Podcast

Pepper Johnson: Life after coaching by HWTP Sports Talk

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I didn’t want them to jeopardize their careers...”

Johnson on concerns that players would turn to steriods.

By Michigan State University alumna and HWTP editorial manager Laina Stebbins

If you’re a longtime fan of the NFL, it’s a safe bet to assume you’re familiar with Pepper Johnson.

Thomas "Pepper" Johnson has quite the track record: 13 years playing football, 16 years coaching it, with five total Super Bowls under his belt (two as a Giants player; three as a Patriots assistant coach). He’s essentially lived and breathed football since 1986.

Golf, on the other hand? – Not so much.

“I gotta up my game,” Pepper said, who I spoke on the phone with as he made his way back from a golf outing with a friend. “I lost...He has bragging rights.”

Where he is now

Just shy of his 54th birthday, Pepper is back living in his home state of Michigan. He is a year removed from his last assistant coaching job, when a New York Jets coaching shakeup in early 2017 saw six members of the staff – including Pepper – dismissed from the team.

Since then, aside from honing his golf skills, Pepper has been working with USA Natural Patches as the company’s VP of Sports Marketing. The company sells customizable patches that stick to the skin and administer 75 mg of pure thiamine (vitamin B1) to the user’s system.

Vitamin B1 is an essential micronutrient which Pepper says is proven to provide a boost of energy and help the body with overall function. Unlike having to take the vitamins orally or taking shots, “you stick the patch on, and you go,” he said.

Pepper first got into the vitamins business in 2016 when he was still coaching for the Jets. It may seem like a random business venture at first – he said his son was “surprised” when he learned his father was in the vitamins business – but the B1 patches have been quite relevant to his career in the NFL.  (Click on the photo below to navigate through the photo slide: Former NY Giants David Diehl, Lawrence "LT" Taylor and former NBA player Jayson Williams)

While coaching for the Jets, Pepper said he would approach the players about wearing the patches in part because he was concerned that they might turn to steroids instead for enhanced performance and energy.

“I didn’t want them to jeopardize their careers,” Pepper said.

He steered them toward the vitamin patches instead, which he said give players the boost they need while keeping them healthy.

Vitamin B1 is also beneficial for brain health – a particularly important component for football players, who are more prone to concussions and long-term brain damage. Pepper said he’s talked to plenty of ex-players who fret about the potential damage they have sustained.

“We’re bringing more awareness about what B1 does for your mental health,” Pepper said.

“We are talking to the NFL and the league officers and trying to get awareness of vitamin B1 with the concussion protocol,” he said. “That’s going to be huge.”

The NFL concussion protocol was established a decade ago in response to calls for the league to better address the diagnosis and management of concussions. The protocol has undergone many adjustments since then, as football-related head injuries have been further thrust into the national spotlight and more has been discovered about their long-term effects.

In addition to raising awareness of the importance of brain health for football players, Pepper is in the process of testing the patches to gain an official “stamp of approval” from the NFL. If the B1 patches are approved, the league’s trainers and nutritionists would be able to supply them to players directly.

Pepper said after multiple practices and meetings in a single day that often run into the evening, it can be difficult for players and coaches alike to keep up their energy levels and stay focused.

“A lot of guys are humdrum in those practices,” Pepper said, but they “could come back to those night meetings and still be energetic" when they were wearing the B1 patches.

“For me, I would put the patch on and I’d go out to practice...when I came back in, we would have the meetings with the players, and then we’d have more meetings with the coaches, and that’s when I really felt the results of the patches and what they do,” Pepper said.

On his transition from player to coach

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“The transformation, it wasn’t an easy one.”

Johnson on wearing a coaching uniform standing on the sidelines.

Pepper played his first seven seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants, followed by three with the Cleveland Browns, one with the Detroit Lions, and his last two seasons with the New York Jets before officially retiring as a player.

Two years later, through the NFL internship program, Pepper found himself as an assistant linebackers coach under Bill Belichick for the New England Patriots.

This was not something that Pepper had planned for.

“I wanted to come back to my high school and coach my high school,” Pepper said, who had grown up in Detroit and attended Mackenzie High School.

But after the program was over, he was approached by his former coach. “Coach Belichick asked me if I could stay,” Pepper said.

“I had two people I had to get permission from: my mother, and my son.”

Both gave him the green light, evidently, but the transition from player to coach did not prove to be a very smooth transition.

