Hoisting axe becomes Johnson’s final goal

John R. Carter

Minnesota wide receiver Ron Johnson strolls around the football players lounge a marked man ñ much like he is every gameday lining up against opponents’ top defensive backs.

He finishes one interview, then gets sucked into another, until every television station, radio station and newspaper has enough information on Johnson’s life, career and future to write a novel.

Swarming the senior is a common practice at weekly media luncheons. But Tuesday had a different twist.

Against Wisconsin on Saturday, Johnson ñ arguably the greatest wideout in school history ñ will suit up for the Gophers one last time.

“To play my last game of my senior year at home, it’s going to be real emotional,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we’ll come out hard, fast, and win this one.”

Gophers coach Glen Mason calls Johnson a model student-athlete. Fellow senior and safety Jack Brewer calls him one of the best receivers he’s ever seen.

Since arriving from Detroit in 1998, Johnson has done almost everything possible in his four-year career at Minnesota.

He’s the school’s all-time leader in receptions (194), receiving yards (2,915) and touchdown catches (30). All three marks are in the top seven in Big Ten history.

He’s caught a pass in 45 straight games ñ every game of his career. A reception against the Badgers will tie the NCAA mark.

He’s seen Minnesota ñ a program with seven straight losing seasons before he suited up for the Gophers ñ turnaround and go to two bowl games.

He’s played in upsets at Penn State and Ohio State, made all-Big Ten teams and hoisted Floyd of Rosedale three times.

But one thing has eluded Johnson: gripping the handle of Paul Bunyans’s Axe.

“I’ve never done that. No one here has ever done that,” Johnson said. “If we can, it would mean a lot to us.”

Minnesota hasn’t beaten the Badgers or held possession of the Axe since 1994, a six-game losing streak. A loss this year would mark the longest Minnesota drought without a win over its biggest rival in 110 meetings dating back to 1890.

But recapturing the Axe from Wisconsin this season will require more than just a great going away party from Johnson.

Minnesota’s defense, which has given up an average of 34 points the past three games, has to stop a potent Wisconsin offense.

The Badgers’ attack starts with running back Anthony Davis, the nation’s 12th leading rusher at 125.8 yards per game.

Following Davis is wide receiver Lee Evans, the nation’s leading receiver with 1,394 yards this season ñ over 550 yards more than anyone else in the Big Ten.

“He’s had a phenomenal year for us,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “He’s been our go-to guy.”

Facing one of the conference’s top dynamic duos is tough, but the Gophers should regain the service of the team’s two leading tacklers ñ Brewer (shoulder) and linebacker Phil Archer (ankle) ñ to the lineup.

While Davis and Evans will draw some attention, Gophers fans will have their eyes on Johnson one last time.

“(The records) mean a lot to me, because they mean people will remember me when I’m gone,” Johnson said. “But one day somebody might break them, because records are made to be broken. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet the guy who breaks mine.”

And when someone does, they’ll claim the title as the most productive receiver in Minnesota history.

 

John R. Carter covers football and
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