Ex-VHS football star Johnson carves out career in Germany

Published 8:00 am Friday, July 6, 2018

At one point, like a lot of football players, Rory Johnson wondered if he’d ever be able to make a career out of the game he loves.

The former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss linebacker went undrafted, then was cut after brief training camp stints with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. Another opportunity in the Canadian Football League came and went in the span of a couple of weeks.

Finally, an odd Facebook message from halfway around the world allowed him to chart a path that has brought him the career and lasting success most players only dream of.

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Johnson is in the middle of his ninth season in the German Football League, with all but one of those spent with his current team the Berlin Rebels. The 32-year-old is still a force on the defensive side of the ball, even as he’s transformed from raw physical specimen to wily and respected veteran.

“It’s been amazing. I went from thinking I wasn’t going to play anymore and I sat around for a year or so and was stuck, and I got my chance,” Johnson said. “The first year I went over there I had 145 tackles, 12 sacks and three interceptions — and I can’t even really catch. That just rejuvenated me. Every year after that, I just built on it. I started using what I learned as I got older. These 10 years have been good. I’m pretty happy. I should go out as a legend over there. I did a lot.”

The German Football League consists of 16 teams in a first division, and 16 more in a second league known as GFL2. Similar to European soccer leagues, the worst teams in the first league and the best in the second are relegated or promoted annually based on performance.

Soccer is king in Germany, but American football also has a solid following. Most GFL games draw several thousand people during a 14-game regular season that runs from late April to early September. The annual German Bowl championship game is scheduled for Oct. 13 this year, and there is a midseason break to allow the league’s top teams to play in the European championships.

The Big6 European Football League is a tournament played each summer that features the top six clubs from around Europe, and is essentially the continent’s championship. Johnson helped Berlin Adler win the 2014 Big6 championship. He returned to the Rebels in 2015 after the one season with their rival and helped them qualify for the Big6 tournament in 2017.
Most GFL rosters are a melting pot of cultures, with a handful of American players mixed in with homegrown European talent.

“We have maybe eight Americans on our team and the rest are Germans, Turkish, Serbians, we’ve got Africans, Polish, people from pretty much everywhere. It’s cool to have that many cultures and see so many different people,” Johnson said. “And with the American teammates, our safety is from Dallas, the quarterback is from Chattanooga, I’m from Mississippi, we have a receiver from Dallas, so it’s spread out in the south a little bit.”

The GFL is in its 40th season, but like many Americans Johnson had never heard of it before the Rebels reached out to him a decade ago.

Johnson had been out of football for several months after being cut by the Packers, Giants and then the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. The Rebels knew of him from when he played alongside former NFL star Patrick Willis at Ole Miss, and sent him a Facebook message to gauge his interest.

“I thought it was a prank. I had to Google it,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Everything I found out about it was good. At the same time I had an opportunity to go play Arena Football, but I had just gotten my passport the year before and I was like, ‘It’s Europe. Why not go to Europe?’ I’m from Vicksburg. I would never think I had a chance to be in Deutschland.”

He did, however, and he ran with it and never looked back.

In his rookie season in 2010, Johnson racked up 123 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and three interceptions. He has had at least 70 tackles in six of his eight full seasons and is on pace to reach that mark again this year with 42 tackles through eight games.

The Rebels have a 6-2 record at the halfway point of the season.

“I am proud, because when people think of my team the Berlin Rebels, they think of me. Especially on defense. The year I got there was the first time they were in the first league, and I was destroying people,” Johnson said. “I’m an SEC linebacker. Even though I had all my credits from here, to the Germans I still had to prove myself to them. I had a point to prove. I was hurting people. It was just like being at Ole Miss again.”

Johnson also has 60 career sacks, has blocked nine kicks in the past two seasons, and ranks second on the team in tackles this year. Even though he’s reached an age where football players start to show the wear and tear of the game, he hasn’t slowed down figuratively or literally.

At a slim, trim 235 pounds he proudly claims he can still run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. He’s supplemented those physical gifts with veteran tactics that have enabled him to keep up with players a decade younger.

“I went from being the young guy so long, to now I’m the old guy. I’m maybe 10 years older than my teammates,” Johnson said. “But I like it, because I spent so long being behind a lot of great players that I know how to control them and keep everybody together. We’ve been having a great year. I have the second best defense in my league right now.”

After nine years, and even though his German “should be better,” Johnson said he feels as much at home in Germany as he does in Vicksburg. He journeyed home during the Rebels’ summer break and said it was the first time he’d seen Vicksburg in two years.

It was a brief vacation. He’ll head back across the Atlantic soon for the rest of the season. In the offseason he’ll likely stay in Europe for a while to be an ambassador of sorts for the Rebels and the GFL. He said he’s been asked by the team to host a football camp in Budapest, Hungary in October.

“I just thought maybe two or three years and I’ll be finished. But I went over there and the organization really showed me love. A lot of the young guys I’m playing with now were there when I first came, so we’re just like brothers,” Johnson said. “It’s just the people, the city of Berlin is a welcoming city. It’s so many different cultures. You meet so many different people every day. There’s so many languages that I’ll maybe go a whole day and only hear English from myself.”

As for how much longer he has to play, Johnson isn’t sure. He said he’s in great shape and feels like he can play for “three or four more years.” A few more productive seasons would be a fine way to cap off a professional career that almost didn’t happen.

“I just always wanted to play hard. I just wanted to put my city on the map, and I love them,” Johnson said. “It’s been good, especially for me. When people see me they’re like, ‘You really did it.’ I try to talk to the young guys and help them out, because if I can show one person no matter what happens you can keep going or be successful, that’s the goal. There’s stuff out there. You can still play.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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