Bengals center Bob Johnson will always be remembered as the first player ever drafted by this version of the Cincinnati Bengals. (Note: we've actually had more than one Cincinnati Bengals franchise before in the mid-to-late-30s). Regardless, the legendary Paul Brown received approval from Cincinnati to build a football team in 1967 and began that with a philosophy that corresponded to the type of style played at the height of his coaching career. Ironically, that philosophy exists today.
You're only as good as your offensive line that protects the quarterback and opens lanes for the running game. With a football team to build, Brown knew he would have to work on the offensive line; starting with arguably the most vital position of all... center. Back when football was a tougher and grittier version than what we see today, center was arguably the most important position because it was the center that shouted the offensive line calls (which largely still applies today) and there were vastly more inside runs than there are today. The better the center, where every offensive play starts, the better the offensive line played all around. In Brown's mind, it all started with center.
This was also a time when the Senior Bowl had a slight rivalry in their game. A sense of pride, much like baseball's All Star game, existed. Heading into the 1968 Senior Bowl, the South team had only won two of their previous 11 games. And Tennessee center Bob Johnson thought it was time to rectifying that.
"There was a definite feeling on our team that we wanted to do something about the South's poor showing in the all-star games and the bowl games," said Johnson at the time, whose Tennessee team lost in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma.
"The Senior Bowl is the biggest among them, even if the Southeastern Conference went 1-4 in the bowl games like we did, I feel we made up a lot of ground by winning this one."
The South won 34-21.
After graduating with honors in engineering, Johnson entered the NFL Draft and was selected second overall behind Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Yary in 1968. Nicknamed as "the Original Bengal", Johnson became the first Bengals player ever drafted in frachise history. The Bengals signed him on June 14, 1968 with Paul Brown saying that the signing "insures us he'll be in professional football for a long time." Johnson would be a team captain through most of his stay in Cincinnati.
During the final game of the 1978 regular season, the Bengals honored Johnson as the "original" Bengal, playing 11 seasons with the team. The team presented Johnson with a silver service set and his own uniform to keep. Most importantly, they retired his number after the game against the Cleveland Browns.
However, retirement didn't last long. After Blair Bush suffered a knee injury in 1979, the Bengals asked Johnson to come out of retirement as a long-snapper on punts, field goals and extra points. Which he did.
"I think it's a cute situation," joked Johnson. "I told Mike Brown that I wouldn't charge him much to do this, but he'll have to pay a price to get my jerseys back. I'm viewing this as a five-week thing to help the team out of a spot. I think I owe them this sort of thing. There's no way I'm coming out of retirement. I don't want to put my 220 pounds against (290-pound Houston nose guard) Curley Culp any more than I have to," Johnson said.
Johnson re-retired after the 1979 season for good. Johnson has another distinction, other than being the first Bengals player drafted in franchise history. His #54 is the only number retired by the team.
In 1976, Johnson said:
"You know, it doesn't seem like nine years since I joined the Bengals, but if you go back year-by-year we have played so many games that it seems like more than nine years."
"Personally, I am glad to be here. People kid me about being the original Bengal, but I've seen everything that's ever happened to this franchise. It gets exciting sometimes to think back to the first training camp we ever had and see the type of team we have now."
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