Ian Johnson knows the greatest game he'll ever play in was Boise State's magical 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. He understands that no matter how long he plays and no matter what he does, that game will forever be his career's high watermark. I was there that night. I was standing behind Boise State coach Chris Peterson as he called for the famous Statue of Liberty play and watched as Johnson proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend Chrissy Popadics on the field afterwards. I had been assigned to spend a week with Boise State during the Fiesta Bowl and write a story about the Broncos crashing the big dance before running up against a team that would put them in their place. The Broncos, of course, had other plans for the ending.
While most of America soon forgot about Boise State, I continued to keep in touch with many of the players on the team, most of whom have since graduated and moved on past football. The star of that night, however, is still on the 7-0 Broncos team that has a chance to once again crash the BCS party if it goes undefeated. I decided to call Johnson before Boise State's nationally televised game again San Jose State this past Friday night to see how he's been, what it's like being married and to find out if he does anything else at the house besides crochet.
Arash Markazi: Long time, no talk, Ian, how have you been?
Ian Johnson: Things are good, man. I can't complain. We're winning. As long as we're winning, I'm happy.
AM: You might be winning, but your numbers have really dipped since 2006, when you rushed for 1,714 yards and 25 touchdowns. Last year you ran for 1,041 yards and 16 touchdowns and so far this season you only have 363 yards and four touchdowns. What's happening?
IJ: Well, one of the things is we have a new O-Line and we don't have the same tight ends blocking up front, so we kind of take a different approach to how we're going to run the ball. [Former Broncos tight end Derek Schouman and left tackle Ryan Clady are both mainstays in the NFL now]. Before, we were going to line up with two tight ends and a fullback and run right at you and dominate the edge. It was sheer power gap schemes. It was all power runs. We didn't care who was in front of us, we were just going to run it at you and we were going to get a man on a man and it was going to work. Now, we don't have those same huge bodies, so with this younger O-line we're going to give them more leeway and take some pressure off them and run more of a spread offense. So where as before where we would just line up and run, now it's a lot more spreading stuff out and taking some stuff from Oregon's playbook and other teams running the spread. It's more lateral than vertical.
AM: After beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Boise State was the only team to finish the 2006 season unbeaten, yet you still finished fifth in the AP poll and sixth in the coaches' poll. A couple years later as you try to return to a BCS bowl game, are you guys still fighting for the respect of pollsters?
IJ: You know for us we really don't look at our rankings. I mean, if you want to really analyze it you could sit back and say we had a downer year for what people expected from Boise State last year, so people could say maybe it was a one-time deal and they have to prove themselves again. People still had a problem with our schedule so we went up to Autzen Stadium in Oregon and had another tough road game with Southern Miss. None of us expected to go undefeated one year and all of a sudden get respect. We love being the underdogs. If we win our games, we'll be fine and the system works for us if we win our games. So we have the feeling that we'll get what we deserve, so go out there and earn in.
AM: How does this team compare to the one that won the Fiesta Bowl?
IJ: Well, if you look across the board and just look at how many old guys we have in crucial positions, we only have two seniors. I mean the number of true and redshirt freshmen we are playing is ridiculous compared to that other team where we barely played any freshmen. One of the big things is this team has that same attitude. That winning attitude has carried on over to this team where we know if we go out there and get the job done we will make this happen. That's the big thing but the people have completely changed. We don't have a Ryan Clady on this team. We don't need the 2006 Ian Johnson, we're more of a balanced team that's doing it a lot through the air now.
AM: How are you with this new role? This team may not need the 2006 Ian Johnson but it wouldn't hurt to put up those kind of numbers during your senior season.
IJ: Luckily, I'm a smart enough guy to figure out we're probably not going to be able to win games by just lining up and running the ball. That's not the identity of this team. It was in 2006 where I needed to rush for over 100 yards a game and control the clock, but not so much anymore. I understand that and in understanding that I know that my reps aren't going to get cut down, but my carries are and with that happening I have to think where else can I effect this game? and help myself out and help the team out. So I have to get on special teams, catch balls, return kicks when they give me a chance and make my presence felt and change the game in other ways besides carrying the ball.
AM: Speaking of changing the game, tell me how life has changed for you since you got married last year.
IJ: Well, first, I realized its tough being a grown up. There's a lot more bills than I thought there were. My wife graduated and doesn't cheer anymore so she's working, so I get that aspect at home. It's a lot of me just focusing on football since I'm about to graduate. Life has changed incredibly. I've been thinking about the NFL and my future. I've been seeing scouts around and people are saying good things and that could be a possibility. You know, no matter how far I think I am from the Bronco Nation, everywhere my wife and I go people still come up to us and say, "Hey, you're Ian Johnson, I know you." It even happens to my wife. She was by herself in Louisiana and people were coming up to her and taking pictures with her and saying, "Aren't you that football player's wife? Aren't you Chrissy Johnson?" It's crazy that it hasn't died down and how much of an effect we really did have on people.
AM: I know you have to pay bills and when we talked after the Fiesta Bowl you told me you still had to go back to your job plumbing. What kind of jobs are you able to do now to pay the bills?
