CHARLOTTE – Charles Johnson was a blue-collar creator of chaos for opposing quarterbacks, a hard-working, hard-charging defensive end who bled black and blue from his first day in the NFL until his last.
Thursday, after 11 standout seasons with the Panthers, Johnson made official what he had known in his heart since late last season: His playing days are over.
“Panthers, I’m going to love y’all forever,” Johnson said during his farewell speech in the standing-room only team meeting room at Bank of America Stadium, making clear that his debt of gratitude to the Panthers and to his friends, family and football family will endure.
“I love this organization, love everything about it. I loved these 11 years with this organization,” Johnson said. “It’s just a blessing to be a part of this organization and this community because this community has shown me so much love that it makes me cry – but I’m not going to cry today. It’s amazing.”
Johnson brought his lunch pail to the stadium every day for more than a decade and was richly rewarded come Sundays with the second-most sacks in franchise history and with one of the most lucrative contracts in franchise history.
The 2007 third-round draft choice’s breakout season in 2010 jumpstarted a five-year stretch over which he ranked fifth in the NFL with 52.5 sacks. It also helped him net a six-year contract prior to the 2011 season that earned him the nickname “Big Money” but that eventually put his time with the Panthers in jeopardy.
Johnson was released following the 2015 season in a cost-cutting move, but after he flirted with continuing his career elsewhere, the two sides reunited less than a week later and he played what proved to be his final two seasons in Carolina.
“Tampa offered me the most money, but it was just awkward. It was just a different vibe. I couldn’t do it,” Johnson said. “Once you show me love, I’m always going to show you love. If you show me loyalty, I’m going to show you loyalty. That’s just the kind of guy I am.”
Johnson showed the love Thursday to those who gathered in his honor, and they showered him with the same. Among the gobs of gratitude he expressed over nearly 30 minutes at the podium, Johnson singled out still-contributing Carolina legends Thomas Davis and Julius Peppers.
Davis and Johnson go back to their days together at the University of Georgia, when Davis became a mentor for Johnson before the two came together on the pro level a couple of years later.
“TD is a legend at Georgia. TD always brought it,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot from that guy and the way he played with such intensity. The way he hit, that made you want to hit like that, made you want to do stuff like that.”
Johnson admitted that he arrived at college from the small Georgia town of Hawkinsville uninterested in school but also at times uninspired to bring his best to the football field. He credited Davis among other for setting him on the right path.
“It hit me: If you keep working at something every day, every single day, and you max out on the opportunities every single day, you can change your mindset because I was lazy,” Johnson said with a chuckle, crediting 5:30 a.m. runs mandated by his poor study habits for helping develop his fierce football habits.
“When I got to Georgia, school wasn’t for me. I’m not a school guy. All I was was football. That’s all I knew, so that’s all I worked on.”
His education included an occasional break for the football field itself, but he didn’t stray too far. Through time spent playing the Madden video game, he was introduced to Peppers before meeting him for real.
“I used to play Madden, and I’d play with Carolina. They’ve got this big 6-6 freak of nature on the Carolina Panthers,” Johnson said. “And then when I get to the Carolina Panthers, I’m playing with this guy.
“Pep ain’t saying nothing to me, ain’t speaking me,” Johnson continued, making eye contact with Peppers sitting in the middle of the meeting room. “It took time for him to even grow on me, but the whole time, I was watching you. … I tried to mold my game after you.”
Assistant defensive line coach Sam Mills III, the only coach on staff for Johnson’s entire playing career, credited Johnson for drilling a relentless work ethic into the defense that still endures. But Johnson credited those who came before him for being the creators, then challenged the sizable group of current defensive players gathered for Thursday’s ceremony to continue the cause.
“You hear everybody else talking about the legacy I’m leaving, but y’all set that legacy for me,” Johnson said to the likes of Peppers and Mike Rucker before turning to the current players. “It’s going to be time for y’all to do that right now. You don’t really think about it in-depth, but everything you do is going to set the standard for the people that are coming behind you. You’re not even going to realize it until it’s over, so this is the time to max out the opportunities.”
That’s what Johnson did for more than a decade, outworking the opposition to set up his day of celebration.
Next up for the 32-year-old? “Chilling, playing golf a little bit, and watching my boys play on Sundays.”
“When you give it all, give everything to one team, to one organization, when you’re all-in, it’s a lot,” Johnson said. “Eleven years with the same organization? I’ve seen the ups. I’ve seen the downs. I’ve seen the highs. I’ve seen the lows. I’ve seen new coaches, new people, some of the same people. It’s all a blessing. I don’t take it for granted. I loved it. I lived it. I loved it.
“I had a ball with y’all boys. I had a ball.”
View some of the best photos of Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson throughout his career.