Rise And Fall Of A Draft Pick -- Bill Johnson, Almost A Football Player, Was Almost A Millionaire

Today, Bill Johnson is almost a football player, attempting to kick himself when he realizes he was almost a millionaire. If his knees weren't so sore, Johnson probably would kick himself.

Here is some free advice for the youngsters out there: If you are ever on the verge of being a first-round NFL draft pick, which is followed shortly by a ritual in which an owner drops fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills on your head, lock yourself in a vault and make sure nothing happens to you.

What you do not want to do is pick a fight with an NFL linebacker and either (a) get thrown down the stairs, as some reports said happened to Johnson, or (b) fall down the stairs completely unaided, as Johnson insists happened.

Either way, Johnson's tumble - down the stairs and down the draft order - remains one of the most-interesting stories of the NFL draft.

The last we saw of Johnson, a massive defensive tackle from Michigan State, he was targeted to be the run-stopper the Miami Dolphins coveted. Most of the early mock drafts - including those done by pro scouts - had him slotted to go to Miami as the seventh overall pick. As it turned out - with Troy Vincent being available - Johnson could've fallen to 12th, but no lower.

Instead, he fell down those stairs, and as he tumbled, money, prestige and fame fell from him as if they were car keys slipping from his pocket. Johnson lasted until the 65th pick in the draft. The difference is only, oh, about a million dollars or so. It's like walking to the podium with the winning Lotto ticket and having a gust of wind snatch it away.

The story after Johnson fell was that he had been in an altercation with Kansas City linebacker Percy Snow, an ex-teammate at Michigan State, and was tossed down the stairs. Snow's coach, Marty Schottenheimer, says that's what happened. Johnson acknowledges the scuffle with Snow, but he said falling down the stairs was a different incident.

"I had on some slippery shoes and I missed a step," Johnson said. "My foot caught and I fell. For the record, no one pushed me. I know there is a lot of talk going around that I got pushed, but that's not true."

What is true is Johnson suddenly was damaged goods. Twenty-two teams looked at reports of his knee and didn't like the ligament damage they saw. Two of those - the Dolphins and Browns - sent their own doctors to examine Johnson.

How did the Dolphins like the report? Not much. In the second round Sunday, they decided an offensive guard who had tested positive for cocaine - Auburn's Eddie Blake - was a better risk for their defensive line than Johnson. They'll convert Blake to nose tackle.

Enter the Tampa Bay Bucs. It was early in the third round Sunday and Tampa Bay was about to take its second selection. The two men Coach Sam Wyche decided between were Texas A&M defensive tackle Mark Wheeler and Johnson.

Healthy, there would be no comparison. Johnson is a bullish player inside who plays when hurt. But suddenly he had two bad knees, and there is speculation he might not play until 1993.

"We talked a lot about it," Wyche said. "We wondered if we should take the gamble. Our doctors felt that he would be able to play again, if not this year then the next. It could have been a steal in the third round.

"But we decided at that pick, we had to have someone we could be sure of, and we didn't think Wheeler would last. A lot of teams thought he was climbing. We decided to wait and see if Johnson would last until our next pick."

That pick was later in the third round, pick No. 72. But seven picks before that, the Browns took Johnson. Tampa Bay then traded backward and picked tight end Tyji Armstrong.

For the Bucs, it was a minor disappointment. For Johnson, it was somewhat more.

"Things happen," he said. "I'll lose a lot of money because of this, but I'll make it back eventually. If it isn't the first contract, it'll be the second contract."

The point is this. Nothing is guaranteed. Johnson falls down the stairs. Blake tests positive for drugs - he swears someone slipped something into his punch at a party. Craig Erickson's knee blows up while handing off in practice.

So listen up, young players. Work hard, have fun, be careful.

And take the escalator.