Camp training wheels

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:14 AM ET

Alondra Johnson is preparing for training camp, just as he has the past three decades.

This time, however, the man who came to Calgary from the streets of L.A. and grew to be revered as one of the best linebackers to play in the CFL, is a raw rookie once again.

"It has been a while," says the 39-year-old, first-year linebackers coach with Calgary's junior Colts, who open full camp tonight at McMahon Stadium.

"It's going to be the first time I'm not getting ready to play football since 1973. Shoot, not since I was 10 years old when I played Pop Warner."

The Stampeders legend, who personified the team's winning tradition while patrolling McMahon's turf for 13 seasons, officially retired last fall, capping a 16-year CFL career by playing a handful of games with Saskatchewan.

The impact of retirement is finally hitting home now that the man affectionately dubbed 'A.J.' faces the reality of kicking off his coaching career with another training camp. This time, though, without strapping on the pads.

"I've got it all out of me," insists the three-time Grey Cup champ, who also earned an off-field reputation for stripping the veneer off the game and life, offering brutally honest answers to even the toughest questions.

"It will be weird once the CFL camps start but right now it doesn't feel like anything. I have no feelings yet but I think about it often that I'm not going to be playing this year. The reality is, it's over.

"It's over and I'm OK with that. I had a terrific career and I have no regrets, outside of never winning the CFL defensive player of the year (award)."

Johnson expects some 25 linebackers to try out for the Prairie Junior Football Conference club. Although the team failed to win a game last season, the squad's eager new linebackers coach plans to help change all of that under new head coach Wayne Brown.

"I'm really excited and it's going to be a great learning period for me," says Johnson, who notes he absorbed plenty of coaching wisdom from his old mentor, former Stamps boss Wally Buono, a linebacker with the powerhouse Montreal Alouettes of the 1970s.

"It's different coaching kids and trying to get them on the same level you're on. That's something every coach struggles with -- to get players to think like you do and be on the same page.

"That's one thing Wally always tried to do with me, have me think like he thinks. Even though I was a better athlete than he was, he always wanted me to think like he thought on the field, as far as getting into position and making plays.

"The biggest transition is dealing with the different personalities because every kid is different. I'm learning that right now, that they are going to struggle at times, it's just a matter of learning patience. They might not be the same athletes that I was and they may not get to the same level that I got to but if I can just try to teach them to work hard and play consistently and get better, that would be reward enough.

"Wally had a huge influence on me and taught me so much about the game and that's one thing that I can give back, the knowledge he gave me. These kids are going to learn, just like I learned from a great coach and hopefully one day I can be as great a coach as Wally is."

An ironic twist to Johnson's football career revolves around the inevitable stage of Colts camp when the new coach will have to begin cutting bodies. It's a painful part of every camp, which Johnson experienced for the first time last spring when released by then-Stampeders head coach Matt Dunigan. Ironic, too, is that Dunigan, another legendary CFLer, was taking his first real stab at coaching.

"It's a tough business and we want to win and there's going to be some tough choices to make but it's something that has to be done because that's the way it was done when I was a player," explains Johnson, already sounding like a coaching veteran.

"All you hope is that the players don't take it personally. Sometimes they do, even I did, but you get over it and life and football goes on, with or without you."

But not without Johnson, he hopes. With some junior coaching experience, maybe some help from old CFL pals like Buono, a career in coaching is a possibility.

"Absolutely, that's what I want to do," Johnson says. "I don't want to leave the game. I played it too long, spent too much of my life in it to just walk away and not give back what I've gained over the years. That would be a crime and selfish of me not to share what I've learned over the years."


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