By Matt Trowbridge
ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR
LAKE FOREST — Tank Johnson doesn’t dress repentant.
He walked out of the Cook County Jail on Sunday looking like the thug his detractors paint him as, wearing a backward Yankees hat and a huge diamond medallion with his jersey number 99.
But when he finally talked about his 60 days in jail for gun violations, Tank Johnson showed the world the man his teammates see and claim is so misunderstood. The Bears, from coach Lovie Smith to GM Jerry Angelo to deposed team president Michael McCaskey, paid him more than 100 visits in those 60 days.
“The Bears showed me unconditional support,” Johnson said Friday after Chicago’s first minicamp practice, which Smith called “the official start” of the 2007 season.
That support didn’t make Tank defiant.
“Tank knows he’s not the victim,” Smith said.
What he is, Tank says, is a changed man.
“I benefitted from some of the time I had alone,” Johnson said. “I learned a great deal of patience and self-control. I didn’t work on them enough in my life before. ... I stand before you a much more patient person. Now that I’m out, I have a different outlook on life. It’s bright.”
In jail, Johnson would look around and see prisoner after prisoner with little hope. Not him.
“I knew,” he said, “at the end of those 60 days I was coming back to Halas Hall, coming back to my job and my family. That’s a great feeling.”
Before coming back, Johnson made a side trip to New York and met 90 minutes with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who recently disciplined two repeat offenders. He suspended Titans cornerback Pacman Jones for the season and Bengals receiver Chris Henry for eight games.
Johnson says that doesn’t mean he will be suspended. Every situation, he said, is different.
“Me just speaking to him separates me from anyone,” he said.
Johnson also seems to separate himself with his respect for Goodell’s authority.
“Mr Goodell has a tremendous responsibility to get this league in order, not that it’s all lost,” Johnson said. “And whatever he decides to do, it’s in the best interest of the league. Whatever sanction he imposes, I’m man enough to take it. I know once I get back on the field, that chapter of my life is closed.”
“Tank,” Lovie Smith said, “is a changed man. It has to change you a little when you go through a situation like that.”
Tank changed enough to move and to shave his head. “I cut my beautiful dreadlocks.” But that doesn’t mean he’s going to make drastic changes.
“I’ve never been a bad person,” he said. “Never been a person who is violent. There is not many changes I need to make. But there are some things I can correct.”
Friday was a good first step at displaying the side of himself his teammates swear by. If he can keep going in that direction, with no detours toward notorious night clubs or unlicensed guns, perhaps he can yet realize his dream.
“One day I want to be the face of the league for guys who came through adversity and ultimately became the Man of the Year in the NFL,” Johnson said. “That would be a tremendous ending to this story.”
Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.