He was quoted as saying, “I like to see their eyes roll back,” concerning any unfortunate ball carrier to make contact with the four-time Pro Bowler.

Johnson spent eight seasons in the Black and Gold from 1986-’93.

His lifetime best athletic performance came against the San Francisco 49ers, a longtime Saints nemesis. “I made a lot of tackles (669 stops for his career), but against the 49ers, I had 28 tackles in one game,” he chuckled. “[Defensive coordinator] Steve Sidwell told me, ‘I don’t know what you ate before the game, but I hope you eat it again.’” What the jaw-breaking tackler ate game day was QB Joe Montana, RB Roger Craig and FB Tom Rathman.

Although excelling at the highest level in football, baseball and basketball were his first love. “I was a power hitter, played catcher,” he said. “My dad was a great hitter as a baseball player. He was a star.  Baseball was big in Moorehead City, North Carolina.”

It didn’t take long for his hitting to transgress from the baseball diamond to the gridiron.

When it came to choosing a college destination, he wanted to stay close to home so his family and friends could watch him play, so he whittled his college football choices to North Carolina, East Carolina and North Carolina State. “I was real close to deciding on East Carolina until I visited North Carolina State. It felt like home.”

Playing for the Wolfpack, he sharpened his skills while taking his game to the next level under linebackers coach Greg Robinson. “He was one of the toughest guys, very demanding, always pushing me to be the best,” Johnson declared. “He taught me a lot about football, about being physical. In high school we only played three defenses. In college, we had 33 different defenses. I give him credit for my style.”

Vaughn held a pair of recognizable athletes in high esteem, both possessed the style that he admired and would strive to emulate, Steelers LB Jack Lambert and Muhammad Ali. “I loved the way Jack Lambert played,” he said. “Tough, hard-nosed, always kept his nose right in the middle of things. Wherever the ball went, he was there.

“Muhammad Ali, his confidence. He not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk. He believed in himself. He said what he meant and meant what he said.”

Vaughan Johnson (middle back, red tie) and his family at the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Banquet. Photo by Wally Porter.

The hapless Saints had been the league’s punching bag since their inception in 1967. The arrival of head coach Jim Mora in 1986 signaled the beginning of the team’s success.

In 1987 the franchise reached a milestone with a 12-3 record and the first winning mark in team history. One game on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 29, 1987 was a turning point.

The Saints defense held firm on a pair of magnificent goal-line stands in the fourth quarter to hold off the Steelers 20-16. It represented the fifth consecutive victory en route to a nine-game streak to end the campaign. “That was my fondest memory as a Saint,” Johnson said. “The team’s first winning season. To share that with the coaches and players was special.  It took a lot of hard work to get there. That win was for the city and team history.”

The Dome Patrol stands as the NFL standard for all NFL linebackers. All four were selected to the 1992 Pro Bowl, the only time all four linebackers from the same team were so honored. “That was something special,” Johnson remembered. “To be a part of that, great football players, great men. To be a competitor, to be a winner. The sacrifice it required. You didn’t want to let those guys down. We took pride not allowing opponents to score.”

Prior to his arrival in the Crescent City, Johnson’s knowledge of the city was limited. “The only thing that I knew was that the fans wore bags over their heads,” he said with a hearty laugh. The charm and ambience of the city soon became obvious. “From day one, my family and I have been given respect. They appreciated the way I played. I never complained about my contract. The Saints fans are very knowledgeable of the game. They are behind their team 100 percent.”

Johnson has been recognized in other Halls of Fame, but feels the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame is special. “This is a tremendous honor to be selected. I never thought that I had a chance at this. I want to thank the fans. From the moment I stepped foot there they respected and embraced me. What an honor! Go Saints!”

Story submitted by Rene Nadeau of the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee.

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