CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Colts didn't want him. The Jets and the Bears had no use for him, either. The Carolina Panthers? They're headed to the NFC championship game, and they can't imagine life without Anthony Johnson.
You want versatile? Visualize Barry Sanders, in the midst of yet another 100-yard rushing day, staying in on fourth downs to play on Detroit's punt coverage teams. Or think of Jerome Bettis leaving the offensive portion of the Steelers' practices to go simulate the next game's opposing running back for Pittsburgh's first-team defense.
With Johnson, such scenarios are routine. He rushed for 1,120 yards in a relief role this season, all the while continuing to fill valuable spots on Carolina's special and service teams. Johnson twice led the Panthers in special-teams tackles, and he voluntarily spends so much time on Carolina's service teams in practices that coach Dom Capers recently has begun running him off to the sidelines.
"Anthony Johnson defines what this team is all about," Capers said, shaking his head. "Anthony's one of those guys where if you don't watch him, he'll jump in there on special teams or service teams when you're not looking.
"With some guys, you almost have to nudge them in there for those kinds of jobs. With Anthony, it's just the opposite. You have to pull him out."
Johnson shrugs his shoulders and says he's just trying to fit in on a team dominated by players whose NFL careers didn't pan out at previous stops.
"We're basically misfits who have found a way to find a home and do well and come together," he said. "We play as a team and perform as a team and hang together through hell and high water as a team."
That spirit has helped Carolina (13-4) blaze new ground for a second-year franchise by sweeping San Francisco, winning the NFC West and ousting defending Super Bowl champion Dallas from the playoffs. Now the Panthers are off to Green Bay for Sunday's game against the Packers and a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Not surprisingly, Johnson wasn't counting on being in this position.
After spending his first four seasons with Indianapolis, mainly as a third-down specialist, Johnson joined the Jets in 1994 as an unrestricted free agent. But he carried the ball just five times all season before deciding to sign with Chicago for the 1995 season.
The Bears, however, wanted him to play fullback, and the 6-foot, 225-pound Johnson found that he wasn't quite big enough by NFL standards. Chicago waived him so it would have a roster spot for punter Todd Sauerbrun, and Johnson was claimed by the Panthers.
Johnson began the 1996 season biding his time on special teams and backing up halfback Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Carolina's top draft choice. Johnson didn't get any carries in the Panthers' first two games, and rushed just six times in the third.
But Biakabutuka went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game, and suddenly, the job was Johnson's.
He didn't have a 100-yard rushing game in four years at Notre Dame, but he eclipsed that mark in his first three starts for Carolina. He added two more 100-yard games over the rest of the regular season, helping him to the fifth-highest rushing total in the NFC.
Johnson broke the 100-yard mark again Sunday as Carolina won its eighth consecutive game, 26-17 over Dallas. Johnson highlighted his role in the Panthers' first-ever playoff game in typical fashion, streaking downfield to help kill a punt at the Cowboys' 2-yard line with 3:44 left and Dallas trailing by six points.
Johnson, a devout Christian, doesn't spend much time these days thinking about whether his performance with Carolina might be construed as an indictment of the personnel policies of the Colts, Jets or Bears.
"There's a tendency to want to feel that way," he said. "But I really believe that God is the one who's directing my life and my career, and all those disappointments, all those nay-sayers that I've had personally, it really doesn't matter in the overall scheme of things."
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