If you’ve covered the Vikings for ages, you might one day have found yourself in Brett Favre’s hometown of Kiln, Miss., staring at confederate flags and bras hanging from rafters of a bar named The Broke Spoke.
You might have seen Brett Favre’s mother dancing, beer in hand, in a parking lot at the gas station where Brett is depicted in a painted panorama.
You might have been lucky enough to tour the neighborhood where former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier grew up, in Columbus, Miss., and to have had Frazier show you the shack, now collapsed, where he was born.
If you had stopped by Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, you could have come across Twins star Brian Dozier or Favre himself, as he lives on a massive spread of land, fortified by wrought iron, west of the city.
Mississippi has become something of a cousin to Minnesota sports, and our most pertinent current connection to the Magnolia State hails from little Moss Point.
That’s where Tom Johnson grew up, 15 minutes east of Gulfport and Biloxi. Johnson, the veteran Vikings defensive tackle, also played for Southern Miss and the New Orleans Saints, the Vikings’ opponent on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in the divisional playoffs, so he is familiar with “Who Dat Nation,” the Saints’ fan base.
“Where I’m from is not like New Orleans, not at all,” Johnson said. “I will say that Who Dat Nation does travel that way, from southern Alabama all the way to Louisiana. It’s ridiculous, really.
“The first time you roll up in New Orleans, it’s like a big college town. You go to LSU, Alabama and you’re going to see all of the college stuff in everyone’s yards. It’s that way with the Saints. It’s overwhelming. It’s a city with a lot of soul, a lot of culture.”
Johnson played at Gulf Coast Community College and Southern Miss. He went undrafted and signed with Indianapolis. Then came his unwanted world tour.
He played for the Cologne Centurions in NFL Europe, the Grand Rapids Rampage and Philadelphia Soul in the Arena League, and the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL before signing with the Saints in 2011.
In March 2014, Johnson signed a one-year contract with the Vikings. He was signed to provide depth. He has become a valued starter on the NFL’s best defense.
Johnson is 33 and in the last season of a three-year, $7 million contract he earned with his breakout performance in 2014. He could contemplate the importance of this game in terms of his career, or his history with New Orleans. He would rather not.
“This has nothing to do with the Saints,” he said. “We played them my first year here, and we played them this year, and if AD [Adrian Peterson] hadn’t been with them this year, it would have been a normal game. There’s no hype.”
He offers a similar answer when asked why this year’s defense improved from very good to exceptional, crediting coach Mike Zimmer.
“Everybody is selfless,” he said. “I think it’s crazy to say, but that’s the deal. Coach Zim did a great job molding us. It’s a process we’ve been going through for four years. He kept a lot of key pieces and guys have been jelling.
“With this group, you don’t have to try to make an extra play, don’t have to try to do anything crazy or spectacular. Everybody can run, everybody’s strong, everybody’s athletic, everybody plays together. There is trust.”
After a football life that started in Moss Point and migrated around the globe, Johnson found trust, and a home, at the other end of the Mississippi.
“My journey is unique,” he said. “A lot of guys’ journeys are unique, but mine is probably out of the box.
“The good thing is I’m at the back end of my career playing the best ball that I have played. Putting it all together and being successful and being able to compete in a dynamic defense. That’s cool. And I think I’ve got a little more left in the tank.”