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The choice for Pat Swilling is to celebrate.
Sure, he has cried, and very well could do so several more times now that his friend and former New Orleans Saints teammate, Vaughan Johnson, has passed. Johnson died Thursday evening at the age of 57.
But Swilling would much rather focus on the good memories that were produced during the Dome Patrol days, when Swilling, Johnson, the late Sam Mills and Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson combined to become, arguably, the best linebacker corps in NFL history.
The quartet remains the only starting linebacker unit to be named to the Pro Bowl together, in 1992. Overall, Swilling and Johnson were All-Pros in 1989 and Pro Bowlers from 1989-92 in their Saints careers.
“There was not another, or better, inside linebacker that I think played the game that was as big, as strong, as fast as Vaughan Johnson,” Swilling said. “And when it comes down to his character and who he was, I loved him. I loved him because he was one of those guys, every single day, he brought his pail to work and he brought a great attitude and a smile to work.
“I spent (seven) years playing right next to him. I’m the right outside linebacker and he was my right inside linebacker. We spent time together. I mean, our locker was right beside each other. I saw him every day, I can’t every remember a negative thing coming out of his mouth, win, lose or draw. The guy was just always upbeat and just a helluva football player.”
Jackson carried a tone of relief for Johnson, who’d battled kidney disease for the last several years, and then lung failure.
“We talked at least once a month, sometimes two or three times a month,” Jackson said. “We always stayed in touch with each other. I knew things were tough on him down the stretch, and I was real concerned for him.
“I’m more relieved now than anything. Because when I talked to him, I knew the condition he was in. He doesn’t have to suffer anymore. But he was somebody I could talk to.”
Johnson, a Saint from 1986-93, was a 6-foot-3, 240-pounder who played in 120 regular season games, with 98 starts. He totaled 664 tackles, 12 sacks, four interceptions and five fumble recoveries and in four playoff games, he had 24 tackles. In ’92, when all four Saints linebackers were selected for the Pro Bowl, New Orleans finished first in the NFL in opponent points per game and second in total defense for the second consecutive season.
“I wish I could tell you one thing that you could hang your hat on about Vaughan, but Vaughan was just a wonderful person,” Swilling said. “And I don’t know any other way to describe him other than that.
“It makes football seem so minor. It wasn’t just the time we had on the field. I laid last night and I was there thinking about it, and I’m smiling and I’m laughing, and my wife is looking at me, and I said, ‘I’m just thinking about Vaughan.’ Just all the nice, fond memories we had.
“We spent time off the field. If one of us was having something or an event, we all would attend. When I had the nightclub uptown, he’d come to the club. We all were very close, that whole group was close off the field. Vaughan was just one of those guys that you always liked to be around. Just a fun guy. Just a fun guy.”
Jackson, whose Saints career (1981-93) ended the same year as Johnson’s (1986-93), said his former teammate was mild-mannered.
“He wasn’t a loud guy or anything like that, he was always calm and cool,” Jackson said. “When he hit you, he would knock your head off. But he was never a guy that would talk or start trouble. He never did mess with people too much.”
The 1992 Pro Bowl invitation was something the entire group was proud of, Jackson said.
“You won’t get four guys to do what we did,” Jackson said. “I know some of the press honored us as the greatest four. That meant a whole lot to us. He was proud of it, I was proud of it.”