“It was really rough,” Pepper said, explaining that this was largely since his very first season with the Patriots was a difficult year for the team. He was also hyper-aware that being a new coach meant it would take time for older players to listen to him and for younger players to trust him.

He also missed playing the game himself.

“Deep down inside, I still wanted to get out there and play a little more,” Pepper said. “It was rough being on the sidelines while other people were having fun.

“The transformation, it wasn’t an easy one.”

Despite the rocky start, Pepper found his niche in the team and gained the trust of players, even implementing a new team tradition that was a first for the league.

Prior to the 2002 Super Bowl, individual player introductions were the NFL standard for a team’s entrance onto the field. The Patriots turned this on its head when they instead made the decision to run out of the tunnel and onto the field together.

“That idea to come out together, not individually...that was my idea,” Pepper said. “I had told them, ‘we need to focus and get more together.’”

The Patriots won that Super Bowl, and the practice has since all but replaced the previous league standard.

On working with coach Bill Belichick

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“He’s no tougher than [Bill] Parcells.”

Johnson on Belichick's coaching style

In addition to coaching under Bill Belichick for the Patriots, Pepper had previously played for him during his time with the Giants, Browns and Jets.

Belichick is known as a notoriously tough coach to play for.  49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh recently described playing for him as a rather unpleasant experience, saying, in part:

“They don’t have fun there [in New England]...There’s nothing happy about it. I didn’t enjoy any of my time there...It made me for the first time in my life think about not playing football because I hated it that much.”

Pepper, having either played for or coached under Belichick for the better part of 28 years, has a different perspective.

"It’s tough to try and label Belichick as a ‘tough coach’ or anything like that, because in my day, all the coaches were tough like that,” Pepper said. “He’s no tougher than [Bill] Parcells.”

“I think in this day and era, a lot of the coaches are just more lenient."

Regardless, Belichick’s notorious coaching style has led many to believe that it may be the root cause of Tom Brady’s recent string of absences for the Patriots’ off-season program. Brady has been working with Belichick for nearly two decades, so there is plenty of speculation that he may have finally had enough of Belichick, and is yearning to leave.

A fair assumption to make?

Pepper Johnson disagrees.

“They have been doing this for a very long time together,” Pepper said. “I’m quite sure [Brady] feels comfortable in the system that he has to work with.

"I don’t know how much of a concern Bill Belichick has with him not being there. It’s just people trying to write stories and screw up something and trying to break all this winning up,” he said.

"I think all of this stuff is being blown out of proportion.”

Pepper also noted that Brady being absent on the field for the time being is likely giving newer players more of a chance to show their stripes, if anything.

“After so many years, really what do you want from that guy?” Pepper said. “What more can he do there?”

On the NFL national anthem controversy

Speaking of things that Pepper believes are being overblown by the media: "The whole national anthem thing, I don't like talking about it much because that’s another one of those things that is blown way out of proportion,” he said.

The NFL’s controversial new national anthem policy was rolled out early last week following pressure from President Trump, who had been publicly calling for fans to boycott the NFL if players continue to kneel during the national anthem.

The new policy states that players must stand during the anthem, stay in the locker room if they do not wish to, and face fines and/or penalties from the league if they choose not to comply.

"Once upon a time, you had the choice if you wanted to go out and do the national anthem or stay in the tunnel and come out after the national anthem. And so many games, we stayed in,” Pepper said, speaking to his experience as a player in the late 80s and the 90s.

Pepper takes issue with the assumption that standing for the Star-Spangled Banner makes you patriotic, whereas choosing not to stand makes you unpatriotic and disrespectful.

"The cameraman isn’t standing at attention, the hot dog man isn’t standing still,” Pepper points out. “And what is more disrespectful – someone sitting down, or someone who is getting ready to sing the national anthem and don’t know the words?"

As for those who protest during the anthem: "I’m quite sure the majority of any athletes that in the past have chosen to do whatever during the national anthem [were] not spitting in the face of our troops,” Pepper said.

Regardless, Pepper feels strongly that politics have no place in football – or any sport, for that matter.

“I don’t think sports and politics mix, period,” Pepper said. "I don’t wanna sound negative toward athletes, but I don’t think that’s a good place for politics…and I don’t just mean the national anthem.”

On his past and future

It’s been a little over a year since Pepper was a defensive line coach for the Jets, and he’s itching to get back into that world.

“When you get out of the league, it’s hard to get back into the league,” he said.

Either way, Pepper says he feels fortunate to have played a positive role in the careers of players he’s been able to engage with and help over the years as a coach.

