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Saints TE Johnson stunned by loss of father figure, friend

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; Tuesday, July 31, 2007 By Jeff Duncan JACKSON, MISS. -- The sad news reached Eric Johnson in the training room. As the Saints' tight end was receiving treatment and getting prepared for the team's second practice Monday, he overheard trainer ...

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Old 07-31-2007, 11:02 PM   #1
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Cool Saints TE Johnson stunned by loss of father figure, friend

Tuesday, July 31, 2007
By Jeff Duncan

JACKSON, MISS. -- The sad news reached Eric Johnson in the training room.

As the Saints' tight end was receiving treatment and getting prepared for the team's second practice Monday, he overheard trainer Scottie Patton mention Bill Walsh's death.

Johnson was incredulous. The man personally responsible for his NFL career was gone.

"I was his last draft pick as GM (of the San Francisco 49ers in 2001)," Johnson said Monday after the Saints' afternoon practice. "He looked out for me. I think that he really liked me. He was the reason I went to San Francisco originally. It just gave me a lot of confidence knowing he was behind me and we had a good relationship. I am just really going to miss him."

Walsh's impact was felt all around the NFL, and Johnson was one of many the legendary coach and executive touched during his Hall of Fame career. In his last official action as general manager in 2001, Walsh used the second of the 49ers' two second-round draft picks -- No. 224 overall -- to take Johnson, a little-known tight end from Yale.

Then-49ers assistant GM Terry Donahue said Walsh had touted Johnson for months. He was so persistent, 49ers officials kiddingly referred to Johnson in draft meetings as "Bill's son."

"That meant everything," Johnson said. "He called me up when I was at Yale about five minutes before they drafted me. I couldn't believe he found me out of nowhere. It meant a lot."

Johnson said he maintained a relationship with Walsh even after the former coach and executive left the organization. The pair would have lunch at least once a year, and Walsh wrote a recommendation letter for his application to the NFL program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Walsh even advised him on his strategy in free agency, which ultimately led to his signing a one-year deal with the Saints.

"Last time I saw him he was struggling, but he was in good spirits, looking good," Johnson said. "He had been through some rounds of chemo and stuff, but he had recovered pretty well and was doing all right. It came on pretty fast."

Saints Coach Sean Payton said he learned of Walsh's death while on the practice field Monday. He said he didn't know Walsh but like most NFL coaches was familiar with his legacy, especially the West Coast offense.

"Like everyone in the sport I'm sad," Payton said. ". . . You know, there's a lot of trees, a lot of systems out there, and he's the father of one of them and probably one of the most successful, if not the most successful in the game. . . . When you look at someone who had that much of an impact on offensive football, as well as an organization like the 49ers, it's amazing. So it's a tough loss for our game."

Although he never coached against or with Walsh, Payton was exposed to Walsh's West Coast system early in his career, when he worked as the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia under offensive coordinator Jon Gruden, who was part of the Walsh coaching tree. Payton said many of the basic principals of the West Coast offense are employed in the Saints' system.

"I think that just from how you call protections, how you set up your routes, it comes from that same system, the terminology does," Payton said. "It was what (Seattle Coach Mike) Holmgren applied at Green Bay before Jon (Gruden) came to Philadelphia. So there are a lot of derivatives of the system."

Walsh's best 49ers teams often were the nemesis of the Saints. Even when the Saints enjoyed success under Coach Jim Mora and General Manager Jim Finks, they routinely found themselves playing second fiddle to the 49ers. Walsh won 13 of 19 games against the Saints. From 1981 to 1998, the 49ers won six NFC West Division titles and three Super Bowls.

"We were in the NFC West with San Francisco during Bill Walsh's years with the 49ers, and there was no opponent our club had more respect for," Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement. "His strategy and the system he created during that time revolutionized the NFL, and his influence is still felt around the league. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family. He will be missed."

Tulane Coach Bob Toledo said he and Walsh "were great friends. He sent me his book and wrote nice things in his book about me. Back when his teams would train at Santa Clara and Rockland, you were always welcome at his camps. He was a mentor to everyone. He kind of inspired me to come back into coaching again. I feel like I've got a lot of knowledge I can impart on young coaches, and this is the way to do it.

"A lot of the offense I'm running today came from him. He came up with the idea of throwing ball-control passes and letting guys run after the catch. The quick passing game you see today all came from Bill Walsh. He influenced me on things like game-planning too."

University of Texas-El Paso Coach Mike Price, remembered when Walsh returned to Stanford after his 49ers days ended. At the time, Price was the head coach at Washington State.

"He befriended me, like he did all young coaches," Price said. "He was so helpful, just at telling you things like don't get too impatient, etc.

When he was out of coaching, he was the kind of person you could call on from time to time for advice on any subject."

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