IJ: In the off-season I worked in construction management, so I worked all the way up until the week before fall camp. That's when it became 100 percent football. I stockpiled a little bit of money to take care of things during the season, but it's hard. My family is more tradition. They're like when you're married, you're on your own; we'll help you if you really need it but we want you to sink or swim, and if you really need help we'll be your floatation device. So Chrissy and I went to buy a car, so we have a car payment now. We got the house payment. Now I have to deal with the wife who used to be a girlfriend that didn't have much to say before and now it's both of our lives. So I'm always thinking about the two of us. She's working a lot so I have to be able to still come home and cook meals for her, prepare the house when she comes home. So I have to be a husband as well as a football player.
AM: I knew you crocheted, I didn't know you were a cook as well. What kinds of stuff do you make for Chrisy?
IJ: Oh, I am a killer griller. I stay on the grill and make a lot of lemon pepper chicken. I love cooking pork, like pork chops and pork loins. I have my own little secret rub that I throw on there. My steaks are to die for as long as you like it medium rare. I refuse to cook past medium. Medium is pushing it for me. I'll throw some corn on the grill. If you want some steamed veggies, I'll throw that on the grill. I'm a good salmon cooker. I got a nice little grill outside that I was able to get when I was plumber so I hooked it into the natural gas line and ran it underneath the house, so I have a nice little setup in the backyard.
AM: So if you're playing football, cooking and crocheting, what is Chrissy doing?
IJ: Well right now she is working from nine in the morning until nine at night. She has two jobs every day. She does property management for a real estate company and then she teaches kickboxing and cheerleading. So she had a full plate and somehow she puts up with me everyday. She can actually crochet now, I taught her. When we get together, which isn't often with our schedules, we do a lot of relaxing and watch some TV. She's actually turned into a huge football fan. She'll tell me all the stats and what's going on. She's become a big Saints fan. I'm a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, so we try to watch the games on Sunday too.
AM: You got hate mail and threatening letters before the wedding. Has that all subsided by now?
IJ: It's definitely subsided, but we did a lot of things to make sure it did. They actually tracked down some of the people that wrote the letters and I keep myself as far away from the internet in terms of that stuff as I can. Before, when I had a Mypace and a Facebook, I got rid of that and Chrissy had to recreate another one because she still wants to keep in contact with her friends. We don't answer unknown calls or blocked numbers or any of that. Chrissy's parents were actually getting it head-on so they got caller ID and have to screen their calls too.
AM: One of my favorite stories, besides hanging out with you guys at the Fiesta Bowl, of course, was getting you on the phone with Didier Drogba after I found out you were a big Chelsea fan. I know you got to see them when they played the Galaxy last year, what was that like?
IJ: To me, that was the most perfect thing that could ever happen to me. One, because it was so cool to see those guys in person and know how big they were and see them try to get known in the States. Then getting to talk to the guys I had always seen on TV. We did the thing with Drogba over the phone so we had a past relationship I guess, but to see John Terry was amazing. He really had no reason to even acknowledge my presence but he went out of his way to make me feel welcome and he said, "Is there anything I can do for you, do you need tickets to the game?" He even went the extra mile to get my buddies in the back room for me because he took me back to the locker room after the game. At first it was a security problem but John Terry ran back out onto the field to get us and he said, "No, no, no, we're going to make sure all your buddies get back here," and he pulled them out of the stands himself. It was so amazing. To see someone so respected and worth so much money and have no reason to do that for me was incredible. It made my day and it made me think about how I can affect people by doing that. I do more community stuff and things off the football field just because of the way he made me feel.
AM: I was actually talking to some of the guys at Chelsea recently and they still want you to come out to a game. Do you think you might take them up on their offer after the season?
IJ: Oh, definitely. I'm definitely going to take them up on their offer. One of the things me and my wife have always said is if football doesn't work out, we're going to go live in London for a year. If it does work out, whenever guys get some time off that's the place where we're going to and we're going to see some games and say hi to old Drogba.
AM: Are you still in contact with the guys that graduated from that Fiesta Bowl team?
IJ: Well, a lot of the O-lineman are around and I'm still really close with them. Jeff Biedermann, who was one of my best friends on that team, is actually my life insurance agent now. I still talk to Dan Gore, Tad Miller and a lot of those guys and the crazy thing is all those guys since football have lost like 60 pounds. They're like skin and bones. I told them they look way better fat. They don't even look like they could protect me anymore.
AM: Is there any added motivation to get back to a BCS bowl game being a senior?
IJ: Definitely. I look at the guys from that team and all the seniors had the opportunity to say, "I went out at the top of my game, at the top of Boise State, I was part of something special and that's where it ended." Those guys will always have that. If I were to have ended my last season at the Hawaii Bowl last year, I would have been happy with what I had done, but it would have been hard. Those guys that finished their careers at the Fiesta Bowl definitely had something special and are able to ride that high for the rest of their lives.
AM: Finally, how much are you soaking up this season and your last games at Boise State? You never know what the future holds in terms of the NFL and no matter what you'll always be remembered as a Bronco, so have you allowed yourself to think about that and enjoy your last games at Boise State?
IJ: It's really starting to hit me now. Me and the running back crew are really good friends and we hang out all the time and I was thinking the other day that I'm really going to miss these guys. I have moments where I think to myself, wow, this is really it. I'm always going to bleed blue, but there's going to be a point where my name isn't tied to the Boise State team and I'm going to have to move and it's going to be hard. So I'm just enjoying everything as much as I can.