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Season Over for Vikings’ Johnson

December 4, 1997

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) _ The season Brad Johnson waited seven years for ended at least three games early Wednesday when surgery was recommended for a herniated disk in his neck.

Johnson, who earlier this season led the Minnesota Vikings to their longest winning streak in 22 years, will have a pea-sized portion of the injured disk removed Thursday morning.

The bulge has caused weakness in his throwing hand, a condition that has worsened steadily since he first woke up with pain in his neck before Monday’s 27-11 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

``This is tough for us,″ coach Dennis Green said after the need for surgery was confirmed by two neurosurgeons. ``We feel so strongly about Brad. He’s been such a success story for us.″

Randall Cunningham will start at quarterback Sunday when the Vikings (8-5) try to snap a three-game losing streak with a win at San Francisco. Cunningham played in three Pro Bowls with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he sat out all of 1996 and hadn’t played this season until replacing Johnson with eight minutes left in Monday night’s game.

Cunningham ended his once-superlative career with the Eagles as a backup, coming off the bench in his final game with Philadelphia to replace an injured Rodney Peete in a playoff loss at Dallas to end the 1995 season.

``Thank God I had that opportunity in Philadelphia when Rodney was starting, to be prepared to play,″ Cunningham said.

Johnson will be operated on by Dr. Gaylan Rockswold, a Twin Cities neurosurgeon who made the first recommendation for surgery Wednesday. That opinion was confirmed later in the day by Dr. Greg Dystie.

``Brad just wanted to make sure, and (Dystie) said there’s no question that surgery is necessary,″ Vikings trainer Fred Zamberletti said.

Chicago quarterback Erik Kramer had two herniated disks in his neck last season, an injury that cost him the final 12 games. Kramer didn’t have surgery and returned this season.

Dr. Warren King, who is the team physician for the San Francisco Giants and also works with the Oakland Raiders, said surgery usually is not recommended with injuries such as Johnson’s unless the injury shows signs of deterioration.

Zamberletti and Dr. David Fisher, the Vikings team physician, said the continued loss of strength in Johnson’s throwing hand made surgery imperative.

``He’s more uncomfortable now and the reason why it’s necessary that this be done immediately is this thing has progressed,″ Zamberletti said.

Johnson was to be at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis at 5 a.m. Thursday to prepare for what is expected to be a 90-minute operation. The Vikings expect him to be fully recovered by spring and ready for minicamp in May.

``We all feel for Brad and pray for Brad,″ said receiver Chris Walsh, Johnson’s closest friend on the team. ``It’s a tough situation.″

Johnson came to Minnesota as a ninth-round draft pick in 1992 from Florida State. He had lost his starting job to Casey Weldon midway through the 1990 season, his junior year, and wasn’t activated for a game his first two seasons with the Vikings.

But he earned the No. 2 job behind Warren Moon in 1994, beating out former Heisman Trophy winners Gino Torretta and Andre Ware.

Johnson got into only nine games over the next two seasons behind the durable Moon. But Moon went down with an injury midway through the 1996 season opener, and Johnson came off the bench to rally Minnesota to a win with his first career TD pass.

Injuries eventually forced Moon to the sidelines for good later in the season, and Johnson flourished. He finished with 2,258 yards, 17 TDs and 10 interceptions in 12 games, eight as a starter.

The Vikings rewarded him in the days before last year’s regular-season finale with a $15.5 million, five-year contract. This year Johnson is the NFC’s fifth-rated passer. His 3,036 yards are second to Brett Favre’s 3,175, and with 20 TD passes he has matched Trent Dilfer for second to Favre’s 28.

Johnson has started 20 straight games. He, Favre and Dilfer are the only quarterbacks to take every snap this season.

``The thing about Brad is he’s going to get through this,″ said offensive tackle Korey Stringer. ``We definitely will miss his skills and his confidence, but we’ve got to move on.″

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