“It’s about talking to people and understanding them and not coaching them all just the same,” he said. “I coach every one of my players individually.”

Pepper said he was always getting told to “stay in his lane” for taking his individualistic approach to coaching. “I have a real problem with that, because I have always been that person that likes to help people,” he said.

I asked Pepper where he sees himself in a few years.

“I would love to be coaching,” Pepper replied.  Johnson finally made it onto social media! You can follow him @PepJ52 on both Twitter and Instagram.

By Michigan State University alumna and HWTP editorial manager Laina Stebbins

The ReCap by Laina Stebbins: 5.23.18 Podcast by HWTP Sports Talk

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This week on HWTP Sports Talk, David has a conversation with author Jesse Berrett about American politics and the NFL. He also speaks with USA Today Sports writer Nancy Armour about policies regarding maternity in women’s tennis, and with Washington Post writer Jerry Brewer about the NFL’s new policy targeting athletes who choose to kneel during the national anthem.

Jesse Berrett – on where and how the NFL fits in with American politics and culture

Jesse Berrett, a teacher and historian in California, published a book this month called “Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics.” In it, Berrett explores an especially heightened era of football and politics in the 1960s.

“People don’t want to think about sports as being political,” Berrett tells David, but he explains that his book illustrates how the NFL has always been interwoven with American politics and culture.

In this particular decade, Berrett says, the NFL began to market itself in a particular way which politicians, former players, etc. picked up on. They chose to further that image the NFL was selling “and used it politically, because the NFL seemed so powerful and useful and appealing.”

Berrett’s book also explores how the NFL as a franchise made its way into the mainstream – a fascinating history that not many Americans are familiar with.

Read more about Berrett’s book, “Pigskin Nation,” and purchase it here.

Nancy Armour – on Serena Williams being denied a seed in the French Open following the birth of her baby

Sports writer Nancy Armour also joins David on the show to discuss her latest article for USA Today Sports: “Is French Open punishing Serena for having a baby?"

Williams, often regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time, was not given a seed for the upcoming French Open. Officials say this is because they awarded seeds based on rankings, and Williams did not qualify for one at No. 453.

Why the low ranking? – Williams recently had a baby. She had announced her hiatus from tennis because of pregnancy on Apr. 19, 2017, and gave birth on September 1 that year. She had many serious complications, which resulted in Williams having a cesarean section.

The birth of her daughter “literally almost killed her,” Armour says. “This was not a simple delivery by any means.”

In her article, Armour argues that the French Open is essentially punishing Williams as a professional athlete by not offering her a seed because she chose to have a child. “Williams obviously could not play tennis during that time, so an exception should have been warranted,” Armour tells David.

“You are asking these women to either put your career on hold and have a baby, or keep playing and hope that you will still be able to have a child when you want to,” Armour says. “To me, that’s not fair.”

“If you have a child, you should be able to do so without penalty,” she adds.

Jerry Brewer on the NFL’s new anthem policy

David also caught up with Jerry Brewer, a Washington Post sports reporter, about the NFL’s new mandate that players must stand for the national anthem if they are on the field or face fines and/or other penalties.

The statement from the NFL reads, in part:

“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.”

In Brewer’s view, this shows yet again that the NFL’s management is willing to sacrifice ethics when their bottom line is at stake.

The socially proper thing to do during the national anthem is obviously to stand, Brewer says, which is exactly the point – the act of kneeling instead is meant to garner attention so the players can deliver a message to the American public about police brutality in this country. The NFL’s new policy will take away players’ freedom to peacefully protest for their cause, he says.

We are a republic that is supposed to show respect for each other [more than] symbols” like the American flag and national anthem, Brewer tells David.

"It’s very dangerous in this country when you start dictating to Americans what is American and how they should be expressing their patriotism,” he adds.

The ReCap by Melissa Nappi: 4.18.2018 Podcast by HWTP Sports Talk

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Brett Estrella, Report Coordinator at The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at University of Central Florida, stops by to discuss Major League Baseball’s score on the Racial and Gender Report Card. Michael Chiaradio, CEO and Chairman of the American Softball Association (“ASBA”), discusses his hopes for an all-female professional softball league.

MLB Diversity Report Card

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (“TIDES”) released a diversity report that examined the minority hiring practices of Major League Baseball.  David noted that “The report shows racial hiring is a B+ — up from last year. Gender hiring was at a C — up by just one point from last year — leading to an overall grade of a C+.”  

David:   “The numbers can say a lot of things, but most of the information contained in your (TIDES) report is self-reported... are there any safeguards in place to insure the numbers reported to you are accurate and not getting inflated?” 

