Bret Johnson has fled to Canada to play football. It’s a country that has offered refuge to a quarterback tired of controversy.
Whether it’s a fresh start or a last chance has yet to be determined. But, either way, the terms are agreeable.
Around Toronto, no one cares that he was a high school whiz, having led El Toro to a pair of Southern Section championships. Nor do they seem too interested in his well-publicized rivalry with Raider quarterback Todd Marinovich. Not even his collegiate wanderings, which ended in disappointment, are the topic of much discussion.
Yes, Johnson has gone far enough north that he’s now just a name on the roster. Something he prefers.
“Up here, it’s a new deal,” Johnson said in a telephone interview from Toronto. “The chips didn’t fall right for me the last five years. Now it’s on to another place and another country. Hopefully, things will work out better up here.”
So far, they have.
There isn’t much to do in the Canadian Football League for a third-string, rookie quarterback except learn. Johnson, 23, is doing just that with the Toronto Argonauts.
During practice, he watches. During films, he asks questions. During games, he charts plays. Duties and chores that Johnson relishes.
“It’s going to take time, I understand that,” Johnson said. “Not too many rookies play in any league, especially at my position. I have to wait my turn.”
He does so with the knowledge that someone wanted his skills.
Johnson didn’t get a sniff from NFL teams after completing his eligibility at Michigan State last fall. They weren’t interested in a 6-foot (but closer to 5-10) reserve quarterback who hadn’t led a team to victory since his freshman season in college.
But the lack of great expectations has worked in his favor. Few figured he would succeed, never mind star. It allowed him to give his best shot without others looking over his shoulder.
Johnson was one of five full-time quarterbacks, plus two slot back/quarterbacks, in training camp. But the Argonauts liked what they saw in him.
“He seemed like a CFL-type of quarterback,” Argonaut General Manager Mike McCarthy said. “He’s very mobile and throws well on the run.”
Johnson impressed coaches with his arm strength. He got in only one exhibition game, playing just two series, but led the Argonauts to a score.
By the end of camp, he was firmly in place as the No. 3 quarterback behind Tracy Ham and Mike Kerrigan.
“I think (Bret’s) a very intelligent young quarterback,” Coach Dennis Meyer said. “He’s had command of the offense when he’s out there. I think he’s going to be a very good player in this league some day.”
To get to that “some day,” Johnson knows he will have to study these days. Besides dealing with playing on a higher level, he must learn the differences in the Canadian game.
Among other things, teams line up with 12 players and have only three downs. There is a 20-second play clock and no limit to the number of players who can be in motion. The field is also longer and wider.
It has a fast pace, which leads to high-scoring games. Big plays are common.
“It’s quick,” Johnson said. “You get to the sideline and barely have time to talk (to coaches). Then, boom, you’re back out there.”
In one respect, Johnson had an advantage: This season the Argonauts installed the run-and-shoot offense. Ham and Kerrigan were starting from scratch, just like Johnson.
“In a year’s time, I think Bret’s going to be ready to play,” Meyer said. “Right now, he’s No. 3. But you never know. All it takes is one injury and he’s the backup. But he seems to be the type who can take charge.”
Johnson showed that against Ottawa in the team’s first exhibition game.
He came into the game in the fourth quarter. His first series ended in a punt, then he got hot. Johnson took the Argonauts down the field and ended the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Walker.
“I hit a couple balls and was fortunate to get one in the end zone,” Johnson said. “It took a little while to loosen up. I was a little rusty.”
That’s understandable, after a college career littered with potholes.
Johnson was hot property coming out of El Toro, where he had outdueled Capistrano Valley’s Marinovich. He picked UCLA and, after a redshirt year, became the Bruins’ quarterback in 1989. He threw for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But UCLA finished 3-7-1, its worst record since 1971. Johnson left the following summer, claiming he was not given a chance to keep his job.
He went to Michigan State, losing a year of eligibility, but was the Spartans’ quarterback at the start of the 1991 season. He lasted three games, all losses, before being replaced by Jim Miller.
Last season, Johnson began the season on the bench, then got a chance. With Miller injured, Johnson got a start against Ohio State. He was playing well, having thrown two touchdown passes, when a Buckeye lineman landed on his knee.
“That was all she wrote,” Johnson said. “I knew I was done the second it happened. I just hoped it wasn’t going to need surgery. But my college career was over.”
Some wondered if it was the last football game he would play. But not Johnson.
“Once my college career went (pause) up in the air, I started looking at what route would be the best,” Johnson said.
The best, and almost only one available was to the CFL.
Johnson was signed as a free agent in the spring, with no fanfare. The Argonauts became interested through the agency Johnson had signed with. It also represented Wayne Gretzky, a co-owner of the Argonauts along with King owner Bruce McNall and comedian John Candy.
In fact, the first contact between Johnson and team officials was made during a Kings game.
“We had a nice conversation between periods,” McCarthy said.
They iced the deal soon after, giving Johnson his chance. He’s tried to make the most of it since.
“I did enough good things in training camp to be able to stay around,” Johnson said. “That was my first goal. The next goal is to be prepared to play. Then it’s a matter of how the breaks go.”
And those are terms Johnson can deal with.