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Emotional Johnson laments early end to season

December 9, 1997

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) _ His voice wavered, just like the last footballs he threw. His emotions threatened to cut him off, just like the injury that shortened his season.

Brad Johnson struggled Tuesday to get through his first news conference since he had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. He choked up, he fought back tears _ and he promised he would be come back to the Minnesota Vikings next season determined to re-assert himself as one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks.

``I don’t know if you’d consider this a setback or a challenge, but usually I win in the end,″ Johnson said, barely able to hold back tears.

Johnson underwent an hour-long operation last Thursday to remove a pea-sized portion of the ruptured disk that had caused weakness in his throwing hand. He woke up with the condition on the morning of Minnesota’s Dec. 1 game against the Green Bay Packers, and two days later neurosurgeons recommended immediate surgery to prevent further loss of strength.

He won’t be able to do any strengthening for two months while the injury heals _ doctors had to stop him from doing hand exercises over the weekend _ but he plans to be fully recovered by minicamp in May.

``He’s going to come back. He’ll be fine,″ Ellen Johnson said of her son. ``Tough times never last, but tough people do.″

The injury deteriorated so badly following the Monday night game against Green Bay that Johnson briefly feared his career, which took off only last season after four seasons on the bench, might be over.

``I was lucky that they didn’t have to fuse the vertebrae together or it would have been a six-month to a year deal, and it would probably have been a close call,″ Johnson said.

Johnson, who took over as the Vikings’ starter when Warren Moon was hurt last season, was among the NFL’s leading passers all season, although his production had been declining steadily in the weeks before his season ended.

When his season ended last week he was the NFC’s fifth-rated passer. His 3,036 yards were second to Brett Favre’s 3,175, and with 20 TD passes he matched Trent Dilfer for second to Favre’s 28.

Johnson had started 20 straight games before Randall Cunningham took over in Sunday’s 28-17 loss at San Francisco. Johnson watched that game on television, poring over a faxed copy of the Vikings’ game plan throughout the afternoon.

``It’s tough. I want to be out there,″ Johnson said, pausing again to regain his composure. ``Even though we were down I wanted to be in that locker room, wanted to be on the field. I’m still part of this team, but I kind of get removed. It’s tough.″

Perhaps the toughest part of the injury’s timing was that it came on the morning of the biggest game of Johnson’s first season as a starter since 1990, his junior year at Florida State.

The Vikings were trying to force a first-place tie with the Packers in the NFC Central in a game that was played on national TV. It was Johnson’s biggest chance of the season to prove he really was worthy of the $15.5 million contract he got last December, and he was bitterly disappointed by the circumstances that ruined the night for him.

``I wanted that game more than anything,″ he said. ``This happened to be one of the biggest games as far as the media and the spotlight as far as the national attention. I hated for people to see me on that kind of terms, but also being a young quarterback I realize I’m going to have a lot more throws, a lot more games.

``I (have) to say it’s just one game, because I plan on playing a lot more and having some great games, especially on Monday Night Football.″

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