HAMILTON — Only the hard-core fan would have any familiarity with Belton Johnson, an offensive lineman still in search of that elusive football home.
Only the deepest diehard would know that Johnson and his brother Marcus lined up side by side on the same Ole Miss line of scrimmage, protecting the pocket for Eli Manning and opening holes for Deuce McAllister.
And only in the CFL hotbed of Saskatchewan would a player such as Belton Johnson be warmly welcome with open arms, even though he arrives as a visiting member of the Tiger-Cats.
Johnson makes his debut at right tackled for Hamilton this Saturday when the Ticats pay a visit to Regina, a place very dear to Johnson’s heart, a place this American actually calls his off-season home.
“I remember talking to my brother about Regina when he asked me to describe the city and the team,’’ Johnson said Thursday following practice at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
“I told him it was very comparable to an NFL team. It was Canada’s team because everywhere you played, whether it was in Vancouver, Toronto, anywhere, there were always fans of the Green and White.
“As for the city, I told my brother that in a sense Regina was like Green Bay. You go anywhere, to the store, to the bank, and everyone knows you. I felt like I knew everyone.”
Johnson spent four seasons in Regina, a time he now reflects on with great affection and appreciation. He won a Grey Cup ring, found a girlfriend, bought a condo, but eventually became a victim of the numbers game in a league with limited roster space.
“I have no ill-will toward that organization, a great organization, because I am thankful for everything that was provided,’’ he added.
Johnson turned 30 years old last Friday, a time when many players are entering the prime of their career.
Perhaps Johnson has found a more permanent football home in the Hammer, which has turned to the import tackle to infuse a much-needed physical presence in hopes of getting featured tailback DeAndra Cobb off and running.
Until this week, the Ticats had fielded an O-line featuring exclusively non-imports, which allows for flexibility in other areas of the roster.
In theory, it’s a great luxury to have, but Hamilton hasn’t been able to establish the run game, hasn’t been efficient in short-yardage situations, deficiencies that can’t all be traced to the offensive line, but something had to give and now the team has given Johnson a chance.
Ready, or not?
“We’re going to find out this Saturday,’’ the engaging Johnson said when asked if he’s ready for the challenge.
Johnson joined the Ticats two weeks ago, spending the first week in his latest football stop getting his legs underneath him and generally getting used to his new surrounding and football terminology.
It wasn’t until this week that Johnson was thrust into the right tackle spot taking snaps with the first-string unit.
After college, Johnson signed a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, spending three seasons with the team, but never appearing in an NFL regular season game.
He has friends with the Bengals and even texted some of his past teammates earlier this week when work leaked that Terrell Owens was Cincinnati bound.
Johnson would make his way to Winnipeg, where he briefly played with Kevin Glenn, who will start at quarterback for Hamilton this Saturday, before Johnson was acquired by Saskatchewan general manager Eric Tillman, a fellow Mississippi native.
Johnson recalls the battle at this year’s camp when 14 offensive linemen were vying for positions.
“I can honestly say that 10 deserved to start in this league or any other league,’’ Johnson said. “With that many bodies, you begin to look over your shoulder and I got put on the chopping block.”
And now he gets to block for the Ticats, a team in desperate need of a win.
What attracted Johnson to the Ticats was his experience, athleticism, patience when pass protecting and his strength.
“I try to be athletic,’’ Johnson said. “I try to be like LeBron James, but on the football field, moving around and being a presence.”
It’s not like Johnson will be overwhelmed by Saskatchewan’s faithful. Nor is it likely he’ll be fooled by any defensive scheme co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry throws at Hamilton.
“Coach Etch likes to throw in wrinkles,’’ Johnson said. “What flavour of the week is he going to pick is anyone’s guess, but I’ll be something.”