CHARLOTTE – Charles Johnson, a decorated defensive end who spent his entire 11-year career with the Carolina Panthers, has officially retired from the NFL. His journey will be celebrated at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
Many have known this for some time now. Johnson recalled a recent conversation he had with Carla Williams, who was an athletics administrator at the University of Georgia when Johnson was playing for the Bulldogs.
"Miss Carla, she is now the athletic director at Virginia, she told me a story the other day," said Johnson, beginning to laugh. "When I was at Georgia, she asked me, 'What if you don't make it to the NFL?'
"And I forgot that I had told her I was going to be a janitor back in my hometown."
Johnson, a native of Hawkinsville, Ga., never had to fall back to Plan B.
His work ethic and natural talent as a pass rusher came together and allowed him to enjoy a terrific NFL career with the Panthers, who selected him in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
"My mindset was just to work," said Johnson, a player who always shied away from the limelight. "I knew the work would get me where I wanted to be."
Johnson racked up 67.5 career sacks and 20 forced fumbles – both ranking second in team history behind Julius Peppers, one of his all-time favorite teammates and one of the all-time greats.
Johnson played in 143 regular season games (the most by any D-lineman in team history) and is the first Panther to have at least nine sacks in four consecutive seasons (2010-13). He consistently collapsed the pocket and set the edge in the run game.
But back surgery in the spring of 2017 signaled the beginning of the end for his playing career.
"Once you have back surgery, I don't care who you are, it's a beast to get back," Johnson said. "My body was just… I haven't worked out since this winter. I tried to get motivated to work out, and my body said, 'We're not working out right now.' It was about that time."
Now is a time for reflection. And Johnson has lots of fond memories to look back on.
His favorite games? Of course there's the NFC Championship to punch a ticket to Super Bowl 50, but two others stick out. The first was the 2014 NFC Wild Card victory against Arizona, when he posted two sacks to help the Panthers win their first postseason game since 2005. The week prior, after beating Atlanta to take the division, the usually reserved Johnson stood on a table in the victorious visitors' locker room and implored his teammates to not let that be the last win of the year.
The other game he mentioned was the 2012 gut-wrencher in the Georgia Dome. Johnson was unblockable in the game, recording 3.5 sacks. It was his best individual performance. But Carolina lost in the closing seconds after the Falcons completed a 59-yard Hail Mary to set up the winning field goal.
"That was a heartbreaker," Johnson said. "One of the toughest games."
Speaking of Atlanta, we'd be remiss if we didn't discuss the Georgia native's passion for playing the Falcons. Did we make too much of that storyline each year? It sounds like those games meant more to Johnson than we even knew.
"The Atlanta game was the only time my people back home that don't have cable can see me play," Johnson said. "It meant so much to me. I thrived playing against them more than anyone else."
Most memorable off-field moment? Johnson's mind immediately took him to the locker room in Seattle before a Sunday night game in 2016.
"A couple hours before we go out, I'm in the room with (Ryan) Kalil and Fernando (Velasco). I'm talking to them, and I get the call that my grandma just passed. I just burst out crying. Kalil and Fernando were there to console me… That was a hard game for me."
How does he want to be remembered? "Loyal. Hard-working. A Panther all the way through. The Panthers were all I knew and all I ever wanted to know."
View some of the best photos of Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson throughout his career.