Brett Estrella, a Masters student at University of Central Florida, explained: “Each of the clubs that the HR staffs reports that are sent to the Central Office in New York are accountable to the government.”

While the numbers are improving in both race and gender they are still nowhere near where they ought to be.  “The percentages have shifted and our grading system has changed in the last year to reflect the changing demographics of the United States,” Brett explained. “The central league office has better numbers in hiring women and people of color while the teams seem to be lagging behind.”

David: “Do these numbers reflect the pressure put on the Central Office to hire more diverse people or is it just a matter of the demographic of the area?” 

Brett: “I think that the Central Office is where the message comes from and they want to model those diverse hiring practices. As for the teams we don’t get the actual team data from each individual teams just the averages from the MLB, but that would be an interesting study to consider.”

Brett continues,

“The MLB has the most diverse talent pool of any sport, but 42.5% are players of color. The only thing to be miffed about is that the percentage of African-American players has fallen. With their grassroots programs like RBI, which is about bringing baseball back to inner cities...”  Brett continued, “Another program aimed at African-American youth is the Urban Youth Academy that deals with making sure that the game is accessible...”

It’s interesting to note that Major League Baseball cites the reason for the African American decline is because of dark-skinned Hispanics being mischaracterized as black. “The decline over the decades also deserves some context. Though baseball's peak African-American population is often cited at 27 percent in the mid-1970s, that number was inflated by the inclusion of dark-skinned players from Latin American countries -- a mischaracterization uncovered several years ago in research by Mark Armour of SABR.”  MLB concedes that, “…the distinction between today's figure and what Armour determined to be the actual peak (18.7 percent in 1981), as well as the steady decline from the 17.2-percent figure in 1994, is still striking. And MLB has made many efforts to address the factors -- societal and otherwise -- that have contributed to that decline.” (Article here)

Brett turned his attention to the lack of women in baseball. “I am all for women coaching, but how realistic is it to include gender in the coaching category?”  He explains, “90% of the coaches, or if not more on field, are males — there aren’t a lot of female coaches out there…I don’t want to discount it in the future and say that it is unrealistic…” He points out that “There are three women coaching with the Astros, Indians, and Mets — all have women on field… it is a male dominated sport and…in coaching where a majority of coaches played the game and played at a pretty high level…which right there (creates) a barrier of entry to women because of the barriers in participation.”

Brett also noted that other leagues out shine Major League Baseball with respect to the hiring of minorities.  “Baseball actually lags behinds the other major leagues… with an overall grade of C+/B- (MLB) lags behind the NBA who received an A-, NFL who got a B, and the MLS got a B+.”

The TIDES report doesn’t provide recommendations to the leagues as to better their score, but the scores can lead to programs that increase diversity hiring. For more information on the TIDES study, please visit their website at www.tides.org. 

American Softball Association: Are we ready for a women’s softball pro team?

In keeping with our theme of gender equality in sports — Michael Chiaradio, CEO of ASBA, stopped by to discuss his new league and the goals for the inaugural season.

Michael isn’t a typical CEO — he played independent minor league baseball that exposed him to real life experiences on the field that he brings to his softball league.  

Michael explains, “There are great athletes out there who don’t see any viable professional options. Girls go to college and don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and make academic decisions or just fizzle out — it’s not a priority.” He continues, “Whereas for me (as a man) whatever school or team I played for, everyone thought they could get drafted or play at a high level. That is something we have to do with women…”

The most important thing about the ASBA is that they are looking to spread the wealth unlike other professional leagues. “We are going to have one standard base pay and give the same bonus opportunities. I was looking over MLB’s collective bargaining agreement and the teams have far too much autonomy and I knew that was no way to grow the league. I think we’re more towards the NFL collective bargaining agreement which gives the governing powers more control over the teams."  Michael continues, "We are giving (women) the ownership shares and that is my macro solution to getting product out there and growing the sport professionally.  This is about giving a fighting wage to players and expanding the boundaries of women’s sports,” explained Michael.

“We are the Netflix’s of softball… we are also developing an app that is going to go right on Xbox and PlayStation in order to target the young folks.”  Draft day for the league is June 9th and Opening Day is June 15th in Mobile, Alabama. 

The full interview is available below. For more information on ASBA and/or to support, go to their website at www.asbasoftball.com.

For more thought-provoking sports content keep tuning in Wednesdays at 9P ET, and by reading our blog.  Comments are welcome!